The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer

Asking, giving, but more importantly: explaining why asking is as important as giving (although more arduous), and how they work with each other.

I just finished Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking, incredible book based on her TED talk of the same name.

It’s a strange book, something of a know-yourself, know-how book about asking and giving, and circulating the gift. A very moving book, where you end up feeling like you know her friends, wiping your eyes discreetly while reading on the train about Yana and Anthony, among others.

Let me share a few stories of my own (circulating, you know?).

A gift: When I was a student, I met someone who had decided to study when she was forty and well-established as a grown-up. She took up the A level, which she hadn’t got so far, passed it, and went to the University.

One day she decided we should go eat at a restaurant. I was not very well-off, so I was a bit hesitant. She explained this: “When I was younger, I couldn’t afford going to restaurants. Someone invited me and said that one day, when I have the money, I would be able to invite someone. It would be my turn. You have to accept that you have less money than me, that I can invite you to a restaurant, and that some day you’ll be richer and it will be you turn to be able to invite someone yourself.”

A few years after that I began inviting people to the restaurant, e.g. apprentices I had in my team. I would tell them the story, hoping that it would pass on.

A gift: When I began working I often went to the market on Sundays to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. I often saw a woman who helped the man who held the stand. Thanks to my upbringing, I’ve always been respectful, smiling to strangers and being nice to people serving me. So every Sunday I saw her I chatted a bit, exchanged jokes, a few words – humanity at its most normal.

One day I had to do paperwork. Urgent paperwork. As in paperwork that was due several months ago. (Long story short: I have a temporary driver’s license due to the fact that I only see with one eye. Every fifth year I have to see a medical commission to check on my abilities. If I miss the deadline, the police will do as if I have no license.) I knocked on the office’s door, and a dry woman told me that I had to wait for several months for the medical commission to see me. What could I do in the meantime? Could she give me a paper saying that an appointment was scheduled months later, but due to administrative reasons it was delayed and I was able to drive in the meantime? No, she replied. It was my duty to make sure I asked sufficiently early (as if I could guess how much time later the commission could see me).

I knew the medical commission was in the same building’s basement. I went there to beg for an earlier appointment. Guess who was the secretary? My friend from the market. She took my phone number and told me she’d call if any slot was freed. One week later I saw the medical commission.

A gift: Ten years ago two friends and I decided to put together a conference about best practices in web development. We asked a few people, and we didn’t know what to expect as we had no budget to pay them to talk. We settled for the following deal: we would cover their expenses, pay for their food, and hope they would love our trade so much that they would be willing to share their experience.

They came, delivered great conferences, and we all became good friends. The conference has grown without us, we’ve passed it along to younger people, and it’s now quite big (600 people), the community has grown like mad, and we’ve become a kind of enlarged family, with much, much karma going around. Hugs galore, every year.

We dared to ask, and the outcome, ten years down the road, is miraculous.

What I want to say is that giving is as important as asking. Amanda Palmer calls it the circulation of the gift. You give to people, you ask people, and in return people give and ask what they can, when they can.

I like to think of myself as belonging to the human community, this informal thing that helped us go from endangered nomadic tribes of hunters to villages and organised societies. Asking and giving elevates us.

A very humane/human book. Buy it, give the lady a few bucks in the meantime and feel better after reading it (warning: you will be moved) – it’s part of circulating the gift.


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