I suppose it’s inevitable that you reach a certain point in your career when people start asking you for things.
Time. Advice. Contacts and introductions. Industry “secrets.” Influence. Promotion of their project on your platform.
If you’re perceived as successful (even if you don’t necessarily feel so accomplished yourself), other people who are less experienced often want to benefit from the assets you’ve worked so hard to build up over time.
It’s equally inevitable that we all pass through certain stages in our professional lives when we need to ask for favors, so I’m not saying that it’s always inappropriate to ask for someone else’s currency.*
What I am saying is that it’s important to understand what you’re asking for and why, and it’s important to be cognizant of what reciprocity is and how you can give back.
Let’s break this down:
1. What is it that you’re asking for?
Most of the things you ask for were acquired through hard work over a long period of time. Advice is the accumulation of knowledge, wisdom, and experience. Contacts are the careful cultivation of relationships. Introductions are more than simply contacts–they’re recommendations of a sort. When I introduce you to someone you want to know, I’m essentially saying to that person “This is someone I think is worth your time, not just simply someone who wants something from you.” In short: When you ask for something, you are asking another person to share their hard-earned work with you. Respect that these things–advice, contacts, introduction–are a form of currency.
2. Why are you asking for it?
There are perfectly legitimate reasons why you may need to ask for something, but make sure you know what your reasons are. Are you asking because you’re lazy– you don’t want to do the work it takes or spend the time it requires to develop relationships and acquire knowledge and experience? Sorry, but that’s not a good reason. And though you may get what you want now, it’s likely that the information, contact, or advice won’t do you much good and you’ll have wasted valuable currency. Remember Rilke’s advice in his Letters to a Young Poet:
“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.”
3. What are you able to give in return?
I don’t want to give the impression that I keep a running tab of favors in a ledger book, because I don’t. If you’ve asked me for some advice, a contact, or a favor, I’ve probably given it to you. I’ve even done so without expectation that you’ll give me anything in return because to work and live feeling like you’re always owed something is a serious energy siphon and God knows I need all the energy I’ve got.
I’m far more likely to continue being a reliable source of assistance and support to you if I notice (and believe me, I do) that you operate from a philosophy of reciprocity. What you reciprocate doesn’t have to be given to me in return for what I’ve given you. Are you a generous person who helps others within your means and with your particular skills and knowledge? That’s what I’m talking about.
It’s much easier than you might expect to reciprocate, even when you’re giving back to someone whose assets are far greater than your own. Here are just a few off the top of my head:
1. Gig/assignment leads: Know what other people specialize in and what interests them. If you hear of an assignment that might be appropriate for one of your contacts, share it.
2. Public praise: Know of someone’s recent success? Read someone’s byline in a magazine? Share the news publicly (if appropriate) and give genuine praise.
3. Make meaningful comments: Follow the work of the people you care about and respond with meaningful comments. (But don’t do this because you ultimately intend to suck up to them for currency because that’s just foul).
It’s not inappropriate to gain from others’ experience and knowledge, but it’s wise to keep these ideas in mind. If you’re genuinely stymied in your profession, then consider taking a course or seeking a mentor, both of which are appropriate supports for growing in order to move forward in your career.
*Though there’s something that feels “off” about using “currency,” that’s exactly what these collateral objects/contacts are. They’re a writer’s currency. And to talk about them in any other way only contributes to the pervasive devaluation and devalorization of writers in society.