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Notes on reciprocity

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.


24 responses »

  1. I only got past the first sentence, but looks like this is about asking for favors and expecting things in return. I mean who does that?! Oh, but speaking of, since I commented here could you retweet, comment and like my latest blog post. Could really use the link juice.

  2. On a more serious note, I don’t know if I’ve reached the BFD-ness to really have a lot of people ask me for favors, but I definitely see this in the industry. I feel like overall there is a certain sense of entitlement. Years ago, it was a rite of passage to be published and it was based on enduring tough editors and teachers, long hours and starting at the very bottom to work yourself up. Today, people want the easy route with no consideration of the sacrifice or consequences.

    • Spencer-

      I think a lot of people just don’t know that what they’re asking for has taken years, in most cases, to build.

      But I’ll tell you this: if they’d spend less time leaving frivolous comments just because they think it’s the “right” thing to do, and more time making some meaningful connections and actions, they’d get a lot farther, a lot faster.

      If they’d take five minutes out of their social media routine to actually look for something useful for a colleague or contact and then pass it along, I think they’d be amazed by how quickly they’d progress.

  3. “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” –from The Beatles White Album.

    This refrain applies as much to my career as much as it does to my personal life.

    It’s impossible to know when generosity will pay off, but it almost always does.

    • Steve- I absolutely agree… from the perspective of the giver. I’d just like askers to be more cognizant of how what they’re asking for is acquired and what value it has.

      I think I should clarify where I was coming from (though didn’t want to take this approach in the piece itself because it felt too specific) with the example I had in mind when I sat down to write this.

      I was speaking with a friend recently who, in turn, has some friends in high places. Let’s say the Dalai Lama is one of those friends– that’s *not* who it is, but the friends are in that league. The friend was detailing how many requests she gets from acquaintances, friends of friends, and even people she doesn’t know at all to put them in touch with the Dalai Lama. Their reasons, ostensibly, always have to do with some charity project for which the Dalai Lama’s “endorsement” would generate attention, money, etc.

      I don’t think it’s “wrong” for people to ask her for this contact, necessarily, but I think they’re entirely unaware of what kind of a position this puts her in, how many types of these requests she gets, and what kinds of decisions it forces her to make. She can’t possibly go to the Dalai Lama with every single request made to her, and for many reasons: their “cause” isn’t congruent with the Dalai Lama or his values. How many causes can she possibly take to this man?

      Though this example is admittedly unusual, there are similar examples from travel blogging and travel writing that occur with frequency, and the asker generally doesn’t realize, I think, the degree to which they’re putting the other person in a very awkward situation.

      • Great. Now I’m going to be wracking my brain trying to figure out who the Dalai Lama of travel writing is!

        I agree that sometimes askers need to be a bit more judicious about requests. Usually, asking someone who is famous etc. is a long shot at best.

        The flip side to that is people (like me sometimes) who are afraid to ask for stuff. Asking makes you temporarily vulnerable.

        But many times it’s worth it even if your request is turned down. At least by this point you’re able to articulate what you want . You just might have to go through other avenues to get it.

  4. This is such an important post, Julie. I don’t think many of us keep a ledger, like you say, to keep track of who has done favors for us and who we’ve done favors for, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I know when the things I offer to others will pay off for them in the long run. If people aren’t serious about whatever it is I give them, then why should I waste my time?

    Along those same lines, I’m not likely to “give” to someone who appears out of the woodwork. Foster a relationship with me. Show me that you’re invested in what you’re asking of me. Interact with me. I need to see that you’re not in it like a get-rich scheme, because, ultimately, when I give, my reputation is on the line too.

    • Thanks, JoAnna- Glad this post resonates with you. Yes, I want to see that someone’s actively working on developing their own career rather than just looking for a hand-out. I’ve been burned several times by making recommendations/referrals and then the person I’ve given the rec/referral to never follows through. Oftentimes, no follow through is as bad as following up and making a bad impression. I’m much more careful now about these kinds of requests.

  5. It’s interesting, though, that we live in a time of “no-time” to foster relationships. So much importance is thrown on social networking, how that will get you where you want to go, that it sometimes feels there is no time to really concentrate and engage in any one thing – must move quickly onto the next to stay in the game.

    When I began to see my “real-life” relationships were suffering because of trying to invest myself too much in my online world, I made a choice to disengage a bit from all the reading/commenting/tweeting/etc. Sometimes it all just feels like a hamster wheel under the guise of getting ahead. I’m not sure where the balance is, but I’m certainly trying to find it.

    As for the Dalai Lama analogy, it made me think about my days at an organization that will remain unnamed (not that it matters – it is now no longer in existence). As soon as people in the non-profit world found out where I worked, and even worse, which famous people my boss was friends with, it was a never-ending request process that just pissed me off, honestly. I wanted to sometimes scream, “do you realize how obvious you are?” But at the same time, I didn’t totally fault them because they were just trying get a few more grant dollars for their programs just like everyone else. It’s a tough place on both ends.

    • Christine- Definitely a tough place on both ends, and I’m absolutely empathic to both. But I think there are people who ask with class and consciousness- and it’s easy to see who those folks are (and who they’re not). 🙂

      By the way, I very much admire your boundary-setting about online life versus offline life.

  6. Intriguing post on many levels Julie!

    Beware the networking rats – People who use every means necessary to advance their careers, jumping around, constantly sourcing information, and hard earned contacts without truly caring about the person behind the avatar/email beyond what they can get career-wise.

    I mentioned this at TBEX 🙂

    My door has always been wide open when it comes to sharing and generosity (maybe a little too open sometimes) yet I give anyways even though I can count on one hand, the people that have directly reciprocated.

    The world has a way of sorting these things out, so I leave it up to a higher power.

    • “The world has a way of sorting these things out, so I leave it up to a higher power.”

      Indeed, Lola. And sorting them out ourselves is not the best use of energy. 🙂

  7. I think feeling you need to reply to every request is a trap you can fall into before you realise as well. For me, enthusiasm for what I’m doing means that if someone asks how to do something I can quickly commit myself to a relationship before I know it just by showing my enthusiasm. It’s taken me quite a few of these before I got wise to the fact that I can’t help everybody (although the teacher in me begs to differ). Since I’ve recently shifted to writing/editing from teaching I’m less of an ‘authority’ and so don’t get this as much, but I can say that freelancing has helped me to consider what kind of relationships I need to let go of or keep at a distance. There are only so many hours in a dayand I don’t want all of them to be working ones. And I agree with Christine about trying to find the social networking balance. That’ll be my next trick!

    • Marie-

      Thanks for your observation. I think I suffer from that very phenomenon of feeling pressured to reply to every “ask.” I think I need to develop a polite way of saying no that will be useful to the other person. Gotta work on that!

  8. Steve-

    The Dalai Lama example involves someone who’s not in travel writing at all… different field entirely, and perhaps one where these principles apply even more! 😉

    I absolutely agree with you, though, about the fear of asking; I’ve spent way too much of my life afraid to ask. But again, I think it’s all in how you do it and being confident about your reasons AND about whether the request is an appropriate fit with the other person. I could write a whole post about that (and probably will, now that you’ve given me the idea!). I think Ross (of Matador) is an amazing example of someone who can ask for things confidently and fearlessly and appropriately… and often get what he wants or at least learn many valuable lessons in the process that other people pay for MBAs to acquire. 😉

  9. Love the Rainer Maria Rilke quote.

    You are a level 10 travel samurai and lesser ninjas flock to the glow of your blade…not surprising.

    • Aw, Joshy.
      You know, if you like Rilke, I just saw that a book of previously unpublished letters has been released: Letters on Life, it’s called. I just browsed through a few pages in the bookstore when I saw it this week, but looks like a good read.

  10. Marie just pointed me to this post when I tweeted the following “Reporter contacted me wanting to know everything I know so she could write a story about it. Shouldn’t I write that story?”

    So I’m not precisely sure how your advice pertains, but I do feel used by the inquiry, so that’s a good start on where to go with that. I agree that climbing over others to get where you’re trying to get is an ugly practice, and we need to feel the right to stand up and say, hey, “this is not a step!” (referencing standard warning on painting ladders).

    As always, something to chew on. Thanks!

    • I hear you on this one Eileen. Since I have some specialized knowledge, I get many requests to do volunteer fact checking (the most recent one from a major monthly publication that published a well article on Havana – riddled with errors unfortunately!), interviews, research, and recommendations. I have put the breaks on just handing out that hard-earned knowledge to anyone and everyone precisely because it started to feel like I was being used. It’s particularly nasty when it comes from big players who stand to make big $$.

  11. Brilliant piece, Julie. I used to spend hours daily crafting long, thoughtful and (IMHO) useful responses to the many emails I’d received asking for advice on getting started as a travel writer….until, like Christine, I realized that my real-life relationships were suffering. Now I provide a more “templated” reply that includes a few person comments and a list of offline and online resources (your site among them, for the always good advice you give writers, editors, and would-be editors).

    And when some of those I’ve helped do start gaining experience and exposure, the editor in me has no qualms about asking them to give back to the community at large in the form of passing on advice via a guest post!

    I’m a huge believer in reciprocity, and while I also keep no scorecard, and like Lola trust in the universe to sort things out, I’m okay with pushing things along a bit now and then.

  12. Great post, great advice–for people on BOTH sides (give and take)… and speaking of which, I’d like to add how important it is to say THANK YOU when someone does give you the info you’re looking for! In one of my various jobs I manage an image bank that releases photos free of charge if the purpose fits certain criteria. I am constantly amazed at how many people send a long list of images they need and then, after I respond to them personally, don’t even bother with a simple “thanks.”

    • Margaret-

      A simple thank you can go such a long way. And sometimes, doing something radically old-fashioned (like sending a thank you card!) really leaves an impression. A Matador colleague took some time to help me out recently by testing an iPhone app that I’d done and I sent her a thank you card in the mail. She replied with an email saying she was so happy to have gotten a card- she couldn’t recall the last time she’d gotten one.


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