(Non-)Masonic Book Review: The Art of Asking

The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer is varied in the lessons and insights it presents. It is autobiographical, it is about the process and meaning of art, it is about the music industry, it is about PR, marketing, and community building in the internet age, it is about relationships and communities, it is about busking and begging and vulnerability and asking and giving.

You can get a bit of an idea of the main theme of the book by watching her TED talk (be advised there is some potentially NSFW content), which is discussed in the book. The Art of Asking has a lot to offer under a Masonic lens – I’m sure there are more connections to draw than I’ve found, but I’ll break down my big takeaways into categories of thought below. For what it’s worth, I consumed this book in audiobook form.

Creating Community

Amanda attributes the success of her (record breaking) Kickstarter campaign, and multitudes of other requests (ranging from finding venues for impromptu shows to needing to get a hold of a neti pot while traveling) to having created the fertile ground of community through openness, trust, and engagement.

If we rely on our lodge secretary to shoot out an email or postcard announcement about an event and then only engage with those that show up, we’re missing out on opportunities to strengthen our own community. Broadcasting information, even through media like Twitter and Facebook, doesn’t create engagement unless we choose to interact with the platform that way. A personal call to a brother that wasn’t in lodge to hear the event announcement (for instance) is going to mean a lot more and be much more motivating than a note they may not even see in time. Even personally sharing a Facebook event with a brother who may not have seen it, or tagging a brother in a relevant post to make sure they see it and know they’re thought of is a good start.

Lodge communication needs to be bi-directional – every member should feel comfortable bringing ideas or concerns to any of the officers and to each other. Every member should feel empowered to bring their unique talents, personality, and interests to the craft in order to create the kind of community we tend to believe we’re supposed to be exemplifying. Community and trust go hand-in-hand. An engaged community is one you can trust to get things done, do good things, and be there when you need help as a lodge or personally.

Asking for Help

If you need help from your brothers, ask before it’s serious. A small ask now may avoid a worse situation and/or a bigger ask later.

Don’t be unhappy about not getting help you didn’t ask for, and if you need help, ask for it. People are human and may overlook your need, or may see you struggling, but not know how to help or feel uncomfortable offering help without having been asked. I know of a brother that was in a difficult situation and later seemed to hold some resentment towards the lodge for not having reached out to help, while the lodge had no idea there was anything wrong (though the lodge did clearly fail to keep in touch and make the brother feel like a part of the community). Whether you’re a grey-beard past master or freshly initiated, there are brothers that want to help, but can only effectively do so if you let them know how.

Asking for or giving help are both vulnerable acts – In asking for help you may look foolish, weak, or incapable, you’re relying on the grace of the person you’re asking, and trusting them to help, or at least understand. You’re also trusting that asking for help won’t change the relationship. Helping is a vulnerable act in that you may not know how the help will be received, if you’ll be taken advantage of, if the help you can offer will genuinely be useful, or if the help itself may change the relationship. In the end though, if a relationship is there, most people will be willing to help within the length of their cable-tow. In the Masonic context there is usually some implicit degree of trust, affection, and fraternity, in addition to our charges and obligations, all of which form a solid foundation for a request for help and a community of additional brothers that can be pulled in to help further.

How Are You?

It wasn’t until she was doing last-minute preparations for a talk to women at Microsoft that Amanda ever asked what her Mother really did or what the work was like when she was a programmer in the early days of computers. When asked, her mother had stories and experience relevant to the talk Amanda was preparing, but also relevant to Amanda’s connection with her mother, she just hadn’t ever heard them because she hadn’t asked.

In relation to her husband having had a reputation for not opening up much and sharing, for being somewhat closed off, he indicated that he didn’t feel that described him, but that no one asked so he hadn’t shared. She briefly mentions the value of sitting down with a drink with someone and asking, “How are you – I mean really, how are you?” I think this is really important. Yes, fellowship happens in lodge, at refreshment, at a pancake breakfast, etc., but there may be a lot more value in sitting down one-on-one with brothers to check in and open up. In the case of brothers that don’t make it out to lodge for one reason or another, a phone call to see how they’re doing – how they’re really doing, may mean the world to them, and may bring the lodge closer together.

It’s also really worth getting to know the brothers from lodge – not just knowing who they are and exchanging pleasantries and appreciating their contributions to lodge, but knowing their backgrounds, their challenges, their successes and failures. When we know our brothers more personally, we’re better able to fulfill our obligations to them, and have the opportunity to grow from their experiences. I’m sure we all have brothers with whom we are friendly but know little of. We’re missing out on life lessons and a critical part of the potential for what the Masonic experience can be, especially for the younger men who have so much to learn from the older brothers.

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is the name given to the phenomenon of feeling like one is an imposter or fraud, feeling like others will at some point figure out they aren’t really qualified to be doing whatever it is you’re doing. This includes lines of thinking along the lines of “I’m not good enough to be here.” This tumblr post from Neil Gaiman (Amanda Palmer’s husband) touches on the idea, and the story is mentioned in the book.

In The Art of Asking, Amanda recounts several instances of this mode of thought (which she called her internal “fraud police” before being introduced to the term) – her TED talk (linked above), her talk at Microsoft, and on a variety of other projects. She also ran into this a lot with other performers as well, with them thinking they shouldn’t be selling their work yet because they weren’t good enough, even though people wanted to buy it.

I know I went through this when going through the chairs and I expect others do to, especially in larger lodges and for more junior members. “Yes, I know the ritual, but do I understand it well enough?” “I can run the meeting, but can I actually get anything done?” “I’m failing at leading by example in my personal life.” Those and more were frequent thoughts.

The big takeaway from this book on the subject (and any other book that touches on it) is that those voices in your head are something to overcome, and it may not be easy. If surgeons, astronauts, and best-selling authors have this problem, it’s perfectly normal to feel it yourself. If these feelings are strong enough to cause major internal conflict or are getting in the way of what you’re doing (in lodge, personally, or professionally), find a brother you can talk to. If all you need is reassurance, he can surely help. If there actually are metrics by which you’re falling short, this discussion is the first step towards asking for help in fixing any potential shortcomings. Even if you need help in one area or another, it doesn’t mean you’re a fraud, it means you are human and you’re growing.

I can also say that coming out the other side of the East with nothing catastrophic happening (and some good things happening, and an overall positive sentiment from the lodge) or ever getting called out was altogether a very positive exercise in personal and professional development. Those voices may not be gone, but I can argue a bit more effectively with them.

Trust

There was a line that came up several times in this book – “I trust you this much…  Should I? Show me.” The keeping of Masonic secrets is a symbol of fidelity, of trust. If we can’t trust a brother to keep secret those details, what can we trust them with? Trust faithfully kept begets more trust. And trust goes both ways, when we demonstrate trust in our brothers, that trust is usually reciprocated.

This is the first of what I hope will be many book reviews – the idea is to take a look at books from all sorts of genres and see what can be extracted and applied to Freemasonry, or how the ideas can be coupled with those from Freemasonry for an enriched Masonic experience or personal improvement. In most cases the ideas in the books are extrapolated upon from my own personal experience in the craft. These reviews are not necessarily endorsements of the books (as tastes may vary), but are an attempt to extract value from them for a Masonic audience.

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