Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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In January of 1965, after living their entire lives in soggy Western Washington, my mom and dad packed up their belongings and moved to sunny Arizona. After enjoying the dry climate for several months, Mom wrote a letter to her father inviting him to close up the “mom and pop” store that he operated thirteen-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week and come live with them in Tempe.
“We have a room set aside for you,” Mom explained. “And there’s a lovely park nearby filled with men playing checkers and chess.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Grandpa replied in a return letter. “I must admit that it’s tempting to move to a place where it doesn’t rain most of the time, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. You know how hard it is for a man of my age to find work.”
Grandpa was eighty-five years old at the time. He couldn’t conceive of not having a job.
My grandfather loved to work almost as much as he loved his independence. He’d always been that way. Orphaned at a young age, Grandpa had moved in with a relative who didn’t like him much and, to make that point crystal clear, beat him regularly. One day when Grandpa was ten, his school teacher began whipping a small child in his class. Grandpa could take it no longer and pummeled the cowardly teacher until he fled from the classroom. Grandpa was expelled for his efforts and while his caretakers brooded over what to do with him, he packed a change of clothing in a brown paper bag and set out from Dyersville, Iowa to live with his cousin May—the one person who had showed him love when he had met her at a family gathering a few years earlier.
For several days Grandpa trudged westward. For sustenance he drank from creeks, ate fruit from trees, and stole eggs from chicken coops.
“When we first laid eyes on Billy we were sitting on the porch drinking lemonade,” cousin May explained years later when I met her for the first time.
“At first,” May continued, “I thought it was a stray dog coming down the dirt road that passed in front of our house. I could barely make out a speck in the distance, followed by a trail of dust. But then I could see it was a person. It was a boy. The poor thing looked like he was going to collapse; he was so weak from the heat of the sun. And then as the boy drew close enough to see his face, I could tell it was Billy! Mother and I ran to greet him, took him in our arms, and smothered him with kisses.”
After days of lonely effort, Billy—at ten years of age—had walked across the entire state of Iowa to his cousin May’s house just outside Sioux City. He was finally home. For the next eight years his cousins loved and cared for Billy until he graduated from high school and set out to make a life for himself. Then, for almost two decades my grandfather worked at everything from trapping in Minnesota to playing cards on a Mississippi river boat—until he finally met my grandmother, Pricilla, and fell in love, settled down, and raised my mother.
Grandpa taught my mom to be as independent as he had been for twenty years as a bachelor. He had learned to cook and sew, and do all things domestic—not as a point of pride, but from sheer necessity. So as Grandma taught my mom how to run a household, he taught her how to swing a hammer and repair the plumbing.
By the time I was twelve, both my mom and granddad had passed the tradition to me. I’d come home from school to find Mom had torn out part of a wall with a crowbar in an effort to get a remodeling project on its feet. I’d then help her make dinner before Dad came home from work.
This independence has served me well. I love the freedom that comes from being able to do so many things on my own. However, sometimes my desire for self-sufficiency morphs from autonomy to pig-headedness and that’s when it gets me into trouble. Strengths, unguided by wisdom, often become weaknesses.
For instance, last fall when my wife Louise and I vacationed in Paris for our 40th wedding anniversary, my need for independence really pitched us a curve. Louise and I had signed up for a Segway tour by night. (I don’t know what we were thinking.) The upbeat guide taught us how to speed along on one of those motorized sticks while he pointed out the glories of the City of Lights. Unfortunately, after only a few minutes I could tell that Louise’s diminishing night vision was giving her problems and I was quite certain we needed to stop and return to the base. Trooper that she is, Louise wanted to stay the course.
But I couldn’t shake my premonition. Something bad was about to happen. I also didn’t know how to tell our guide that we needed to stop, and I most certainly didn’t want to force the entire group of tourists to return to base on our account.
So, each time my wife drove her Segway too close to a cement pillar placed to keep cars from entering the pathways, I’d shout a warning: “Not so close!” as my blood ran cold with the thought of her crashing and falling.
How could I get this band of merry tourists to do an about face? If the two of us went back on our own, how would we find the way without the help of our guide? How could I fit the blasted contrivances into a cab? How could . . .
In what felt like a slow-motion nightmare, I saw my wife’s vehicle smash into a post and throw her ten feet through the air and onto the rough cobblestones below. Louise writhed in pain as I leaped from my Segway to her side. My worst fear had been realized. She had crashed and (as I later learned at the hospital) broken her pelvis.
For the next three days, as our return flight drew closer, I nearly went crazy trying to figure out how to get Louise back home. The doctors assured us she could travel without doing herself any harm, but her pain was so great she couldn’t take a single step. Fortunately, she could stand, slowly shuffle right or left, and slip into a wheel chair. Now, if I could just get her to the airline front desk, they would wheel her onto the plane—but how?
Out of utter desperation I eventually approached the manager of the hotel we were staying at and said something I almost never say.
“I need your help,” I nervously whispered as if sharing a deep, dark secret. Then I quietly explained our predicament.
“Yes,” the manager responded, “I can see your problem. I’m not sure how to solve it, but don’t worry Mr. Patterson, we will figure it out.”
And they did.
The independence my grandfather so fiercely demonstrated—and that has generally served me so well—occasionally keeps me from asking others for their assistance, even when I need it. Had I stopped our little tour group and said to our guide: “My wife and I need to return, but I also don’t want to disrupt the tour. Do you have any ideas on how to achieve that?” I’m sure the guide would have come up with five different solutions.
But I didn’t think to ask the guide. It simply was not in my nature. It was not the kind of thing I thought a self-sufficient person would do. Of course, we paid dearly.
I know I’m not alone in my misunderstanding of independence. At work, employees routinely avoid asking for help on a project because they fear it might make them look weak. Or a newly promoted boss refuses to say “I don’t know,” because he’s the new supervisor and thinks he’s supposed to know everything. And then, of course, there’s that whole getting lost on vacation and refusing to ask for directions thing . . .
For over sixty years I’ve honed my abilities to stand on my own—as if that’s life’s one true measure of success—when in truth it’s also a wonderful thing to both give and receive help. Stopping and asking others for their assistance is not a signal that we’re weak or that our character is flawed. It’s a sign of our underlying humanity.
Here’s to being more human.
31 thoughts on “Kerrying On: I Need Help”
Wow. Today’s article moved me, teary eyes included. I recently lost my 83-year old Dad to cancer. He was fiercely independent and self-sufficient. Like your Grandpa, he grew up during the depression, and his family had many hard times. Dad made the best of himself, and he passed on the tradition. Dad was an awesome mentor, role model, teacher, and parent.
Your article touched me because he needed help this last year going through the end stages of cancer. It was very difficult for him to accept assistance. My family and I were able to support, assist, and advocate because we had the ability to hold the right conversations at the right time. I’ve never had more crucial conversations in my life than during this time period.
Kerry, your writing has truly been a blessing! My Dad died with dignity and grace, and he was able to accept help. Thank you for teaching me how to communicate.
You have a way with words! I loved reading “I Need Help”. Your stories are always amazing and you drive your point home in easily understood words that everyone can relate too! Thanks, Laurie
This is a wonderful story; I was brought up to run the house and look after my younger sister as my Mum was ill and it has taken me a long time to realise that I can ask for help; It took the suicide of a friend and not knowing how to cope to ask for help and support; through learning more about myself and my family, I became much more open and let others into my personal life; I met my husband very soon afterwards. That was 13 years ago and we are just reaching our 10th wedding anniversary!
What a story and what a lesson……how hard many of us find to ask for help or as I have said to friends and co-workers “I don’t want to be a burden”! I saw myself in this story however, age and life experiences have lifted this burden of total self-sufficiency and independence off of me. Its amazing how much people are willing to help when asked…..both personally and professionally.
That is an extremely powerful story. I was struck by this line-
“Strengths, unguided by wisdom, often become weaknesses.” I, too, carry the pig-headed gene, but I always thought independence was the holy grail in life. Much like your grandfather, it started out as a matter of survival, but those early set of circumstances no longer exist in my personal or professional life so I’m reconciling how independence needs to give way at times to humility. I’ll toast to being more human.
What an incredible story. The only thing is you forgot the first part of the story. Your grandfather walked across the state of Iowa to get HELP. Yes, he was independant and self suffiecient, and then he used those qualities to get HELP when he needed it. I love your stories…all the best.
You are a extremely talented writer and I appreciate your newsletters every time I receive them. I enjoy and wait for your wisdom and insight with each newsletter. Thank you for being you!
Thanks for sharing that powerful story. We live in a time when learning to ask for help and collaborate seems undervalued as chests are thumped for our “rugged individualism.” The opportunity is to see ourselves as part of a much greater whole, and to be ambitious about engaging all the available gifts and passions, regardless of where they come from to impact that whole for the highest good. By doing so, everything becomes possible.
I think this raises a extraordinarily important issue. While Crucial Conversations gives someone the skills, so often it’s not for want of skills that we don’t communicate. We really DON’T want help. Or we do, but we don’t want to communicate that fact no matter what the strategy. Stephen
Another great story Kerry!!! I love the way you show us that it is okay to ask for help. It isn’t a sign of weakness, yet a true sign of knowing something doesn’t feel right and we need to take action before it goes wrong. I wish more people, especially managers, understood this.
This was such a good article and you are an amazing storyteller. I was all ears (and eyes). My heart went out to your wife, what a traumatic experience! You drove a very important point home. I think when we feel something, it is the Spirit moving us to act upon those feelings and we shouldn’t ignore it. Also fascinating story about your grandfather. Wow, i have such great admiration and respect for him. What a trooper! Thanks again for sharing this!!
Thank you for this wonderful article. I, like you, struggle so much with asking for help. I don’t see others as weak when they do, so it’s interesting that I would think that about myself. I could completely feel the level of stress when you were debating a solution to ending the tour; I’ve done it to myself a million times! Thanks for reminding me that there are many others around to help me create wonderful solutions.
Thank you for this story. I had a similar (though not as serious) experience a number of years ago. I broke my foot and was on crutches with no weight bearing on that foot for many weeks. I never said “thank you” so many times, for all the little things people helped me do. It’s hard to be dependent on others, but I learned from my episode that most people are very willing to help, if only you will tell them what you need and show appreciation when they provide it. If we assume the best of people, they generally come through. (I just broke my foot again, and I’m wondering what I’ll learn this time . . . other than to be more careful.)
Thank you for being so vulnerable and transparent with your pain. It truly is our weaknesses and frailty that we gain the greatest strength from. After being a psychotherapist, personnel development specialist and corporate trainer for 25 years, I have absolutely seen the worst results in humanity (professionally and personally) of man’s attempt to “be strong” in many arenas. I sooo appreciate the exposed, learned beauty of your tragedy. After having suffered multi-layered, intense devastation through my own failure, while trying to be the very best “answer man” for all, I learned the harsh reality, but beautiful grace of truly receiving, for the first time in my 50 years of life. Ooohhh, the power of a 3 stranded cord…’refusing to settle for less’ while ‘ceasing from striving’ as we ‘progress unto weakness’. Wishing you the very best for recovery and restoration with your loved one. Thank you again for sharing from your ‘life’ and wisdom!
At the risk of repeating others’ comments – you are insightful, gentle, and an amazing storyteller. What a terrific gift and thanks so much for sharing ‘you’ with us.
Your statement, “… my desire for self-sufficiency morphs from autonomy to pig-headedness and that’s when it gets me into trouble. Strengths, unguided by wisdom, often become weaknesses”, is something to ponder on deeply., As fellow fierce independant, I have finally learned that asking for help is actually a sign of strength, self awareness and intelligence or wisdom. It is the strength to overcome those ideas in our heads that we are weak. Recognition and understanding that we are humans, mere mortals and no one no matter how smart or hard they try can be perfect and know everything. It takes a higher degree of intelligence to ask than, as you found, suffer the consequences of what happens when we don’t. I have found that the three other people in my family have learned the “independance” lessons well. Now, I must find a way thru those crucial conversations to help them all learn the lessons of asking for and graciously accepting help.
Amazing how many of us relate!
My 94 year old Grandpa stumbled in the parking garage of his high rise early one morning on his way to work. After he rolled down the little ramp, he combat crawled to his car, pulled himself in and drove to work. Once there, he acknowledged he wasn’t feeling so hot and called my uncle. 3 weeks later, he now has a pin in his hip and several more weeks of rehab ahead of him.
People love hearing how tough he was when he fell and cracked his hip. They marvel that he still goes to work and drives. As a culture, we defintely celebrate independence and self-reliance. I, however, think about how he must’ve felt dragging himself across the cold concrete. I give thanks that his pain didn’t affect his driving. I wonder why he didn’t use his cell phone to call for help sooner.
My grandfather is often admired for his tremendous work ethic; fierce, independent streak; and great genes. As others hear this story, I sense they’re also drawn to something else. Selfishly, do they drink in his longevity and vitality to quench uneasiness about their own elderly future?
You are a fantastic writer, not only in your lyricism, but also in offering your personal experiences. I could definitely repeat all the wonderful, deserved praise everyone else has written. I also have a question for you: It appears you considered it your responsibility, not Louise’s, to ask for help – why is that? How do you deal with the question of whether it’s *your* responsibility or your partner’s/spouse’s/colleague’s to ask for help? I ask because I very much identify with the story in terms of initiative and persistence, but I also suffer from owning other people’s “problems.” In doing so, what I have believed is my desire to care for others is often mistaken (or not?) as desire for control and as my view of others as incompetent (which is a sad commentary on my thinking – something else for me to work on!). I appreciate your advice on this.
I’m fond of saying that I am often afflicted with a nasty combination of ignorance and arrogance. Sometimes that means I am ignorant but don’t think anyone else’s advice would be as useful as figuring it out for myself. (Arrogance) Or I take on a task that I’ve never done before with the question: What could be so diffucult about accomplishing that? I am often provided with the answer about half-way through a project that has already taken more time and effort than I ever imagined.
Kerry, Thank you for sharing your story. It made me reflect on some of my own challenges in asking for help. I recently broke a bone in my foot too,unable to leave my home, it took a small village to keep my life going. I was fortunate that my friends just volunteered as they saw the need. It really reinforced how interdependent we all are.
That’s an interesting question. Louise is certainly capable of tending to her own needs, and usually doesn’t need me to step in and take care of her. However, on this particular occasion I was observing the effects of her growing night blindness. As we turned each corner and passed by each post, I could see that she was barely missing the obstructions and despite my constant reminders to stay clear, she appeared not to be able to tell how close she was coming and didn’t share my concern.
Couple this with the fact that with each passing minute we were rushing away from our starting point and the problem only got that much worse. I couldn’t stop and carry on a conversation, and the longer we went the less likely we’d be able to get back. I was also aware of the fact that I couldn’t and shouldn’t force Louise to return—based on nothing more than a premonition—and one that we didn’t have time nor location to discuss.
All of this, of course, was running through my head as the sun rapidly set and culminated when she hit the post. It was a nightmare and I won’t make the same mistake again. I won’t and shouldn’t force my way, but I can and should call for a conversation.
Re: Article “I Need Help” issued on 26th May (Vol. 8 Issue 21) is just a great article.
My childhood life is very similar to “Billy” the grandfather, and may be because of that, I also have the same problem about this sense of independence – I very seldom ask for help and even feel shy or inferior to ask for direction or for assistance. I always feel that in doing so will make me look stupid and people just would not like to respond.
I am glad that the guy finally had a break through on this. But how does he change all this ? It would help me a lot if I know the “how”.
From: Peter Chau
i admire your stewardship, but it’s really up to your wife to say something first and foremost.
AND if your grandpa was taught domestic skills by necessity, why didn’t HE teach his daughter those things in addition to plumbing and hammering?!
Mr. Patterson, I loved the story about your grandfather, and think that you should write a book about his childhood experience. As for the incident in Paris, I encourage you trust and act upon your good intuition in the future. Women don’t have exclusive rights to intuition.
Hi Kerry: Yet another riveting read! This is why we owe so much to people who have gathered life lessons and share stories freely with the rest of us. As we have watched with the recession of “older” (depends on the field, of course) workers being pushed out of careers without thought to their experiences and what they bring to the table; this story highlights yet again the value of each individual, their collective assets and the interconnectivity of the human experience. I have been on both sides of this awkward table: fear of being perceived as not knowing enough for where I am at to looking foolish as a new employee and being told “I cannot believe you asked that question”! Have a great holiday!
Kerry, have you considered publishing all of your stories in a book? I would love to have them all in one place for reference … and yes, for inspiration!
Regarding today’s story and bullheaded independence. I had someone tell me something a LONG time ago that changed my own actions, and I repeat it often too, when I’m faced with that independence in others. When we refuse the help of others or refuse to ask help of others, we deprive them of something they need … the opportunity to help. The people who love us the most often feel desperately inadequate to offer comforting words when faced with our misfortunes, and being able to DO something helps them. We are being selfish to deny them this opportunity. I don’t advocate giving up all independence, of course. Just ask yourself what your loved one might need and see if you can’t gracefully accept their help. Thank you for a heartfelt, genuine story.
I loved this story.
I, too was moved almost to tears by this article. Like you, I have been fiercely independent since I left home at the age of 17. I needed help from no one and could handle anything that came up. Then my baby sister moved in with me because she needed a place to live and I was diagnosed with breast cancer which was treated with chemotherapy and radiation. I learned to ask for help because I had to and I still hated it, but my sweet sister taught me to let her help me because she loved me. I still have trouble asking, but I’m getting better. All us independent types need to practice asking for help, before we’re forced to. I have a quote on my wall that says “It is better to learn humility voluntarily than involuntarily.” Thanks…
I loved this! I too have a problem asking for help. I had loving parents but as the youngest of seven, I guess I grew up feeling like I had to prove myself by doing things without help. This usually works out okay in my personal life but it has hurt me at work, when I would procrastinate working on something because I didn’t know what to do and hated to ask for help!
Soon after I read “Kerrying On: I Need Help,” I ran across the poem “Atlas” by Kay Ryan, and was struck by the similarity in message. The poem starts out
isolates a person
Ryan is the sixteenth Poet Laureate of the United States. This poem is in her book The Niagara River.
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