“I painted myself white one day, stood on a box, put a hat or a can at my feet, and when someone came by and dropped in money, I handed them a flower — and some intense eye contact. And if they didn’t take the flower, I threw in a gesture of sadness and longing — as they walked away. So I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks, and we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in a city street, and we would sort of fall in love a little bit. And my eyes would say — “Thank you. I see you.” And their eyes would say — “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.”
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I have started watching TED Talks while I make dinner. Of the new habits I have tried to introduce into my life over the past year (meditation, learning Italian, starting to run), this is the only one that has stuck. I guess it goes to that belief about finding a new hobby – it must be something you want to do, that complements who you are and that is relatively easy to slot into an already full life. As to how full my life is, well I suppose that is debatable, I don’t get out much but I always seem to be doing something.
“You’re very independent aren’t you”, said my father a few weeks ago, “do you ever ask anyone for any help?” I can’t remember what provoked his comment – but it made me stop and think. He was absolutely right. I would far rather juggle a million balls then actually admit to having taken on too much, or actually ask someone to help me out. Since he said that, though, I have been trying asking out. Just here and there – and, guess what… it works.
Amanda Palmer is a maverick in the true sense of the word. She doesn’t conform in any way, she lives by her own rules, she does things on her own terms. She is a performer, artist and musician. And she is smart as hell. Her talk about the Art of Asking really had me thinking about how we have become so disconnected from each other that we would rather battle on alone than lift up our voices and ask for someone to help us. Going it alone, doing it alone, being alone has become the new norm for a species that owes its very evolution to our ability to communicate and connect.
Palmer is smart, daring, funny and asks for a lot: an opening band who will be encouraged to pass their hat around the audience for donations, a rehearsal space, an instrument needed for that night’s performance, a neti pot – all are responded to: “A couple of months later, I was in Manhattan, and I tweeted for a crash pad, and at midnight, I’m on the Lower East Side, and it occurs to me I’ve never actually done this alone. I’ve always been with my band or my crew. Is this what stupid people do? Is this how stupid people die? And before I can change my mind, the door busts open. She’s an artist. He’s a financial blogger for Reuters, and they’re pouring me a glass of red wine and offering me a bath, and I have had thousands of nights like that and like that.”
The beauty in her approach is that her fans always come through, because they want to help, because in helping they are acknowledged, they belong: “… through the very act of asking people, I’d connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you.”
To me, Palmer’s asking is also a ‘dare to dream’ – something camparigirl and I have been discussing lately. She also does not let her immediate circumstances determine her future. After a bad experience with a major record label, Amanda Palmer decided to look for alternate ways to get her new album made, an expensive process for any musician: “for my next project with my new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, I turned to crowdfunding. And I fell into those thousands of connections that I’d made, and I asked my crowd to catch me. And the goal was 100,000 dollars. My fans backed me at nearly 1.2 million, which was the biggest music crowdfunding project to date. And you can see how many people it is. It’s about 25,000 people.”
In return, she and her band would make the album available for free: “And the media asked, “Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy. How did you make all these people pay for music?” And the real answer is, I didn’t make them. I asked them.”
No coercion/obligation or leverage – just the simple request – will you help me? “It’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists. They don’t want to ask for things. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy to ask. And a lot of artists have a problem with this. Asking makes you vulnerable.”
And vulnerability – for us modern, evolved, independent humans – is risky: goddamnit it, we could get hurt.
Not so, according to Palmer: “the Kickstarter, the street (theatre), the doorbell, I don’t see these things as risk. I see them as trust.” Most of the tools she uses to connect with people when she asks for help are online … but the person al dimension is more important: “the online tools to make the exchange as easy and as instinctive as the street, they’re getting there. But the perfect tools aren’t going to help us if we can’t face each other and give and receive fearlessly, but, more important — to ask without shame.”
In Hakumi Murakami’s book, Norwegian Wood, he asked a question that stuck with me long after I had finished reading: “What happens when people open their hearts?”
His answer: “They get better.”