There’s a video clip on YouTube of Steve Jobs telling the story of when he was 12 years old and he was looking for spare parts so he could build an electronic device known as a frequency counter.
He tells how he opened the Palo Alto, California, phone book and located the number for Bill Hewlett, the founder of Hewlett-Packard, the company that made the parts he was seeking.
After introducing himself, Steve quickly got to the point: “‘I want to build a frequency counter, and I was wondering if you had any spare parts I could have … ‘ Bill not only gave me the parts I needed, he gave me a job that summer in Hewlett-Packard working on the assembly line putting nuts and bolts together on frequency counters. He got me a job in the place that built them. And I was in heaven.”
There have been many instances in my life where I’ve struggled to muster the courage to ask for something I wanted, fearing that my request would be refused, or that I would embarrass myself for even asking. Yet, in many of those instances, because I asked, the outcome turned out to be very positive.
Like the time when, at the pub where my grad school buddies and I hung out on the weekends, I asked the pretty friend of my classmate’s friend if she would dance with me (she said yes, and we’re still dancing – occasionally, at least – today).
Or when I asked my business school classmate for the name of the hotel where a consulting firm was holding a recruiting event – and then showed up uninvited, and boldly sat myself down next to the partner who would eventually hire me (after putting me through eight grueling interviews – with case studies).
And I can’t forget the time I coughed up the courage to finally ask for my first promotion and significant raise after four years of waiting and hoping that the promotion – any promotion – would be offered to me.
I can also trace some of my biggest failures and disappointments to not speaking up and asking for what I wanted. And today, I still hold back from asking for what I want. I still lose out on opportunities.
There’s an art to asking for something you want, and at the right moment. Figuring out what someone needs and offering something of value to the person can be an effective strategy for getting the yes that you’re looking for.
But I’ve also learned that many people are willing to give of their time, their ideas, or even their money with no expectation of getting anything in return. In fact, I’ve found that many people derive personal satisfaction from being helpful to others. Maybe it’s a value they learned from their parents. Maybe it’s built into their religious beliefs. Maybe it’s just who they are.
“I’ve never found anyone who said no or hung up the phone when I called,” says Steve. “I just asked. And when people ask me, I try to be responsive to pay that debt of gratitude back.”
So think about what it is that you really want. Go ahead and put in the time and energy to learn new skills, acquire new knowledge, and experience new things. Invest in building the relationships you will need to call upon when you’re ready. And then, when you feel the time is right, be sure to do the one thing that will help you get what you want: Ask.
“Most people never pick up the phone and call; most people never ask. And that’s what separates sometimes the people that do things from the people that just dream about them,” says Steve.
“You’ve gotta act, and you’ve gotta be willing to fail, and you’ve gotta be willing to crash and burn, with people on the phone, with starting a company, or whatever,” he says.
“If you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.”