This is part of a series called Focal Point, in which we ask a range of Harvard faculty members to answer the same question.
Question: If you were to write a letter to your students, what would you want them to know?
Never, ever be afraid to ask for help. This is not something that I say just to say it. Life has a way of making you practice what you preach. It is not always easy, but, for me, it is always necessary.
At 11:43 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2015, I sent an email. And it changed my life.
I had been sitting at my desk in Mather House, where I was a resident tutor, for about two hours drafting and redrafting a letter. It was a note to William Julius Wilson, my adviser. By my last year in graduate school, we had had plenty of meetings, both serious and fun, and worked on different projects, but this email felt different. I needed his help to realize a dream I dared to have: becoming a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Three years to work on “The Privileged Poor” and to be immersed in an interdisciplinary community of really smart people, what could be better?
The hurdle: You have to be nominated before you can apply. In an overly wordy email, I asked Bill if he would nominate me. Verbalizing this dream made it really real. I finally hit send. In what felt like an age, even though it was only a couple of hours later, I got a reply. “I would be happy to write a letter for you.”
I was invited to apply; I interviewed; and I was ultimately invited to join the society.
We need to recast what it means to ask for help. It is not just about assistance on an assignment or an extension on a paper. It is an invaluable tool in one’s toolkit. Too many people are taught to see asking for help as a sign of weakness, of unpreparedness, or worse, that one does not belong because he or she cannot hack it alone. It inspires imposter syndrome in some, mistaking the need to ask for any kind of help as indication that a mistake was made and that you should not be here. Many liken it to something remedial. They have it wrong.
“Enlisting the support or guidance of others is also a skill that must be honed. You will often need to knock on 20 doors before the first will open. But when it does, it can be transformative.”
Help-seeking is a mark of strength. I see it as a sign that you are wise enough to know that you are approaching the edge of your own understanding about something or about to embark upon a path that is better (and more effectively) charted with company than alone. Seeking out such support is how you secure the bag.
No one does anything all on their own. Writers have editors. Scientists have collaborators. Artists have workshops. Athletes have coaches. And we all had, have, and will continue to have teachers who guide us along the way. Let’s face it, the story of the “self-made, solo star” is as big a myth as meritocracy and the boogey man.
But seriously, enlisting the support or guidance of others is also a skill that must be honed. You will often need to knock on 20 doors before the first will open. But when it does, it can be transformative. Unfortunately, not all of us hear this message. Many of us, especially those of us who are the first in our families to go to college and/or are from lower-income backgrounds, are often taught “not to bother people” when we get to school. “Just keep your head down and do good work if you want to be noticed,” we hear from dedicated family members who want the best for us. We’ve heard this so often that sometimes there is a tension we feel between heeding the advice of those who worked and sacrificed to get us to College and working with the new folks who want us to come to office hours soon after we walk through the College gates. Loved ones are not wrong, per se; after all, it is how they keep their jobs and sometimes get promoted: by not being the person who raises a fuss.
But the rules are different in college and graduate school. Making oneself — and one’s needs — known is part of the hidden curriculum, that system of unwritten rules and unspoken expectations. Yes, there is more work to be done in demystifying the hidden curriculum. And I for one am committed to pushing universities to question what they take for granted about what students know and what they can afford. But in the interim, understand that this is the reality. Share this revelation with your family or support network rather than omit it from those phone calls that bridge home and Harvard, even if only for a minute. It will help you align what is expected of you at School with the advice you get from outside the gates.
I know that growth can be painful, so I’ll end with this: Therapy is affirming. It is not just to help you through the bad times, for too often believing the good is just as hard. It is about investing in oneself and being ready for what life has in store for us.
Never, ever be afraid to ask for help.
— Anthony Jack
Assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
Junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows