The Art of Asking


This book grew out of Amanda Palmer’s 2013 TED talk (linked below), but in addition to making the same (good) point, it’s also a sort of crash course in all things Amanda.

After reading this book, you’ll know about her busking days, love life, struggles with depression, the Fraud Police (aka Impostor Syndrome), crowdfunding, accepting donuts (or free coffee), dealing with online trolls, and what it’s like being with a Famous British Writer, among other things. While reading, I stuck a couple of markers into my copy of the book, for passages I wanted to share here,  and going back through them I find they connect well:

“[When] you ask, there’s always the possibility of a no on the other side of the request. If we don’t allow for that no, we’re not actually asking, we’re either begging or demanding. But it is the fear of the no that keeps so many of our mouths sewn tightly shut.” (13)

“Asking is an act of intimacy and trust. Begging is a function of fear, desperation, or weakness. Those who beg demand our help; those who ask have faith in our capacity for love and in our desire to share with one another. […] Honest communication engenders mutual respect, and that mutual respect makes askers out of beggars.” (52)

“Asking for help requires authenticity, and vulnerability. Those who ask without fear learn to say two things, with or without words, to those they are facing: I deserve to ask and You are welcome to say no. Because the ask that is conditional cannot be a gift.” (303)

person holding white flowers in black background

Photo by Anna Shvets on

As readers, we follow Amanda from awkward teenager to college to barista-jobbing street performer on to the eventual life as a professional musician. We meet father figures, boyfriends, various fan-family members, and The Famous British Writer (Neil Gaiman). Amanda’s free artistic spirit and attachment issues make for a life where personal and professional are so deeply enmeshed there’s no separating them.

Trust and vulnerability are the two central themes of this book. Amanda describes that only through lots and lots of exposure on stage and connecting with the people at her performances she was able to overcome the worst of her crippling self-doubt. She argues that everyone wants to be seen – as a fellow human being, with imperfections and gifts, and that trust engenders trust. Couchsurfing, crowdsurfing, and crowdfunding are all exercises in trust, and at least in Amanda’s case, that trust is rarely abused. It isn’t until late in the book that Amanda’s trust in the basic goodness of those around her is challenged. Initially she’s stunned and heartbroken, but her final take-away from the massive breach of trust by one stranger is just how safe she’s been all this time, among thousands of strangers. One in how many thousands over how many years? An attitude of empathy and forgiveness evens her keel.

Amanda shares many examples from her own life and that of others to show that given the chance, there are many people who willingly, gladly support artists and musicians, and that the idea that people need to be made to pay is flawed. Not everyone, but (she argues) enough people are perfectly willing to pay voluntarily for music or art they love.

Passing the hat, crowdfunding and Kickstarter campaigns aren’t for everyone, of course, but the general distinction between asking, demanding, and begging is worth thinking about in many other contexts: are there situations where I could have asked for help in completing a project, but did not because I was afraid to appear incompetent? Are there situations where I don’t ask because I’m not sure I deserve help? What could a project gain by becoming a collaboration rather than a solo undertaking?

In summary, this book does two things: it introduces you to a complex, interesting artist, and it encourages you to examine your approach to asking. This encouragement to risk vulnerability and to approach asking as an exchange, a collaboration between equals, is a beautiful idea that deserves spreading.

Amanda made a playlist to go with the book:

The Art of Asking Playlist by Amanda Palmer

And you can listen to / watch Amanda’s TED Talk here:

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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