How to Ask The Right Way - Going To the Dollar Store for a Balloon


I am not your average family man.

Beyond holidays, I only see my outside family if I'm asking my grandma to cut my hair or there is an invitation to go down the beach. Visiting is not hard, just about everyone in my immediate and outside family lives in New Jersey and I'm in New York. It's just something I don't do too often. 

Why? We're just as caring and dysfunctional as any other family, my ambition just gets the better of me. After a few hours, I'm stuck sitting there wondering how long my commute back to my apartment would be and what I'd like to accomplish before the weekend ends. It's a special kind of anxiety reserved for the horror stories we all know of workaholics on their deathbed, wishing they spent more time with the ones they loved. And somehow it doesn't bother me to run away. I justify it by saying that we're just not one of those families. Or maybe I'm just not your average family man.

But it was Mother's Day, so I found myself there, on the backyard deck for Sunday brunch at my grandma's house. I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate than to stay the hell away from restaurants. And really who passes up on brunch? Plus, everyone gets a kick out of playing with my four-year-old cousin, Jade. She has a tiny voice that says hello to every single person when they arrive and she adds on a hug and a kiss to everyone she knows. No exceptions. She is sweeter than the sugar I put in my coffee. She thinks bugs are gross and she already expects a little, brown puppy for Christmas.

About five minutes into eating some eggs and sausage, Jade grabbed my hand so we could play in the backyard. I was already sore from jiu-jitsu the day before, but there was no saying no. We ran around the yard, throwing balls and pretending to be puppies. She stomped around in the sandbox and splashed in the pool. Then she strapped on her helmet and I watched her ride her Frozen scooter up and down the sidewalk despite repeatedly clipping her own ankle with the back left wheel. 

And just when I was running out of enthusiasm and the sun was making me regret wearing pants, Jade blurted out what she thought was a brilliant idea:

"Can we go to the dollar store to get a balloon for mama?"

The dollar store for a four-year-old is quite a trip - possibly half a dozen blocks away, past the firehouse and some busy intersections. Clearly, she had no idea how far it would be. Me being the adult in charge knew exactly how long it would be, but the sentiment was too adorable to deny. I'm the thoughtless family man who forgot to get a gift for his own mother at all. 

So we headed out.

In the book Think Like a Freak, co-authors Dubner and Levitt write, about the minds of children, "Because they know so little, they don't carry around the preconceptions that often stop people from seeing things as they are. When it comes to solving problems, this is a big advantage." Of course, Jade wasn't the one with the problem, I was. My ambition-fueled anxiety melted away when her simple request pointed out what was more important. She just knew her mom would like a ballon and she wanted to get it for her.

Earlier in the week, my ambition led me to entrepreneur Noah Kagan. He issued a challenge to the engaged listeners, like myself, of The Tim Ferris Show to grow our email subscriber lists, whether or not we had one. The deadline was a week and Kagan made it sound idiot simple. He said just post your face on your social media channels, asking for email addresses if anyone you knew was interested in the interest you'd like to write about.

Lucky for me, I already had a blog and an interest. I've been writing about idea sex - the phenomena of ideas meeting and mating to make new ideas and innovations. But when I took the challenge, I didn't find much response. As a matter of fact, I gained one new subscriber. And that's great! But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed.

Sure, the ask was simple, but it wasn't a guarantee. I had to wonder what I did wrong. It could have been a particularly busy time of the day. Or my post could have been too verbose of a status. But, thinking of Jade, what I really should have been thinking about was simple. Would a bigger audience allow me to provide more value? Would more subscribers make my writing better? Was this really success? Of course, there are bigger questions than need to be answered here, but I think what I see clearer now is that what matters most is the heart.

It's not about the ask and it's not about the ballon. It's the thought that counts.