I had a friend who was a master at getting crazy deals and free stuff. He drove a hard bargain in a disarming sort of way, and had a magical ability to find creative ways to do and obtain everything for little or no money. We were so amazed at his skill that we’d sometimes come up with challenges for him. “See if you can get the movie rental store to give you that life-sized Han Solo cutout”, or, “Find a way to get us free pizza”.
I’m not wired like my friend, nor am I willing to push quite as much for free stuff. I have learned, though, that some of the most valuable things to be gained are things you can get for free. Sometimes they’re things many people pay a lot of money for. Other times, they are things that aren’t for sale at all.
Here’s the big juicy secret to getting really valuable stuff for free: ask.
Most people are totally unaware how much they can obtain by simply asking. As a teenager, I heard an evangelist tell young people that if they wanted to travel the world on mission trips, money would never be a barrier. In his words, “God has plenty of money. You just need to find out who’s pockets it’s in!” Regardless of your views on religion, mission trips, or this particular speaker’s approach, there is a core truth here. It’s not lack of resources preventing you from getting where you want to go, but a matter of finding out where the resources are and how to get them. The best place to start is to identify who has them, and ask.
There are two types of ask. The passive, vague ask, and the active, clear ask. The latter is almost always preferable. Over the years I’ve had a lot of passive, vague asks. Someone might email, “I love what you’re doing and maybe we could talk sometime.” It’s an easy one to respond to. “Sure.” The asker got a yes, but that yes provides no value. Contrast that to an active, clear ask. “I value your thoughts and we’re interested in similar things. Can you give me your feedback on the attached one-pager describing my project?” Not only will the asker get some input that may be valuable, they’ve now got a door to further collaboration or connections (assuming the one-pager is good).
Think about skills and ideas you want to gain. Let’s say you want to learn the ups and downs and tips and tricks for starting a business. Why not identify a successful and interesting entrepreneur near you and ask if you can buy them coffee to learn about how they started their business? No, it’s not free. It takes time and a few bucks for coffees. But compared to the other ways of gaining this knowledge, it’s probably the best ROI. $5 for coffee with an entrepreneur is less than $29.99 for the newest book written by one, and more tailored to you. (It should be noted that an ask is not really about getting a gift. An ask is an exchange. You’re always giving something to get something, even if what you’re giving is just the chance for someone to feel good for having helped you.)
If you’re ready to start creatively asking for what you want, you’ve still got a little work to do. Most of us have a really hard time knowing what we actually want. We do things with all kinds of unchecked assumptions about what it will get us. You need to dig deeper. You don’t want to ask just for anything, but for what helps you achieve your goals and find fulfillment.
The breakthrough comes when you can really identify ends and not confuse them with means. If your end, the thing you want to obtain, is the human capital necessary to start a business, you can work backwards and start listing the various means to obtain the skill, network, confidence, experience, and knowledge. You’ll come up with a lot of unorthodox ways to get them, and many if not most will be surprisingly low cost. But if you get means/ends confusion, you’ll assume one of the means (say, a college degree, or a big investment) is the end. Those things are means, and there are always multiple ways of getting to the same end.
What are some things you’re doing now with the assumption that they’ll automatically bring you happiness? Are they really the best means? Are there ways you could get to the same end for less (time, money, effort)?
Think of some of the ends you seek, think of all the possible means you haven’t really considered. Decide which are best, and start asking.