The South has a way of lulling me into thinking summer is going to last forever. If it weren’t for sudden appearance of college football car flags, I don’t think I would know when September begins. October is much different. It comes with chills, some created by the weather and another by the realization that yes, the season has changed.

For me this October is one year from when my thesis began to dominate my life. It’s been over two months since I finished it. Well, I shouldn’t say finished – research is never really done – so I’ll say turned in. Like many of my classmates, after I turned my thesis in I quarantined all parts of my brain relating to it. A mental vacation was needed.

When the calendar flipped to October, I couldn’t help but mark the anniversary. However, what came to mind wasn’t thoughts on my failures or successes in my analysis, methodology or lit review or what it taught me about human-computer interaction and media effects. What came to mind was what I learned about myself and about living life and being human.

I get by with a lot of help from my friends

About halfway into my first semester of grad school, I had a professor pull me aside and ask how I was doing.

“Fine,” I said, “I think I’m getting along well.”

“Okay. You’re an easy student and I just want to make sure you’re getting any help you need.”

You’re an easy student. Those words – and they way they were said to me in this instance – have stuck with me. I’ve always prided myself on being able to take care of myself academically. The way I saw things growing up, asking for help was a weakness. It was much better to learn what I could from lectures and readings, do my best on an assignment or test, and then learn from my mistakes. I was more impressive if I didn’t bother the teacher.

Yet here was something I hadn’t encountered before, a professor that didn’t equate easy students with impressive students. Seeking help wasn’t a sign of weakness. Over the next two years, I slowly began realize why I was wrong.

My thesis really hammered this lesson home. Without help from everyone around me, I wouldn’t have been able to turn it in.

I languished for months trying to build a web page that would be my stimulus material. I thought my HTML skills from 2007 would be enough of a foundation to teach myself what I needed to know. With every Google search, I thought progress was being made, but I was running in circles. I didn’t know enough to know I didn’t know enough.

I remember the moment I asked some old work acquaintances to help me build an application because the relief I felt afterwards was buoyant. No longer would I wade aimlessly; now I had a raft.

After that, my project moved along at the pace I thought it would originally. With the coding out of my hands, I could focus on making my experimental design better. I saw that asking for help on one part of my project didn’t just improve that part. It freed me up to improve every other section of my thesis.

There were many other instances where I got by with help from my friends – the one week I had to build all my custom stimuli, the editing process, defense prep, grad school formatting – but I’m not sure I would’ve asked for it if I hadn’t learned to that admitting my limits was not a weakness.

When people ask about my thesis and what I learned, this won’t be the first story I tell them. They’ll want to know the myriad of information I learned about custom radio, choice and experimental design. While those things will be important to me as a researcher, none of them affect me as a human as much as learning to ask for help.

Next in this series: Finding my limits.