Success tip: 4 reasons to ask for help from someone who intimidates the crap out of you


When I was in my early 20s I had a vague notion I could be a comedy writer. At the time I worked as a newspaper reporter in suburban Phoenix covering health care – hospital expansions and flu shot shortages. Granted, once I was invited to a surgery for correcting insentience and witnessed a buck-naked 82 year-old woman getting her junk fixed. But the resulting article was far from humorous.

In fact, I’d never written a joke in my life.

That didn’t stop me when I walked into the local comedy club and saw headliner Kevin Nealon – fresh from his Saturday Night Live stint – nursing a rum and Coke at the bar. I bellied up to him, and brightly said, “Hi, I’m Emma and I want to be a comedy writer. Have any advice?”

“Well,” he said. “You should perform you material. Have you ever done standup?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t even have any material. I’ve never written a joke.”

Despite the fact that he was clearly dealing with a dumbass – who, just to shut you up, happened to be standing next to her then-boyfriend and sporting an unfortunate blonde dye job – he couldn’t have been nicer. Kevin Nealon, celebrity comedian, gave me his AOL email address and invited me to send him some jokes. A few days later when I did, he promptly went through each of the 30 or so one-liners, broke them down, offered some tips, and was overall encouraging and entirely professional.

That was hardly the first or the last time I asked for advice from someone way — wayyyyyy – out of my league. Someone much more successful, more powerful than me. I suggest you make a habit of doing the same. Here’s why:

  1. It forces you to dig deep  When you ask for help from someone who scares you, you have to figure out what you need. It’s not a big commitment to ask your husband for advice, or your sister for help. These people know you. They love you, for crying out loud. It’s their job to lend you a hand. But when you gear up to ask for time and favors from someone whose time and favors you recognize as extremely valuable, you dig deep to make sure you ask for the right thing.
  2. Risk is critical for success Seeking out people you hold on a pedestal is scary. They might be mean. Tell you to buzz off. Make you feel the fool. It’s a risk. But risk gets your adrenaline going. Makes you feel alive. Pushes your boundaries. Risk is critical for professional success. It is also critical for personal success.
  3. They might say yes  Risk is critical, because you win no matter what. If the scary person ignores you or belittles you, you can learn something. But guess what- sometimes – often, I’ve found – that elusive being is nice and helpful. They offer the help you seek. When I was a journalism student at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, a CNN executive came to speak to our class. I had zero TV experience – not even coursework.  That didn’t stop me from walking right up to this guy and asking for an internship. He arranged the gig based merely on my ask.
  1. You think bigger When someone you perceive as more powerful than you sees your potential, you start to see your potential, too.

When I was at that newspaper job, 60 Minutes came to town to shoot a segment. It was so exciting that a New York City network TV crew was in the neighborhood, and a few of us reporters snuck out of the office to peek at the production. While I joined my colleagues in a huddle, pointing at the celebrity correspondent, I drew a deep breath, moseyed over to Mike Wallace and said, “I work at that newspaper over there (pointing to the nearby low-rise cinder-block building) and I’m moving to New York in a few months. Can you help me get a job?” Mike smiled (he was remarkably handsome, even way up close under the desert sun). “I will help you any way I can,” he said in a kind, if rehearsed way. “Take my producer’s card and email me.”

I did email Mike Wallace and eventually landed a series of interviews for a 60 Minutes job I was scarcely qualified for. Now, I was not ultimately offered that job. But getting in the door, into the CBS headquarters, and into the illustrious towers of my profession changed how I thought about myself. I started to think bigger. Better. There were fewer reasons why I shouldn’t be aiming really, really high. That paradigm shift has played out in countless ways that I will never fully quantify, but always be grateful for.

I lost touch with Kevin Nealon. Needless to say, he didn’t arrange for me to be the first female lead writer for SNL (Tina Fey – you stole my thunder!). In fact, it was more than 10 years ago that he generously critiqued my virgin attempts at writing funny. I spent most of the intervening years writing a whole lot of not funny. But recently I started blogging, and my posts can be pretty witty. At least that’s what my readers seem to think. And people like editors of this site, and people who book me to speak at conferences and gave me my own radio show. I’m doing the best writing of my life.

I believe that some years ago at that tiny bar in the anterior of that Phoenix comedy club Kevin Nealon’s confidence in me planted a seed of confidence in my ability to write things that could make people laugh. But deep down I already had that confidence – and I chose to seek out the glorious validation of a (kinda, but not really) scary person to help me believe in what was already there.


A version of this story originally appeared on DailyWorth.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Henry Motyka on June 24, 2014 at 10:45 am

    This post hit home with me because this is exactly what I have been doing. Having been out of work for quite a while, I decided to network hard and heavy four years ago. Some incredible things happened. I became a regular contributor to a television business show. I got a well known radio journalist to come out to my job support group and then even more incredibly, she invited the leader of the group and me to go to NYC and do a nationwide radio broadcast n the group. Because she became really busy with Wall St crises (she was and is a financial journalist), the show never happened. But we remain friends to this day.

    I just keep moving. A journalist who is described as having a cult following on Twitter once placed a message there that her radio show was looking for people to describe their health care situation. I went to the web site of the show and volunteered. Last October, this journalist contacted me and interviewed me. It never made the air, but no matter. Me talking to her probably beat odds of one thousand to one. To top that, when I learned she would be speaking on a panel at the NY Press Club, I attended and met her face to face. She remembered me in an instant probably because she just been through a personal crisis herself and it was easy to have empathy.

    I recently finished a long term consulting contract so as part of my job search, I’m networking again.

    What happens? A billionaire venture capitalist seems to like and agree with what I have say about his comments on Twitter. I became friends with a NYC venture capitalist by replying to her Twitter comments with cleverly worded ones myself. I put a lot of thought into these. Eventually, she posts a note about a charity event in NYC. Only four of us show up, but I got what was really almost a one on one talk with one of NYC’s well known venture capitalists and businesswomen. The odds against that are staggering because she is really busy. But it happened.

    I have found that my networking stories and adventures are the best networking currency there is. They open doors for me in conversations. People’s jaws literally drop when I tell them my stories. But they are just proof that when you are well educated, read an awful lot, and know how to treat and talk to people, what seems like miracles can happen.

    Want to improve your life? Want to meet interesting people? Want to spice up your job search and give it more momentum? Take big chances and begin to try to talk to and meet prominent people. Using Twitter is a great start. Truly amazing things can happen. One of the things that happened is that I found writing and communication skills I never knew I had.

    • Emma on June 25, 2014 at 2:29 pm

      Henry – thank you so much for sharing. I just love these stories, so inspiring. The thing with really influential people – a lot of people are so intimidated by them that they can feel isolated. So they appreciate people with balls, people who THEY can connect with (it can be lonely at the top), and really, why not! Take a risk! Thanks again for sharing.

  2. DarthW on June 25, 2014 at 11:50 pm

    Did you think Kevin Nealon was “powerful” and intimidating? No way!! Now, Tina Fey, were you to have met her……. yes, she would be intimidating…..Or in my case I’d be too turned on by that “naughty librarian” look she sports. There is something about Tina Fey that makes me a lil’ swoony.

    • Emma on June 26, 2014 at 8:59 pm

      yeah, me too.

  3. Honoree Corder on July 1, 2014 at 7:11 am

    What a cool story! I’ve found that the “bigger” someone is, the more likely they are to be helpful to someone who is on their way up because they remember how ambitious they were and how much they wanted help! (If they’re not nice, they haven’t made it yet and are still insecure themselves … those folks tend to be jackholes.)

    Keep being funny Emma!

    Your #1 fan in Texas

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