On Invitations and Asks

I want to draw a distinction between two types of requests that one person may make to another person or to a group. Suppose a friend texts you and asks, “can you call me after dinner?” It can be hard to interpret this request. Is the friend having a really bad day and needs to talk to you so they can let out their emotions to someone they trust? Or do they want to chat with you because they’re bored and haven’t seen you recently? If you have a lot of work to do tonight, you might not want to chat in the latter case, but of course you would make time for them if the former case were true. I would like to share the way I go about making this distinction clear.

When I don’t need someone to do something, I like to use the phrase, “I invite you to…” or “this is an invitation.” The word invitation is the basis for a practice called invitational theory1. Making an invitation means that I hold no expectation that the other person will accept it. It is a gift of an opportunity: I am offering it because I believe the other person may enjoy or benefit from it, but if the person being invited doesn’t think so they can decline it and nothing is lost. When I offer someone an invitation, I am also making a commitment that I will not feel let down or unhappy in any way as a result of their decision (this commitment sometimes takes active effort to keep, but it is the most sacred tenet of a true invitation). Most of the requests I make to people at Olin are invitations.

When I need something—for my mental health, to meet a commitment, or to enable me to do something important—I try to use the phrase “I need…” or “this is a hard ask right now.” Here, it is clear what I am requesting, and I don’t risk not getting what I need as the result of a miscommunication. It can be difficult to use direct language like this, especially if I feel like I am burdening someone, or if I’m not sure they will be able to help and I worry I will make them feel bad because of that. But if I have decided that I need something, it is always worth making a clear ask. Even if they can’t help directly, the person I’m asking might come up with an alternative way to fulfill the need.

As for the feeling of burdening another person, I recently learned the maxim “burden me and I’ll burden you.” When I make an ask of someone, I am also committing that I will be there when they make an ask to me in the future. To ask someone to help me without the expectation of reciprocity is rude and goes against human nature. Being there for someone else in a time of need can be a transformative experience for both people and can strengthen relationships. And the person giving the help will have someone else they can turn to the next time they need something.

I hope this article helped you consider the difference between an invitation and an ask so you can clearly communicate when you make a request to another person. I hope it also helps distinguish between invitations and asks you receive from other people, and if it’s unclear, to seek clarification: “is this an invitation or an ask?” Finally, I hope it relieves some stress from making a difficult ask because it can actually deepen relationships, it creates an offer of reciprocity, and it is one of the things that truly makes us human. I invite you to trust in the kindness of others and to communicate your needs and wants clearly.

The Two Planets

Third installment (see the November issue online for Chapter 2).

Chapter 3

“I was named after that great hero of our time, Acuña Deliari the First, who led our planets to prosperity as head of the first Interplanetary Ferry Commission,” Acuña thundered across the Venus Senate floor. “My namesake saw to it that both planets would benefit from the exchange of goods that neither was capable of producing on its own, and in doing so brought on a revolution not just in economic terms, but reflected in the everyday standard of living of what has grown to be close to 3 billion people. I will not allow history to view the Senate’s decision today as anything less than revolutionary in the same way!”

Excited murmurs broke out among the senators as Acuña strode back to his seat, chin high, replicating his namesake’s charisma more than anyone cared to admit. Two aides materialized next to the stage carrying a model the size of the podium and placed it so it was visible from all sides. It had two spheres, one white and one yellow, suspended several inches from each other, with a thin, white, and intricately inscribed rod holding them together at their closest point. All eyes turned to the glittering metal rod.

“The pipeline,” Acuña stated simply. “It will be constructed within forty years’ time, and all material and personnel costs will be paid by the Guildman Corporation.” He flourished a finger and pointed to the base of the rod on the yellow sphere. “The site will be at the Ferry Commission’s original launch site, at the geosynchronous point between Venus and Cyro; diameter, fifty meters. It will carry air at a rate of one hundred million cubic meters per second to meet the heating and cooling needs of the 30 largest cities on each planet. No more central cooling systems putting your districts into debt with the servicers unions. No more rationing during heat waves. We’ll even put in direct lines to each of the major greenhouses for no extra fee—Senator Bartow, your district was especially hard hit by crop failures this year, wasn’t it? And other districts will soon follow. All this, and for no extra cost to the government. The largest perennial problem in our planet’s history, solved, all we need from you is the Senate’s approval.” He spoke like it had already been done. Stunned silence followed, then applause.

“But you haven’t answered my question about the currency, Mr. Acuña,” dripped the voice of Senator Jaime Cruz from the back row of the senate amphitheater. “Let me remind you that that is the main question you were called here to answer. It seems to me that if this pipeline of yours is built, the Heat Ledger, which is based on the conservation of hot and cool air on each planet, will cease to function. Imagine, if a business wished to cool its offices so that it could employ people, but it drew on the Pipeline as a source of cool air, rather than the government’s underground cold reserves—how would we know how to tax them? How would their expenditures be entered into the Heat Ledger, and how would we know they were truthful? The only option I, or anyone else in the Freedom Caucus, will settle for is for the government to have sole ownership and control over the pipeline to ensure there is no foul play on the part of the Guildman Corporation.” These last words they spat with a sneer, and everyone in the room knew they were referring to Guildman’s century-old takeover of the Ferry ports.

“As I have told you many times, this is the one thing I cannot grant you,” said Acuña fiercely. “The Guildman Corporation will retain full control of this operation.” Then, slowly, he continued: “If I cannot convince every Senator of the righteousness of this mission, then let us finally put it to a vote.”

“All in favor, say ‘Aye,’” read out the Clerk. A dozen voices, including Senator Bartow and others from the agricultural districts said the word, impassive yet clearly shaken with Acuña’s appeal. “All opposed, say ‘Nay’,” read out the Clerk again, and a chorus of nays rang through the chamber.

“I’m sorry, Acuña,” sneered Senator Cruz through the commotion. “You will have a harder time strong-arming my caucus than you did with this Senate in the past. The new generation of voters does not see Guildman as favorably as they once did. They think you’re a bunch of greedy liars chained to old principles. Which, if you’re still following your founder’s orders, I can hardly disagree with.” Senator Cruz left Acuña standing in the doorway, fuming.

“You wait and see!” He called after them. “This is not the last you will hear from Acuña Deliari. You just wait and see.”

Chapter 4

The Cyroan House of Representatives was not nearly as obstinate as the Venusian Senate. When Akunai, Guildman’s chief lobbyist on Cyro, came to speak, the planet had just experienced a cold snap that had nearly shut down the heat generators, dropped inflation to negative double digits, and blocked inter-planetary trade for two days; Akunai convinced them on a narrow majority vote after only four hours of deliberation and without mention of the currency besides providing possible stabilization. He left that same day with three hundred signatures, and work began immediately at the Cyro pipeline construction site.

For all the Guildman Corporation’s reputation for efficiency and foresight, the pipeline project did not go exactly according to plan. The outer walls were to be made with concrete mixed from Venusian limestone, but the Venusian Senate, upon learning of their plan, promptly placed an embargo on the export of such resources as would be used to build the pipeline. Acuña of course greased a good many palms, but he admitted after everything was over that he had known all along that Senator Jaime Cruz was incorruptible. On Cyro, the Guildman Corporation was forced to found a quarry halfway around the world, having discovered that planet’s only large limestone deposit through a geological study it had conducted several decades ago. Once Guildman had proved that it was still possible to build the pipeline under the embargo, and once the dent in construction rates due to cement shortages caused the Cyro government to holler, Venus ended the embargo and took the less drastic measure of levying tariffs on heat pumps instead.

Harrison Guildman, three hundred and sixty years old, stonyfaced in his grave, was unphased. Despite Venus’ best efforts to intervene in the project they believed would threaten the bi-global economic order, they were unable to prevent the successful pouring of the foundation and construction of heat distribution mains snaking like railroads between Cyro’s population centers, nor could did their entreaties convince Cyro’s government to oppose the pipeline. Akunai had done a good job of keeping Cyro on Guildman’s side; on multiple occasions the House threatened escalation if Venus continued obstructing progress, although this never came to anything more than the retaliatory use of subsidies to offset Venusian tariffs on Guildman business functions. Not once did either side make an official mention of war, though the thought lingered in the popular imagination of both planets.

The main structure of the pipe was woven, not built, from ten thousand metal strands, each a foot thick and several thousand miles long. It took a whole cargo ship to carry one cable, coiled up, from one planet’s surface to the other, letting out the line as it traveled like a spider lets out silk. It takes an enormous amount of energy, you see, just to lift the mass of the cable against a planet’s gravity, but once the ship reaches the midpoint between the two planets the additional force required is neutral, and as the cable uncoils further toward the far planet, that planet’s gravity pulls it downwards, which is really upwards, so to speak, keeping tension on the line and requiring no additional effort to keep it suspended in the air, being pulled, as it is, in equal measure in each direction.

Ten thousand such cables were crafted over the course of twenty years, and ten thousand such cables were launched and left dangling in the air, one end tied down on Cyro’s surface to a massive concrete anchor half a mile in diameter, the other end floating just inside of Venus’ atmosphere because that planet’s government would not allow them to touch down on Venusian soil. By some arcane clause in the Venusian Constitution, the boundaries of the planet’s political jurisdiction were defined as extending exactly one mile upward from the highest point on Venus’ surface. This meant that the unfinished pipeline could be left hanging from the sky like the sword of Damocles five miles off the ground and could not be legally considered to be in violation of the increasingly frustrated Venusian Senate’s ban of any and all pipeline-related activity on their planet.

Once the cables were launched, it took two years to braid them together using a massive mechanical disk that sat atop the end of the pipe and spun at sickening speeds until the strands twisted into a tight tube. Then it took thirteen more years for construction crews working around the clock to cover the metal frame with four layers of insulation inside and out and finally pour on the concrete shell that would be visible from space. There followed four years of inspections as an army of engineers walked every inch of pipe, looking for flaws or cracks in the walls. There were none.

In the thirty-nine years since the start of construction, Jaime Cruz had retired and died of old age, and been replaced by a slightly more moderate chairperson of the Freedom Caucus, but they had left as their legacy a litany of laws and regulations aimed at blocking the pipeline which future lawmakers were unwilling at first to untangle. That all changed in the course of one afternoon, when the pipeline was switched on for the first time, one year to the day ahead of schedule.

Hanging from the sky like a godly vacuum cleaner, five miles off the ground and barely visible with the naked eye, the end of the pipeline began to shudder and growl as it gulped its first breath of Venusian air. On Cyro, huge pumps at its base pulled air through the pipe at close to the speed of sound and deposited it into smaller pipes for transport to that planet’s frigid cities. Cyro was in the middle of a cold snap that was freezing crops in the fields and a recession that was freezing assets in the heat-starved banks, and within a day of the pipeline being flipped on, the greenhouses were flooded with warmth and the banks were flooded with fungible fluids. Guildman was celebrated in the streets of all of Cyro’s major cities in demonstrations that lasted for days.

Back in the Venusian Senate, Cruz’s former caucus crumbled. One faction broke from another with a cry of “How can we let Cyro benefit from air stolen at our expense when we get nothing in return? Venus too must profit from this golden opportunity!” And the cry was answered with another solemn call, which echoed through the chamber as the final vote was counted: “Let them build it! Let the cursed Guildman finish his pipe. We’ve done everything we can to try and stop them, and now they’ve given us a gift we can’t refuse. There is nothing more that we can do.”

Chapter 5

Harrison Guildman was now four hundred years old, and though dead, he was the most powerful man in the history of the two planets. The first thing he did was institute a universal basic income for all the inhabitants of Venus and Cyro. Every home in every city on Cyro that was connected to the pipeline received a steady warm breath day in and day out, delivered straight from Venus’ atmosphere, and every house on Venus was cooled to a comfortable temperature with Cyro’s humid air. These temperature gradients could, of course, be captured and bottled up tight and traded as currency food and other necessities. Everyone but the harshest skeptics clamored to attach their houses to the pipe, and connections swiftly became near-universal. Because of the way the heat was delivered, the UBI scheme only worked for people with the means to afford a home, so Guildman established the first public housing project on either planet and gave away apartments for free. In this way not a single person went hungry, nor suffered from cold or heat for a hundred prosperous and peaceful years.

It was at this point that Harrison Guildman, half a millennium after his birth, announced his resignation as chief executive and sole proprietor of the Guildman Corporation, threw himself a good-bye party as lavish as a king’s wedding to which he invited every employee of the company, current and former—all expenses paid—naming as guests of honor the dead Senator Jaime Cruz and the entirety of the Freedom Caucus which had so vehemently opposed him over the pipeline’s construction, delivered a glorious parting oration which he himself had written some five hundred years ago, took a deep bow with all the gentility and grace it is possible to muster at that age, then took one last look at the state of the world, declared it to be perfect, stepped into his grave, and stirred no more.

The several-thousand-page strategic document, which the legendary founder had written in his last living days on papyrus whose ink had by now almost faded completely, had been carried out to its very end, concluding finally with his flowing signature and an epitaph: “Harrison Guildman who, if these words are published, saw the future as it came to pass.”

End of Part 1

The Two Planets

Second installment (see the October issue online for Chapter 1).

Chapter 2

Within ten years the first civilians made the trip from Venus to Cyro; within twenty years twenty ships a day ferried passengers and goods; and within fifty years it was two hundred ships a day. In a hundred years, the ships were as big as container ships carrying kilotons of cargo from one planet where it was abundant to the other where it was scarce.

Contrary to the imagination of the first diplomats, the cargo did not consist primarily of containers of hot and cold air from the respective planets’ atmospheres. To be sure, there were forms of bulk heat transfer to power the refrigeration units at Venus’ chemical plants and parts of Cyro’s steel industry, but even with advanced heat transfer mechanisms, ferrying Kelvins via rocket was hardly economical. In the words of a would-be entrepreneur, “Schlepping gold just isn’t lucrative when the gold in question is lighter than air.”

However, the two planets had natural resources and industries that complemented each other quite perfectly in many ways, and the expedience of the new avenue of trade would have brought tears of delight to any economist of the period. Cyro churned out coal and iron ore and sent it to Venus where the furnaces were cheaper to operate. Venus had the sand to make glass but not the technology to make it strong and insulated like the marble windows Cyro’s cities were known for. Cyro had advanced research in pulmonology after an airborne disease had ravaged their population generations ago; Venusian teeth sparkled and seduced because Venus was home to acclaimed schools of dentistry. On and on the examples went, without limit, and increasing all the time.

Bi-globalization, as it was called, brought on another industrial revolution for both planets. Prosperity increased for everyone, but especially for the wealthy, and life expectancies rose across the board. New diseases naturally spread from one culture to the other after millenia without contact, but with them spread new cures, new drugs, and new vaccines, the subsidized sale of which generated enough money for the pharmaceuticals that they could parley the official number of cases down to about ten percent so that nobody knew exactly how much they were paying.

Around this time, a new currency was minted by Venus’ Planetary Government to mirror the system in place on Cyro: not so much a currency as a communal ledger, to replace the old custom of carrying around a tank of cold gas to pay for things. Every house in every city on Venus was by now connected to a central cold reservoir which was maintained by the government at great cost using the most sophisticated refrigeration system known to humankind. Everyone was allocated a share of the cold reservoir, according to their wealth, and anyone could make purchases or transfer their currency to another person by flipping a switch on their wall and receiving a blast of hot air into their living room as coldness was sucked into the system, or they could withdraw funds to bathe at their leisure in chilly air.

When they made the switch to the communal ledger, there was quite an uproar from certain posh parts of the capital city, because the government’s assessment of each person’s wealth—on which allocations of the new currency were made out—was based on information collected from the last year’s tax returns. It came to light that certain individuals’ actual wealth exceeded the numbers reflected on their tax forms by a factor of at least tenfold, and those individuals made a swine’s stink about being swindled by the government’s allocation scheme. The mayor pointed out that if they wanted the government to allocate the new currency correctly, perhaps they should not have deceived the government on their tax returns, and the certain individuals hired lawyers and went on a witch hunt as the press called it for other anomalies in accounting. They found a handful of isolated cases where other people, mostly lower class, had been paid too little, but overall the lawyers only made a fool of themselves, and even still they sued the government and won.

The transport ships were owned by a private company named Guildman, which had gotten its start two centuries ago selling cooling mechanisms for Venus’ wealthiest homes. The first commercial devices used water for evaporative cooling, which made them prohibitively expensive; later, around the same time as the printing press, they learned to use an energy source to drive a reusable fluid through a compression cycle to take heat out of the air. (History textbooks, whose authors never disclosed how well they were paid, declared that it was the Air Conditioner, not the Printing Press, that marked the end of the Middle Ages on Venus.)

Harrison Guildman, the founder and namesake of the largest monopoly on both planets, was three hundred years old and had been dead for two hundred and thirty, but that did not bother him; to this day, he steered the company with an iron grip. Since the founder’s untimely death, no new chairman had ever been elected. None needed to be. For in his last days, spent alone without food nor drink nor certainly sleep, he had written out a strategic plan for the company which was so detailed and forward-thinking that no one had needed to take his place at the helm for two whole centuries. The actual plan remained highly classified and had only ever been read in its entirety by a dozen or so of its top executives as they carried out his words. But certain passages had been made public for promotional events, including for the first time when Guildman announced that it would be dedicating its facilities to supporting the Ferry Commission in its bid for building the first interplanetary shuttle. 

It was right there in Harrison Guildman’s own handwriting, on parchment cracked and the ink of two hundred years ago faint but still legible: “Shall the government of Venus ever deem it of national importance to establish communication and trade with the White Planet through the means of space travel, the Guildman Corporation shall be the first to announce its full support for the program and dedicate at least one-half of its research facilities and budget to the mission.” As soon as the project was underway, and Guildman’s indispensability to the project had been established, it was revealed that the document in fact continued: “In exchange, the Guildman Corporation will demand full ownership of the space vehicles under development, although the ports themselves, being a matter of national security, may remain under government operation and control.” And no one had much choice but to go along.

To accommodate the boom in trade, the Venus-Cyro Transportation Authority (the first inter-planetary, bi-governmental body) worked frantically to expand its ports on both planets. Another super-port was built from the ground up every five years, along with a whole new city to match. At first they kept up with demand, but the ports’ infrastructure was built hastily and not to last, so they soon fell into debt and Guildman took over the operation of the ports, too.

It was never established whether this final consolidation had been prophesied in the founding documents, but cynics didn’t put it past the man who had thought of every possibility at once, while at the same time thinking of nothing at all but his company’s own insatiable expansion.

Some Decision-Making Strategies

As college students, most of us have pretty big decisions we are responsible for, sometimes for the first time. (How should I prioritize my time? What kind of job aligns with my ethics? Do I drop this class?) Additionally, some of us recently made one of the biggest decisions of our lives: whether or not to attend Olin.

I want to share a couple of strategies I have used to make big decisions where I felt good about the outcomes. Hopefully these will be useful to you to gain traction on decisions where you don’t know where to start.

Before you begin

These things are pre-requisites for being able to think through a decision—if you don’t have them in place, you won’t be able to put any strategy to good use.

  1. Give yourself enough time to think. In the best case, this can be 2-3 weeks or more, so you can reflect on your decision prior to committing. If you don’t have weeks, give yourself a solid chunk of several hours to decide. Late night hours work well for me, because I can stay up and ponder without a definite deadline.
  2. Ask for advice. Not a requirement, but other people’s analysis can help give you context for your options. Try to talk to enough people (more than one) until you find at least one person recommending each option you’re considering. Another good rule of thumb is if you know what someone is going to say before you ask them, then they’re probably not a good person to ask if you want an honest opinion.
  3. Narrow down the list. Decision-making works best with two or at most three different options to choose from. If you have a large set of options, you can usually cross most of them off for easy reasons (too expensive, bad vibes, etc.). Make a list (physical or mental) of criteria that you care about, and use this to cross off options that are objectively worse. If there are still a lot of options that are equally good, you may need to spend more time thinking about what you really want—this is one of the steps that can take weeks. You can also use the strategies below to compare sets of options or one option against the rest.

What is decision-making?

When you make a decision, you are weighing variables. Even if you know the facts about every option, it’s often difficult for you to know how much to care about each factor (ask yourself—how much of a pay cut am I willing to take for a job that aligns with my values? It’s hard to put a number on it, no matter how specifically you define the job). The strategies below are helpful for making value judgments: determining what aspects of each option are really the most important to you, knowing how to weigh each of them, and ultimately comparing one combination of variables against another.

Strategy #1: Debate against yourself

Pick one option—it might be the option you are leaning more towards, if one exists—and convince yourself to choose that option. Pretend you know it is the right option, and you just need to tell the rest of your brain why it’s obviously the best choice. Give yourself time to lay out all the reasons for it in exhaustive detail. Talk to yourself until you’re out of arguments, and you don’t know what to say next. Take a deep breath.

Then take the opposite position and tear your first argument to shreds. Your job now is to convince yourself that the second option is really the best, and the first argument got everything wrong. Again, give yourself the time to build out your argument for the second option and to poke all the holes you can find into the first.

Now go back to the first option, and repeat the process. Talk yourself down; don’t hold back. Emphasize the good points of the option you are advocating for.

Go back and forth as many times as you need to. As someone who overthinks things, I often go three to six times on each side. Later rounds tend to go faster, because you’ve exhausted all the new arguments, and you’re just repeating things you’ve said earlier. This is how you’re making value judgments. Your arguments are coalescing around the points that matter most, and other details are falling out of the debate. At some point it will become clear which argument convinces you the most—congratulations, you have made a decision.

Strategy #2: Imagine you’ve already decided

Again, pick an option to try out first. Imagine that the deadline for your decision has already passed, and you have committed to choosing this option. It’s too late to go back. How do you feel?

Do you feel regret? Disappointed? Do you feel like you’re missing an opportunity you kind of wish you had?

On the other hand, do you feel excited? Relieved? If you’re lucky, you might realize that you always knew this was the right decision, you just never let yourself believe in it.

It can be subtle, so pay attention to yourself to judge your reaction. Give yourself time to sit with your imagined decision, and try hard to pretend it’s real. A few minutes may be enough time, but feel free to try out your decision for a couple of days or more. When you’re ready, pretend you chose the other option instead.

I have had good results with this method. I used it to decide whether to come to Olin or go to a traditional engineering school. I was lying in bed a week before decisions were due. I imagined going to OSU and convinced myself that I would be happy there. Then I imagined accepting my admission to Olin.“Shoot, am I really doing this? I mean, is this even a real school?” I remember thinking. “Shoot. Oh shoot. Oh… oh yeah.” I think I did an involuntary fist pump as I drifted off to sleep. The next day I committed to Olin. It was one of the best decisions of my life.