In 1956 Harry Belafonte placed a call to Coretta Scott King. With her husband arrested once again, he wanted to check in with her and see how she was doing and what the movement might need.
Except they could barely carry on a conversation, because Coretta kept being pulled away from the phone to attend to one of the children, to check on dinner, to answer the door.
Sensing she was doing this—and far too much at that—all alone, Belafonte politely asked why the Kings did not have any help at home. Well, she told him, Martin simply would not permit it.
Not only because it was financially prohibitive on a minister’s salary, but also because he was worried what others might think. That he was self-important, enriching himself at the expense of the cause, living the high life while millions of blacks suffered.
“That is absolutely ridiculous,” Belafonte replied. “He’s here in the middle of this movement doing all of these things, and he’s going to get caught up in what people are going to think if he has somebody helping you?”
Then he informed Ms. King that from this moment forward, their life was changing. He was going to personally pay for staff—and that Martin had absolutely no say in the matter.
This wasn’t just a nice gesture to an overworked family. It was also a strategic move. What Belafonte was buying Martin and Coretta was time. It was peace of mind.
He understood that with this help, they would have more energy, more focus for the cause. The last thing he wanted Martin to be thinking about as he marched for peace and justice was whether his kids had a ride home from school.
It takes discipline not to insist on doing everything yourself. Especially when you know how to do them well.
Especially when you have high standards about how they should be done. Even if you enjoy doing them—whether that’s mowing your own lawn or answering your own phone.
A glutton isn’t just someone who eats or drinks too much. Some of us are also gluttons for punishment. Gluttons for attention. Gluttons for control.
It can come from a good place, as it did for Martin Luther King Jr. We feel obligated. We feel bad spending money. We feel guilty asking for help.
It doesn’t matter the source though, because the outcome is the same: We wear ourselves down.
You have to be able to pass the ball…especially when somebody is open and has a better shot.
I was fortunate to learn this early in my career.
One of my first jobs as a writer was as a research assistant to Robert Greene, who not only trained and showed me how the writing process works, but taught me an even more important part in the process: That even someone great and talented and self-sufficient doesn’t do it all by himself (this is also in The 48 Laws of Power, expressed more ominously as “Let others do all the work, take all the credit”).
When I started having some success as a writer myself, one of the first things I did was hire a research assistant.
I have been quite open and up front about this (my current researcher is Billy Oppenheimer—he has a great newsletter you can subscribe to) and yet still people ask how do you put out so much content? How do you juggle it all? How do you do it all?
The answer is, I don’t.