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What I Learned This Week: Always Talk to Strangers

Posted: 01/07/2013 12:20 pm

The ominous four-word warning is a familiar one to anybody who ever had a mother.

"Don't talk to strangers."

Usually uttered as we were shuffled off to school, the four words were effective at putting the fear of God into us, rendering us not just mute, but anti-social as well.

Solid advice. But as outdated as a Philco black-and-white console television.

Thinking of strangers as the bogeyman is as effective as ignoring the hyperlinks that pepper virtually every piece of writing on the Internet. Strangers are the source of new, of adventure, of discovery and frankly, of the future.

Let me share a story that concluded just a few hours before I sat down to compose this post. I was on a chairlift at Vail, exhausted after a fairly intense day of snowboarding. For those of you non-mountain types, chairlifts take a wide gathering of humanity, funnel it down to one line of four people, which jumps on the chair as it makes its way up the hill. Unless you are a group of four, the line-up process will toss some random person next to you to diminish the line and make the most efficient use of the chair space.

On these treks up, some which can take as much as 15 minutes on a mountain the vastness of Vail, there is very little to do to pass the time. You basically are faced with two options:

Ignore, or engage.

Given that the bearded guy next to me was holding a mascara, I decided to opt for the latter. And jeez, am I glad I did.

The story was that the mascara was not his, but something he found in the lift line. He joked that maybe it would help him find a date that night, which morphed into a tale about how some girl had once chosen him over a ski instructor at Breckinridge (another well-known Colorado mountain resort). I asked him what he did, and with less than a minute left before the lift discharged us at the top, he replied "I'm a snowboard instructor!"

Ding! What serendipitous luck! Earlier in the day, I contemplated upping my game by taking my first lesson in years.

"I'll take a run with you and give you some pointers," he graciously offered. Despite my fatigue, how could I say no?

Anyway, two invigorating, advice-and-challenge-filled runs later, I exchanged business cards with Chris "Sando" Sandowski, former pro skateboarder, former railroad worker, world traveller (see what two further chairlift trips reveal?) and the guy who teaches TEACHERS at Vail. And later this week, MY teacher for a full day of improvement and enlightenment. (Check him out in this video. Crazy.)

What's more, this guy's network is a snowboarder's wet dream. Who he knows is who I dream to know. And come later this week, well...who knows?

And that's just the point with strangers. As long as they stay strangers, we'll never know.

The catch is that most people are fundamentally shy. Trying to break the ice doesn't just require a big sledgehammer, but the type of confidence that can shrug off a cold shoulder.

That's what's so great about the chairlift. You have no choice. The choice is made for you, completely at random. It's like Chatroulette without the nudity -- like LinkedIn live. And worst case scenario, you never see each other again once you disembark a few minutes later (unless, of course, your mother's words come back to haunt you and your seat-mate tosses you off at the ride's highest point).

So over and above what Sando taught me, what I learned this week is that we should borrow the chairlift process for other controlled random human pairings. It would work wonders in the dating world, and would be invaluable in business, to name just two different hemispheres of potential influence.

This type of forced encountering works. Some of the best dinner parties I've ever been to are the ones where they split up the couples, and oblige you to sit next to someone you hardly know, or never met before. And I remember a few years ago being tossed into a group of strangers putting a benefit musical show together; today, some of these people have become extremely close friends, valued colleagues and creative inspiration. Yet it took me until dress rehearsal to actually talk to any one of them.

The problem with strangers is not that they are strangers; the problem is if they remain strangers.

Sorry, mom.

 

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