A Social Experiment

At what point in a new interaction does a stranger become a friend?

For the meat of 2017, I travelled around Europe, Asia and the U.S.  A one-way ticket to London to see a friend for a long weekend blossomed into a serendipitous, unplanned year-long journey across 16 countries.  My experience unfolded not by itinerary, but at the mercy of the road.

I touched down in Amsterdam after a couple weeks in London and the British countryside to visit an old colleague from New York, now a Dutch expat.  She was kind enough to open her home and friends to me – it occurred to me at that moment I wanted to make conscious choices moving forward to pry open and orient myself to not only meeting new people, but meeting with intention – with each introduction making a genuine, enhanced effort to maximize the depth of the conversation and thus, the connection.  To uncover the authentic and special qualities of another – their soul – bypassing that guard, that filter, that investment in self-protection, can require an artful and careful diligence.

The more I practiced, the more I succeeded.  This framework of thought informed the theme of my travels.  I became a “yes man” – revising my interpretation of facing fear and venturing outside my comfort zone as remarkable opportunities for personal growth and enrichment.  I tamed my impulse judgements on people or ideas and welcomed any and all with an open mind and heart.  Kamal Ravikant, an author and investor, says “on the other side of fear is magic.”  Easy to dismiss as cliche, but I encourage you to try it and tell me what you find.

By most measures, it’s no easy feat to roam around the world and meet new people.  There’s an environmental bottleneck in most situations – starting a conversation in a cafe with the person sitting across from you, walking up to someone who looks interesting at a pub, etc.  We need organic, intimate formats that make meeting new people easy and natural, not doctored or nerve-wracking.

Break bread, drown ice, make new friends.

When I reflect on my travels, my most vivid and appreciative moments are those over a shared meal with strangers.  Circling back to my time in Amsterdam, I found myself seated around a dinner table one evening in a beautiful flat with eight acquaintances from five different countries.  We cooked a simple dish, opened bottles of wine, shared laughs and stories.  The energy between us was remarkable.  I sat back in my seat and had a moment of hyper-awareness to what I was experiencing.  The hidden obvious revealed itself – strangers are only strangers until they’re not.  Cultural (social/political/environmental) conditioning develops very convincing falsities that lead us to believe we’re all largely different from one another, but here I was at a particularly unique vantage point – panning around the table witnessing the joy of foreign company, connecting as humans in a very real way.

Being back in New York City over a year later is a sharp reminder of what cultural conditioning can do to people.  This city can harden you, close you, and chain you to thoughts and routines celebrated by the cultural flow state.  Relationships here can be very transactional and despite being one of the biggest cities in the world, it can feel shockingly lonely.  I have a strong conviction that cultural conditioning, and even personal interests or the types of people we’re typically drawn to, is just a surface layer – penetrable and malleable.  Beneath it is a common bond that extends across humanity – we want, need and can have connection with people fundamentally different than ourselves.

This belief comes with a test predicated on a sense of responsibility to share what I was so fortunate to experience on the road.  I’m going to organize dinner parties with strangers – we’ll cook a dish in a beautiful New York City apartment, have some drinks, share some laughs.  If you feel a sense of discomfort or intimidation as you read that, good.  That means you have an opportunity to find magic on the other side of fear.

And that magic might be the gift of friendship.

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