Hello Again

It’s been a year, so I thought I’d drop a line to all you strangers out there. First of all, Michelle and I are about to celebrate our first anniversary next week. And second, Michelle’s due date is a week later. So yeah, we’ve been busy.

Looking back on the year, all I can really say is I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I feel this is the life I always wanted and sometimes when I wake up I have to remind myself that it’s real. I never intended this blog to be so touchy-feely with all the self-help platitudes but then again I never expected anything to really change. But now I can say that I am the biggest advocate in the world for taking control of your own life. It’s as simple as making a list of the things you wish you could change and then coming up with some ideas to fix them. Maybe the solutions don’t work but just trying to make a change is sometimes good enough to have an impact on your life is surprisingly positive ways.

I’m still not a hundred percent happy at work. I went back into banking after I lost my job because that’s all I really knew how to do. Now I feel an obligation to earn money to support the family, so even though it’s not any more fulfilling, I am less upset by it. Maybe one day I’ll pursue my real passion and become a professional pole vaulter– just kidding. That’s just it. A lot of people I talk to don’t like their jobs but they don’t know what else to do.

Gunther is still at it with the eBay trading. He never did get back together with Monica but who am I to judge? You never know what a relationship is like for real until you’re in it.

I still talk to strangers. Almost every day. It gets harder because most of the people I run into on a given day aren’t strangers anymore. I pretty much know everyone at the Whole Foods, the dry cleaners, the gas station, etc. Still, I run into people at my office building, or in lines, and I almost always strike up a conversation. I know there’s a lot of people in L.A. but it seems like I’ve talked to most of them. Maybe the next time you’re in line at Take a Bao, I’ll be behind you asking if you’ve seen any good movies.

That’s all for now. If there’s something I forgot to update you on, just post a question and I’ll respond.

Until next year…

By Popular Demand: Now Available as a Book

Yesterday, the BBC published an article about talking to strangers and I was featured prominently in it.

Because of that exposure, I reached 40,000 new people, and during the course of the day, I received dozens upon dozens of heartwarming emails about the Project. I feel so connected to the readers having now read so many of their stories, all I can say is it was very cool and more than a little humbling.

Many, many people have asked if the blog is going to be a book or a movie and I have repeatedly said no. But then, around mid-day, I read an email from a teenager who had attempted suicide. I know, serious stuff. He’s fine now, he got the help he needed, but he said the blog was really inspirational to him because he had always felt so isolated. There’s more to the story but suffice to say it had a big impact on me.

Anyway, long story short, I changed my mind and decided to publish the blog in digital form. It’s just a collection of the posts, but they are collected in chronological order and you can take it with you to the beach or wherever without the hassle of reading it online. I published it at Smashwords because it was quick and easy. Here’s the link. [Edited to add that it’s now available on Amazon here and in the UK here.]

Michelle was instrumental in putting it together in such a short time and she even designed the cool cover for me. I had to charge 99 cents because that’s what the minimum was, but if anyone feels like they don’t want to pay, they can always read it here for free.

My goal of course isn’t to make a big payday here (though the thought did occur to me that this timing is fortuitous with the wedding in ten days). I just wanted to reach as many people as possible and see if my story can inspire people to find their own happiness. I feel so fortunate to have embarked on this journey and to have made friends with so many people in person and online. I just wanted to say thank you. And good luck on your own journeys.

Farewell

I was going to end the blog in June after my wedding, but as the date gets closer, I am starting to realize that this wedding thing might actually take up more of my time than I thought. So I’ve decided to say goodbye on a high note and not be one of those bloggers that just fades away with fewer and fewer posts.

It goes without saying that this has been an incredible journey. Almost two years ago I made a decision to take control of my life by doing something simple: talking to strangers. It turned out not to be so simple after all and I never could have imagined ago the impact that my decision would have on my life.

It’s not just the obvious boon of meeting and marrying Michelle. Or the relationships with countless others, both profound and mundane, that I’ve nurtured over the course of the Project. The result I’m most proud of is the change in me.

I used to overthink things and the dialog in my head about what the other person would say if I started a conversation would be too much to overcome. Does this person just want to be alone? What if they don’t like me? What if I embarrass myself?

Now, it’s not that I don’t care, I do, it’s just that I know most people like people. And those who don’t, the people who say “Fuck off,” well, I’m better able to brush it off. Because I’ve racked up some wins, I can better ignore the defeats.

Talking to people has become second nature. I really am that guy in the elevator now who says, “How’s everybody doing?” (Okay, maybe not really like the Sparklets guy, but I have spoken to a lot of people in elevators.) I just like the excitement of not knowing what’s going to happen when you interact with another person. It still makes my heart race when I approach someone, but now it’s exciting, not terrifying.

I think what I’m trying to say is that I’ve become the person I never even knew I could be. Sure, maybe I’m unemployed, but that doesn’t seem to matter right now. I’m about to go on this journey with Michelle and it just feels awesome.

I know I’ve said most of this stuff before. After two years, I’ve said pretty much everything I can think of. But one thing I don’t think I’ve said enough is how much I appreciate the support and emails and comments from the people who’ve been following this Project. For every comment you see, I get a few private emails from people telling me about their lives. About how they’re shy or just in a situation where it’s tough to meet people. I respond to every one of them and I tell them if I can do it, so can you. Sometimes, it’s heartbreaking to hear about younger kids–teenagers or college students–telling me about how hard it is. But trust me, the hardest part is taking that first step.

I don’t want to be all self-congratulatory, patting myself on the back for my own successes or for being all “inspirational” to other people. But I have learned a lot and I think it’s worth sharing. It all boils down to this: people were not meant to be alone. We need human interaction. It’s what makes life worth living. And unfortunately, sometimes that takes effort. Sometimes it takes a shitload of effort. But it’s never not worth it.

Army Guys

I get asked a lot about how the whole experiment has changed me and here’s an example.

I was eating lunch and two guys came in wearing Army uniforms. They got their lunch and sat down. The thought popped into my head, “I should say something to them, just an ‘I appreciate you’ or something.” But as soon as the idea of saying something to someone pops into my head, this new alert fires in my brain that says, “You can’t not say it now.” So it’s not so much an encouragement as a refusal to wuss out.

It actually makes me smile whenever that alert goes off. I’m like, “Shit, I really don’t want to say something, but oh, all right. Fine, I’ll do it.” Then I go over and start talking.

In this case, I literally just said, “Sorry to interrupt, guys, I just wanted to say thanks for doing what you do.” They were very appreciative that I said something. So this just reinforces the alert in my brain because it always winds up being the right thing to do.

So if you want to start doing this experiment with me, focus on the “don’t wuss out” factor more than the impulse to talk to people. Because the impulse happens naturally, you just need a mechanism to avoid not following through.

Valentine’s Day Redux

Here’s what I had to say about Valentine’s Day last year: http://talktostrangersblog.com/?p=651. This year Michelle and I are going out to Rustic Canyon for dinner and I actually paid attention to all those flower commercials so I could buy the best ones. So, yeah, a year makes a difference.

I know what it’s like to have a shitty Valentine’s Day because not only do you not have someone in your life but there are no prospects for the future. It’s the hopelessness that really hurts. If I honestly thought, “Bad luck, Valentine’s Day fell this year between past and future girlfriends,” it wouldn’t be that big a deal. I’d just hang out with friends or go to a strip club or something. But wondering how could a potential girlfriend even exist–where would she even come from?–that’s the stuff of real depression.

Well, here’s my pep talk. First of all, just because you can’t see happiness around the bend doesn’t mean it’s not there. And second, you can take control of your life. You can get out there and meet people. I did it. I get a lot of emails from people who say they want to meet people but they’re just too shy. Well, unless you have a note from your doctor saying you have a social anxiety disorder, then I call bullshit. Being scared is no excuse. Overcoming fears is one of the things we do as grown-ups.

Buy a book on how to mingle. Read the news of the weird right before you go out so you have a few things to talk about. Or just listen and react to what people are saying. But to quote the Pennsylvania State Lottery Commission, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

On Transcending

Sue D. writes:

I’m enjoying your blog. I think meeting and talking with strangers is such a great idea! It’s lead to so many interesting encounters for you. I wonder if you consider your experiment a success, or if you even consider it an experiment anymore? It seems like you’ve transcended the original purpose for your blog and now it’s become just another part of your every day life.

That was an interesting question, one I’ve been thinking about for a few days now. And the answer is kind of complicated.

Yes, talking to strangers is second-nature in some ways now. When I go up to a counter and order a roast beef sandwich, I don’t have to remind myself that I should strike up a conversation. But one thing I’ve learned is I am who I am. Despite the now long history of doing this, I still don’t talk to strangers without effort. The second-nature aspect of it is that I don’t think about that I should be talking to them. It doesn’t get my all the way to actually doing it without thinking about it. So I guess, the point is, I’ve got a lot of practice but there’s a built-in inertia that must be overcome every time.

I do consider the experiment a success. Obviously, things turned out better than I ever imagined. It’s literally changed my life and I am happier than I’ve ever been. And maybe you’re right that it’s not even an experiment anymore anyway. It’s just something I do. Like, if you go on a diet where you cut out carbs, for example, and it’s successful. You lose the weight. You reach your target. But it’s changed your eating habits along the way and now you just eat healthier meals and stay away from carbs because you know they aren’t good for you. It’s no longer a diet because you’re not trying to lose weight anymore. Now, you’ve adopted a different lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean when you see a sticky bun you don’t crave it.

It’s weird. As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes I get into a meta-mode where I’m talking to someone just thinking about how I’m going to write this up later. It seems a little inauthentic at times, like I’m violating the spirit of the project. But ultimately, talking to strangers is talking to strangers. Mostly I don’t think too much about it. Some days I pass on opportunities. But I think I will continue the “experiment” forever. Partly just because I like being that person. But I have to admit–and I’m as far from superstitious as you get–part of me wants to keep it up so I don’t jinx myself and lose what I’ve attained.

 

On Inertia

We had a low-key engagement party this weekend. Just friends, no family, thank God.

I knew some of Michelle’s friends but I was meeting a lot of them for the first time and I have to tell you I don’t think I fared that well.

At first, I was pretty good making cocktail conversation with the new people. I’d tell them the (abridged) story of how we met, how we got engaged, etc. Then it would be the usual routine of asking questions, like “How do you know Michelle?” or “Where do you work?” This went on for the first couple hours with no problem.

But at some point at around 11:00 I found myself in the kitchen doing the dishes. I literally stopped myself in the middle of a wine glass and thought How did I get in here? Everyone else was still laughing, talking, drinking, and having a good time. But I retreated to the kitchen under the guise of “needing to clean up” a bit.

Michelle found me and asked what I was doing. I made some excuse about how I wanted to get a head start on cleaning up but she pulled me back into the living room. I was thinking, Oh, God. Back to work. 

The truth is I was tired of talking to strangers. I think I’m a million times better at it, but that night after everyone left, I started to wonder if deep down there’s any way to change a fundamentally anti-social nature. Do I really just not like people that much? I can force myself to be a part of the world, but like with gravity or friction, without a applying a constant force, do I naturally just come to a rest?

Christmas

Michelle is coming with me to Pennsylvania for Christmas and to meet my family. (Don’t worry, I Googled her extensively to see if she’s writing a blog behind my back and we’re in the clear.)

I went back and read what I wrote about the holidays last year and one thing stuck out. I said no matter how long I live in L.A., it never felt like home. It seems like everyone here is from somewhere else and come this time of year the city empties out like an office building. I still think that’s true, but to a much lesser extent. I’ve made so many new connections this year (not even including Michelle). Many more friends, tons more simple interactions. That makes it feel more like a home I guess.

But what makes me feel even better and more optimistic about the future (again, besides the fact that Michelle and I have worked things out) is that I feel like I’m growing up. People write all the time about how the 20’s these days are just an extension of adolescence. How in the olden days people would get married, get a job, have kids, all by 22, and take on the psychological manifestations of adulthood. But now, people are still trying to figure out who they are, what do they want to do for a career, what makes a good vs. bad relationship. We’re all stunted adolescents.

I think a lot of that is true. More than ever people in their 20’s are totally confused by life. I know I was.

But for the first time I feel like I’m starting to figure it out. I am liking who I am. I am getting comfortable in my skin. Maybe this is all a result of various love hormones making me giddy, but I honestly think I’ve changed this last year, and for the better.

I’ve read a few books recently that might be categorized as “self help.” And while that area generally makes me cringe, there are a few good ones out there (usually written by actual scientists) and there’s a theme that runs through the ones I like. Nothing is determined. Effort and drive make all the difference. Dramatic changes are possible through hard work. Greatness was never achieved through effortless inspiration but only through tireless perseverance. Anyway, you get the idea.

I started this blog for selfish reasons. I really just wanted to be less lonely. I found that I could become a better person along the way. But I never intended to help anyone else. (Don’t forget, I hate people.) As the Project went on with all its twists and turns, I found I had a lot to say to other people trying to accomplish the same goals. And I found myself liking helping these people.

Anyway, it’s a bit of a ramble today but you get the gist. Michelle and I are going to relax and take a real vacation for the next two weeks, so I won’t be posting again till after the New Year. And then, by agreement, it will just be about talking to strangers, not talking to or about Michelle.

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday. If you’re feeling down, isolated, and bearish about your future potential for happiness, just remember the one thing I’ve learned in the last 18 months: you can do something about it. It’s been an emotional last few months for me but I think for the first time I can say with confidence that it’s all going to work out.

What Am I Doing?

One tweet by a certain famous TV mogul has sent the readership skyrocketing.

And while it’s really cool to know that more people are engaged in the project, it’s also caused me to really reflect on my feelings and motivations for doing this.

At first, it really was just a diary. I didn’t think anyone was listening so I felt like I was just recording my thoughts for myself. Then people started writing in, saying they were inspired. As I got better at making connections I felt like my failures and successes were actually helpful to other people. Not to mention the sense of kindred spirits and community I got from connecting with people just through the blog.

But there are two big problems. As more than one commenter has pointed out, the blog’s notoriety is feeding my (normal levels of) narcissism. The last thing I want to do is become a self-absorbed celebrity who needs the adulation of random people to mask my self-loathing. I’m just some guy who lives in an apartment in Brentwood. I have no interest in being recognized. If only I had decided not to use my real first name, I wouldn’t be in this mess with Michelle, but that ship has sailed. I think I can continue posting without succumbing to the temptation of my fifteen minutes of fame. So while it’s a concern, I think awareness of it is enough to weather the storm.

The second problem, of course, is Michelle. I can’t really justify dragging her into this. Maybe deep down I thought it would never work out so it wouldn’t matter. But then it did work out (or at least I think it’s going to work out). And now I’ve written all this stuff about her and I don’t want to delete it because it’s the crux of the whole blog. But I can’t keep posting about her without her permission.

Michelle and I have been talking. We talk about the blog a lot. I think she will be fine with me keeping what I’ve already written. I’m not sure. But one thing I know is I need to see her and talk this over in person.

Mindset

I’m reading a book called “Mindset” by psychologist Carol Dweck. Normally I’m not much for books even remotely considered “self-help” but this one is really causing one of those “aha” moments where you suddenly realize how you are sabotaging yourself.

Basically, the premise is that there are two “mindsets” to dealing with success and failure. The “fixed” mindset person believes that he is born with certain abilities and intelligence and they pretty never change. The “growth” mindset person believes that abilities and intelligence grow if you challenge yourself. Most people are fixed but you should really want to change to growth.

Here’s why: The fixed mindset person is always trying to prove himself and views any failure as an attack on who he is. It threatens his self-esteem because failure means he’s not smart enough. Consequently, he stops trying. This person views effort as a shortcoming because trying hard means you’re not smart.

The growth person doesn’t label himself but his actions as inadequate and actions can change. Failure is an opportunity to learn and grow so this person loves challenges and never gives up. Effort isn’t a failing; it’s the very definition of intelligence because making an effort is the only way to get smarter. The first person thinks, “I’m a failure, I should stop trying.” The second person thinks, “I made a mistake, how can I learn to do it better?”

Now this all sounds well and good, like it’s some easy thing to just change mindsets. Trust me, it’s not. I’ve always been on the smart side of the scale and I totally felt like the book was speaking to me. “A fixed mindset person would rather do an easy puzzle over and over again while a growth mindset person always seeks new challenges.” I remember in college, sometimes to pass the time, I’d play Risk against the computer on the easiest setting. I could win the game in maybe 30-40 seconds but it was still satisfying. I’d play over and over again to see how fast I could win. But now I realize that I was just trying to validate myself instead of challenge myself. A fixed mindset person defines intelligence as being able to accomplish goals without any effort. But the point of the book is that effort is the only thing that makes you smarter.

Next week back to talking to strangers and my trip to San Francisco to meet Michelle’s family!