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.

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.

 

Meet the New Boss

Bruce is gone. Fired, I think. And on the 3rd, a new Managing Director from the New York office took over my department. Meet Justin Chang.

Justin is what we call in the banking industry, a “dick.” I usually don’t buy into the whole east coast-west coast philosophy distinction but after two weeks of Justin at the helm I’m starting to.

First of all, Justin has no respect for people’s personal time. I got a call yesterday morning at 7:00 a.m. asking me to come into the office because the team was going to “run the numbers” one more time before our presentation on Tuesday. Without getting into too much boring detail, I already “ran” the numbers or else I wouldn’t have given him my report.

Secondly, Justin is just not a friendly guy. He thinks he’s being “all business,” but he’s really just rude. I liked Bruce. He was a normal person with a wife and kids that we all knew. Justin may have a family as well but he would never talk about them at work because it would be “inappropriate.” I have a fear that our relaxed dress code is going to get unrelaxed any day now.

Anyway, I guess this isn’t about talking to strangers, though I was a stranger to Justin last week and he didn’t do a very good job talking to me. I’m just starting to feel unfulfilled at work, especially after working on this blog for so long. I’m sure a million people feel the same way and I don’t want to be a cliché but there you have it. I’m one of those assholes making a lot of money complaining about his job being unfulfilling in the middle of a recession.

Employee of the Month

As you may know from earlier posts, I sometimes go to El Pollo Loco for lunch. It’s surprisingly good and if you don’t eat the tortillas, it’s pretty healthy (I get the 3 piece combo with pinto beans and fresh vegetables).

Anyway, I don’t go every day. At most I go twice a month. But I always get the same thing. (I usually settle on a go-to order at most places and just stick with it forever.) Well, this one woman taking orders, Laura, not only recognized me, but she recited my order perfectly.

“Three-piece combo, dark meat, pinto beans, and veggies, no tortillas.”

I was stunned. I was like, “How did you remember that?”

She said I always ordered the same thing.

I was like, “Yeah, but how many other people also come in here every day?”

She just laughed like it was no big deal to remember customers’ orders but I was seriously impressed.

So much so that while I was waiting for the food I asked to speak to the manager. It was a short Hispanic lady and I told her that I was very happy with Laura’s service. I told her how welcome she made me felt and that employees like her build customer loyalty. The manager thanked me for my comments. I definitely got the sense that paying her employee a compliment was a rare occurrence. My food came out and I sat down to eat. Laura wasn’t privy to my conversation with her manager, but after lunch, I made sure to say “Have a nice day” to her on the way out.

On the way back to the office I was feeling good, wondering if this would help her get a promotion or something. But then I started to doubt my feelings, like I was patting myself on the back a little too hard. Something one of the commenters said last month about how the whole blog is a series of self-congratulatory stories where I portray myself as an amazing person because I deemed to talk to some lowly cleaning lady, or something like that. I honestly felt good about saying something nice to the manager because I thought Laura deserved some recognition. But then I felt guilty about how good I felt, like I was being patronizing. I’m not sure how else to explain it. I know I was over-thinking it. But  this moment of existential doubt did in fact sour my mood.

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.

To Michelle

Dear Michelle,

I hope you are reading this because it’s my only way of communicating with you since you won’t return my calls or emails.

First of all, I want to apologize. I should have told you about the blog. I guess I thought if you read it you would be mad or creeped out.  Turns out, I was right. Plus, I think I was afraid that if you knew you’d make me stop. But I really like writing about this project and I didn’t want to put that in competition with how much I like you.

If you want me to, I will delete the blog. I know it’s a terrible invasion of your privacy but I honestly think it’s helps a lot of people out there. I get comments and private emails all the time from people who are shy or just in a lonely situation and I think my trials and tribulations (side note: does anyone actually say “tribulations” by itself?) have helped paved the path in some small way for people to be happier. That’s important to me. Still, it doesn’t justify revealing personal information about you without your consent, so I will respect your wishes and delete anything you want.

I’m really sorry about this. But not just because I’ve embarrassed you, or made you look silly in front of your family. What’s really eating me up is that I’m afraid I’ve irreparably damaged your impression of me. Yes, I admired you from afar for a while. But then I spoke to you. Yes, I said I wanted to marry you (one day). But that’s just because I’ve never met someone I felt more compatible with. You are not just beautiful. You’re smart and funny and you get me and I feel like I’m the person I always wanted to be when I’m with you.

So please, if you’re reading this, give me a chance to fix things.

–F

Fame Junkies

Had dinner with Michelle Friday night, went back to my place, and she left on Sunday. Awesome weekend.

I’m

reading a book called “Fame Junkies” which was recommended by the similar Drew Pinsky book I recently read about narcissism. It’s a super-depressing account of people who are obsessed with celebrities and/or becoming celebrities (Low point: kids who pay $10,000 to go to conventions to meet talent agents). I got to chapter 5, “The Desire to Belong,” and I had a light bulb moment. Two recurring themes suddenly came together in a way for me that is so obvious now but I didn’t make the connection till I read this book.

My first running theme is that I hate celebrity culture. I really despite reality TV (except shows based on true talent) because it’s just a bunch of narcissists trying to get undeserved attention. The desire to be famous without accomplishing anything fame-worthy is one of the worst ills in society today.

My second theme is the basis for this entire blog, my desire to connect with people. To make real friends, real relationships, and to stop being so isolated and lonely. Perhaps it’s obvious where these themes intersect, but “Fame Junkies” really made it quite clear.

The author, Jake Halpern, describes the psychological concept of a “para-social” relationship where television gives viewers “the illusion of a face-to-face relationship with the performer.” Because of the explosion of celebrity culture, Twitter, Us Weekly, etc., people have developed far more of these relationships than they used to. But the key here is that the relationships are illusions. You don’t really know Paris Hilton.

This increase in pretend relationships paralleled another change in American society. People are lonelier than ever. The number of people who describe themselves as lonely quadrupled in the last few decades. People remain unmarried longer these days and most significantly, the number of people who live alone has gone from 9.3% in 1950 to 26.4% in 2004.

The collision happened when psychologists asked subjects who felt lonely questions about celebrities. The lonelier the subject, the more obsessed he or she was with celebrities. I guess if you’re lonely, your innate desire to belong makes you pursue the only type of relationship you can, a fake one with a celebrity. And I don’t think it’s much of a leap that some of these lonely people see becoming a celebrity themselves as the cure to their problems. Thus, what they’re really hoping to do is to trade one fake relationship with others.

I never got into the celebrity culture because to me it just seemed so obviously fake and unfulfilling. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. But, and here’s the rub, I was still lonely, isolated, and depressed, like a lot of people my age, living alone in a big city without a support network of friends and family. So I did the only thing I could think of… I came up with a plan to talk to strangers. Some connections were brief, others have been lasting. But they’re all real.

My usual caveat: I’m not genius, I don’t have it all figured out, I have a lot of work to do, I wish I had more friends, etc., but the point is, I’m trying. I’m out there in the real world talking to real people. If everyone stopped watching Jersey Shore and knocked on their neighbor’s door instead… well, think about it.