After many years of debate and ‘someday’ thinking, I set out about a year ago to connect with random strangers and have deep conversations with them. I didn’t know what I was doing, and then I met Alex. This is a bit of his story, and the beginning of The School of Connection, where I’m still a student myself.
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Rana Olk (Host): Hello everyone. It is just me. I don’t have a guest today, this the second episode where it’ll just be me talking to you, and that’s okay because I want to share a story with you all today to hopefully help you reflect a little bit on the connection. But before that, I’ll just say it is kind of a time of reflection, right? It’s almost the end of the year and that means that I’m looking around thinking, “Oh, my gosh, it’s December already, I was just getting used to where has this year gone.” and that’s why I thought of this story that I want to share with you. It’s a conversation, it’s about a conversation, I had one of the most transformative conversations I had, oh, gosh, probably all year. I know, that’s a big claim. And I’m sure there are some I’m not remembering. But this particular conversation is probably in large part responsible for the series of decisions that led me on the path that I’m on right now and to the creation of this podcast. Before I get into that transformative conversation, I’ll just say, in case you are newly joining us, or don’t really know a lot about this podcast, the school of connection is about others out there who are trying to make their mark in the world being the change they wish to see and inspiring others. Those are the guests that I want to talk to and bring to you to inspire you to the school of connection podcast. I know that I am somebody who’s out there wanting to be the change that I want to create. I want us to prioritize human connection so that we do not lose it in this ever more changing the increasingly tech-filled world. I want us to put connections ahead of transactions in business, I want to help all of us figure out how we can have more meaningful, honest and real conversations in our personal lives. I might be ahead of many I’ve done a lot of research, I’ve been in coaching and training for many years, I have a psychology background, I’m, I’m a neuroscience student, and just received a certification, blah, blah, blah, I have plenty to share and teach. But when it comes to the school of connection that I created in 2018, I am still a student myself. So back to that conversation that I want to tell you about.
Almost a year ago, I met Alex I don’t know his last name. I had one conversation with him. And I’ve never seen him since. But he changed me his story. How I approached him is what I want to share with you today. And it’s based on a blog post that I created on a site that doesn’t exist anymore, so you can’t see it. And rather than sharing that blog post and writing, I thought, you know what, I will share it here with you. It was Saturday, almost a year ago. And I was at the library and I love going to the library or any bookstore for that matter. It’s my sanctuary. It’s where I go to relax. And on this particular Saturday, I chose a seat and open up my book. And then I saw him I saw him sitting on a love seat. And it was by the children’s section. So I thought, well, maybe he’s got his kids here on a Saturday at the library. And he’s waiting for them or just trying to kill some time. He’s a middle-aged looking man, he had white hair, he was alone. But again, I didn’t know if his kids were somewhere in the library. But when I embarked on this project of approaching strangers, to have conversations with them, I always wanted them I wanted to make sure that they were alone. You’ll be hearing more about this hundred conversations with strangers project as I share more and more with you all in this podcast, and in other places yet to be determined. Anyways, I digress. So I saw this guy in the library. And I had only gone there to relax. But then once I saw him, and I, like got curious about him, and like, okay, now I’m distracted. I’m reading my book. But I’m reading the same words on a page over and over and over because now there’s this debate going on in my mind, should I approach them? Should I not? Should I approach him to try not to have a conversation should I not. And I think, you know, it’s probably just a regular guy getting away for a bit of alone time or with his kids. He’s trying to find some peace and quiet, he’s probably not gonna have anything interesting to say. He looks very, very mundane, very regular. Nothing about him stands out. He’s nicely dressed, he looks relaxed, he could tell me to just leave them alone and let them read the piece. But I think okay, I’m going to get up and try to catch a glimpse of what is reading them. And it turns out to be a National Geographic, he seems really engrossed in it. Now, I’m really worried about whether or not I should interrupt them. But once I get this debate in my head, I have what I call my just do it a moment, like, rip the band-aid off instead of debating, just make the decision do it if he doesn’t want to talk or second happen is that he’ll say, No, thank you. And I’ll walk away, whatever, go back to my book. So I sit down in the chair next to the love seat that he’s sitting in, and I start saying, “Excuse me, are you alone or waiting for someone? I was wondering if I could talk to you.” And he looks up right away and realizes I’m talking to him. And he smiles and I swear this smile. He was beaming. It was the nicest smile, the most welcoming smile.
So I’m relieved at that moment. And I think, Okay, great. He doesn’t look bothered. You know, how you can have like, a million thoughts going through your head in a split second. So while I’m saying this, “You know, are you alone waiting for someone? Can I talk to you?” I’m relieved as soon as he looks up. And he smiles. And so I explained to him why I want to have this conversation with them that I’m trying to create more connection in the world. And by the way, this was only the third person that I had done this with at that time.
So I finished my spiel, and there’s a pause, and I think, Oh, no, he doesn’t speak English. Because he’s looking at me and not responding. He’s just staring at me. And it is South Florida. So it’s possible that he only speaks Spanish. But then he finally speaks, and he says, “I cannot believe it. You must be an angel. I’ve been sitting here praying for someone to talk to, I would love to have a conversation, I have felt so alone, you guys.” And that moment, I felt like I could fall over and saw that anyone is that lonely, that by me approaching them, they say you must be an angel. I mean, there are no words to describe the gratitude that was just in his face, and the emotion in his voice. And when he said that, I remember very clearly thinking, no one is going to believe me when I tell them this, and I record these conversations. But it was only after this particular moment when I said, I have to start recording these conversations before I approach people because they say things that are sometimes very profound. And this was one of those moments, it was the first time so I smile, I tell them about the misgivings I was having. And how glad I am that I’m not disturbing him. And he just starts talking nonstop. He’s saying, you know, no one really talks anymore. There isn’t enough community, there’s not enough love. Things were different. When I was growing up, there were more connections, and I totally agree with the nuts, partly why I’m doing this, right. So I’m just listening. And he says, you know, my wife is busy, the kids are busy, and no one wants to listen anymore. No one wants to listen to anybody. And then he points to a cell phone and you’ll see this. I’m not even into smartphones. People are waiting for $1,000 iPhone that probably cost $10 to make what’s the big deal again, he’s just talking, talking. And I love my iPhone. But I know exactly what he’s getting at. So really quickly before we because I told him, let’s change seats. Let’s go to someplace quieter in the library. But I realized very quickly that whatever questions I have he’s not hearing me. So I’m here to listen to him. He’s probably not going to listen to me. He needs to talk. I can barely get a word in edgewise. And when I do it, you know what’s funny is Yeah, when I do when I finally say something, I think, Okay, he’s going to respond, because he pauses and he looks like he’s listening. But then he just continues right where you left off. So he goes on and on. And I noticed my discomfort. And like, I’m beginning to get a little frustrated. And then I finally surrendered. I just said, “You know, I need to forget about trying to control the direction of this conversation.” All I need to do is listen to this person and go with the flow. This project was about connection, wanting to figure out how to connect with people, how to connect better with people, and how we might all connect better with one another? What was it that I could learn that I could take to others and share with others. That’s what this project is about. And I realized sometimes it’s just listening, listening to somebody. And so I started listening and forgetting about trying to ask whatever questions I had prepared. I just totally let go of my agenda.
Now the whole time, Alex speaking, he maintains this calm demeanor, and he’s mostly smiling, and I maintain eye contact with them. I see so much sadness. And what I also know, looking back on that conversation is that we were completely connected here. Within 10 minutes, I was completely connected to this person, we were on the same wavelength. I was listening to him, I was making eye contact with him, and I was with him 100% I was 100% present in that conversation. And so something else I learned here was this, it made me reflect on how often we can be in conversation with someone and not really be listening. I asked you, how often are you 100% present with the people in your life when they’re talking when you are present, and you are not thinking about anything else whatsoever in your head, and just hearing what they’re saying, I learned in this conversation with Alex and in many others that followed with strangers, how to listen differently, and that is a key to connection. I want to listen to my loved ones and my friends the same way I listened to these strangers. That is what I walked away thinking after my conversation with Alex, I want to listen to everybody this way with no agenda, no desire to fix or give advice, just to listen. That is when the magic happens, you guys.
So anyways, Alex, he shared with me all his grievances, all kinds of opinions. I mean, just in the time that I spoke to him, which actually was a lot longer than I talked to other strangers. He talked to me about bullying in schools about our prison system, that sex trafficking opioid epidemic, the ACLU not doing enough the cost of pharmaceuticals, over-medication of kids, schools, emphasizing obedience over creativity and love, love, love, love is the most important thing, why aren’t they learning that talks about the current political divide, materialism, consumerism, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, he talked about all of it. And there wasn’t a whole lot I can say that I disagreed with. But he was just, it was just like, he needed somebody to listen. And he was dumping all of it. He’s a very smart guy. But then it occurred to me that the way that he was talking, jumping from one issue to another was indicative of something off. And to make a long story short, he tells me Finally, he volunteers this, I didn’t ask him, even though I knew something was off, he tells me that he was on disability for mental illness. And here’s what’s really telling, he hasn’t done the research on loneliness or isolation I have, and it’s relatively new, you guys. I mean, it’s, it’s starting to come into the mainstream. We know what the lack of social connection does to our minds and to our health. We know this now, I doubt Alex knew it. But before he was on disability, he says that he worked as a technician for a company. And he was on the late night shift. He worked alone on a late-night shift for 30 years, you guys 30 years. And he said it during the conversation I had with him when he told me that he says, that killed me. I had a breakdown, isolation, disconnection, no one to talk to, he told me, he said, You know, I had so many emotions. And I had nobody to share them with, you know, his kids were going to school, you come home to sleep during the day, his wife was at work. And he says, you know, finally, I just couldn’t take it. And I thought, you know, no wonder course, no wonder that’s what social isolation does to us.
That is what disconnection does to us. Not that the fact that he even tolerated it for 30 years is a miracle, if you ask me, it really is that he didn’t have a breakdown sooner considering what we know now about what that kind of isolation and disconnection will do to a person, I’m sure you know, he’s still his family, and maybe saw them on weekends. And maybe that’s what protected him. But here I was listening to him and hearing him and said, you know that for the last eight years, he feels like he’s been home, but his wife and children not listening to him anymore. His wife works and she’s frustrated with him. And his kids have their own lives. So is once again in this situation where he doesn’t feel like there’s anyone to really talk to. And I don’t know why he doesn’t have friends or have more of social life. He says he’s trying and people get frustrated with him. And sitting there in that conversation with them. I did wonder, you know, if you are jumping from topic to topic like this with other people, I can see how it might be difficult for you to make friends. Of course, I didn’t tell them that. But the point is, and what I’m getting to, you know, because this actually, there was a lot more than I could share with you. But for the sake of this episode, and not really making this too long, I basically walked away from this conversation with Alex has a much better understanding of the enormity of the project that I wanted to create, which was this conversations, deep conversations with strangers project, it was the very beginning of it. And I had no idea what I was really going to do with this, I just knew that I needed to do it. And I didn’t know how many people there are out there that are feeling this lonely. And I thought, you know, if, what if all of us could pay more attention to the people around us, not just our loved ones. We walk around the world, doing our thing with these people that we see and brush up against every day. And we think of them as props, we never really stopped to pay attention. And we’re so busy, and we’ve got our faces and our heads buried in our smartphones, and we’re all in a way somewhat lonely and I think some of us don’t even realize it.
Alex was really open with me and granted, it is easier to be open with a stranger than with the people closest to you sometimes. So I was really glad that I was there for him. And all I needed to do was listen. And there are people out there who just want to be heard, who just want to be seen. That is it. And that is very, very healing. I had no idea when I embarked on this project, that I would possibly be helping somebody keel, even giving them a good day. If one person is changed by me, approaching them, and having a conversation with them. And sitting with them, connecting with the heart to heart, really hearing them just by really seeing them, giving my full attention to them. If one person has changed, that’s enough for me. And Alex said to me something I’ll never forget. He said, You know, I was giving up. And today I learned a lot from you. I learned that there are people who care who care about connection, there still are people who care about the connection in this world. I thought, wow. And when you said, You know, I was I was giving up I didn’t know exactly what meant, but he was beaming, we hold each other. And I really felt like I’m always going to wonder about him. As I was walking away. He said the words you’ve changed my life. I think that’s a big claim. But even if it was just for that day, I think I made a difference and so it was after that, that I knew I was onto something. And the more conversations I had with strangers, the more I realized that Alex wasn’t an anomaly, everybody I spoke to just about was, in some way, feeling disconnected or lonely, grateful that they were seen and heard by me, a stranger, every single stranger I talked to was grateful to have had a conversation with me, many of them said that they realize now that there are more of us who have more in common with each other than we think. Because every stranger I spoke to somebody, I also found something in common with whether they were 21 or 82 and regardless of many other things that on the outside would look different about us. So I’m still working on that project. In the meantime, I’ve been placing some focus on the business world and hoping that I can be a part of the connection cultures that we’re trying to create in the business world. Because business has a tremendous opportunity in influencing the way our mainstream culture shapes itself. So I wanted to share Alex’s story with you to hopefully help you realize that you just never know I want you to reflect on your own life and see where you might be able to do better in connecting to others, not just your loved ones. But other human beings I want to inspire you is after I met Alex, that I started doing all the research and I found out that there was this epidemic of loneliness and I knew we needed more human connection, I was craving it. The kind of connection that happens when you’re only sitting not the imitation Allah, Facebook, or Instagram or Twitter that we pulled ourselves into thinking is the connection. I was tired of seeing what I thought was technological progress happening far too fast for our spirits in our minds to catch up, or technological progress that we’re beginning to misuse by forgetting about what makes us most human. We are wired for a community and not for isolation. We are wired to be in communion with one another. I knew that if I felt like I was losing touch with others, because I worked online so much, or, you know, because I was isolated geographically, from many people that I love and care about and grew up with, as many of us are, I knew that if I was feeling disconnected, that there were others out there, probably that was feeling it too. And it turns out that there are a lot of us out there. So when I look at the skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, suicides, and all of those things, I see disconnection as the root of much of it, not all of it, I get that there are many other things going on with those ills that we seem to be seeing more and more, but I see disconnection as a big part of it. And so I just want you to think about how you can be better at connecting and think about the role that connection or lack of it might be playing your life and take a look at the strangers around you. Pay attention. Don’t be distracted. Pay attention to the human beings that are around you in your life that you see are passed by every day and at least wonder about their stories at least wonder and know that every single person you layer eyes on is somebody that you probably could find some sort of connection with.
That’s all I want to leave you with today. If you have any comments you have any questions if this story sparked anything in you. I would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org we’re going to be taking a break for the holidays might be the new year before you hear me again so Until then, stay well. Have a fantastic holiday season. Thanks for listening.