Elizabeth Edwards’ Secret Weapon

Elizabeth Edwards walked that fine feminist line between being a generous, caring, supportive individual and, at the same time, not taking s – – t from anyone.   She had a secret weapon–better yet, a suit of armor.  I met her at a book-signing of Saving Graces, which came out in 2006 when I was researching my book. Her subtitle–Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers–says it all.  This was a woman who cried with a stranger she met in a ladies’ room, who appreciated the checkout guy and the mailman, who shared her grief with strangers on the Internet.  In short, she appreciated, depended upon, and sought out the empathy of others.   Even more important, she knew how vital it was to return the favor.   The September evening  I met her,  I had arranged a brief hello with her publicist, explaining that I wanted to interview her because, whether she had used the term or not, her book was mostly about consequential strangers.  I was first to approach the podium after her talk.

I stood there at first as a journalist and had planned to tell her a little about my project.  But as I handed her a book to sign, I blurted out that my family had just suffered a terrible tragedy.  My great nephew, my sister’s first grandson, had drowned in her pool. At 14, he was already an amazing and versatile athlete, so no one realized he was in trouble.  (Later, we would learn he had a heart condition and that no one could have saved him anyway.) I told her I wanted to give her book to his parents. “So could you please inscribe it to Heidi and Louis?”

“”Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.  When did this happen?” she asked, acting as if no one else was in the room.  It wasn’t fake empathy.   In that moment, I could feel–and her eyes confirmed–that she truly cared and felt my pain. Continue Reading »

Gary Vee’s “Thank You Economy”

A few days ago, I interviewed Gary Vaynerchuk (aka “Gary Vee”) for an article about social media and where it’s taking us.  Here’s Gary on the “thank you economy,” which he suspects will be the subject of his next book.   Give great service, care about people, and you’ll be successful in business.  But wait, Gary: That advice isn’t just relevant to business.  Those are the keys to coping with the demands of modern life.    Look people in the eye,  and in that moment of connection, no matter how brief the exchange,  see them, care about them.   They’ll feel good, and you’ll feel even better.   And if that ain’t success, what is?

Continue Reading »

The Consequential Stranger Collage

Face/book

Face/book

The Consequential Stranger Collage  started out as an experiment. It is still a work-in-progress. Originally,   it was listed on the Facebook Consequential Strangers group page as an “event” (to read more about why, click here).   orange-toes

All that’s required to participate is a digital camera or a cell phone with a built-in camera. Go into your nearest bookstore, find a copy of the book, and ask a staff member or a fellow customer to take a picture that, of course, shows the book.  Be creative as you want, capturing yourself, a loved one, or the stranger who just might become a consequential stranger.  If you ordered the book online, take the picture at home, at the gym, in the supermarket, or wherever your daily life brings you. I won’t use names, only images. Emailing it to me (melinda@consequentialstrangers.com) or posting it on Facebook constitutes your permission to post it in both places.   I’ll keep adding, if you keep sending!

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CS Goddess

CS Goddess

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Wow! What a book!

Wow! What a book!

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I read it three times.
I read it three times.

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The Dalai Lama Said It First

In response to An Experiment Worth Trying (May 28), a reader–Cecile–left this reply.   When I visit other bloggers’ sites, I sometimes don’t read all the comments after a post, and I have a feeling I’m not alone.  I didn’t want this one to be missed:

Someone – a CS – sent this to me in a group email years ago. In the late 90’s, the Dalai Lama shared a practice (below) with a group of visitors that he said will increase loving and compassion in the world. Lately I’ve been practicing it more consistently with strangers — shop clerks, airline co-passengers, medical receptionists, etc. The benefits are immediate and profound. My own experience tells me that this practice helps lift depression.

THE DALAI LAMA’S PRACTICE OF COMPASSION

1. Spend 5 minutes at the beginning of each day remembering we all want the same thing (to be happy and loved) and we are all connected.

2. Spend 5 minutes cherishing yourself and others. Let go of judgments. Breathe in cherishing yourself, and breathe out cherishing others. If the faces of the people you are having difficulty with appear, cherish them as well.

3. During the day extend that attitude to everyone you meet – we are all the same, and I cherish myself and you (do it with the grocery store clerk, the client, your family, coworkers, etc.].

4. Stay in the practice, no matter what happens.

Starting Over: Casual Acquaintances Are More Important Than You Think

[This offering appeared earlier today on more.com with the headline: “It’s not just who you know; it’s the variety of people you know that opens the door to new career possibilities.]

You can’t miss Lily’s property.  It has a storybook quality: a white picket fence hugged by a row of green plants sprouting yellow small flowers that spill onto the sidewalk.  On the other side, between fence and house, is a wild profusion of pink roses, clusters of lilies, and bursts of other showy flowers whose names are unknown to me. There’s a grape arbor, a gazebo, and several little sitting areas punctuated by bricks and stone pathways.  If Lily’s in her garden, I rarely miss the chance to compliment her hard  work.  On this particular day, after a bit of small talk, I asked how much time she spends there.  Her answer—on average two hours, but sometimes as many as eight—compelled me to ask, “What do you do in real life?”

At it happens (increasingly, nowadays) 48-year-old Lily had been laid off from a staff development job in the Boston public schools (“They just had no money”).  She didn’t seem upset.  It was almost July, she explained, and now she could spend the next several months in her garden.  Besides, she already had  “a promising prospect,” a job lead that came from one of her neighbors, whose garden Lily also tends.  For example, a while back, Lily decided that the guy across the street, “ought to have a little garden.”  So she planted one for him.  In turn, when he heard about Lilly’s being laid off, he invited her over. “He just sat me down and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going to do everything I can to help you.’”

Lily’s story didn’t surprise me. Starting over usually involves people other than your family or close friends.  Our loved ones know what we know, whereas neighbors, coworkers, former bosses, and the guy at the corner deli connect us to information and opportunity. Call them  “consequential strangers.” Most of us have a wealth of these “weak ties,” as sociologists call them– unremarkable relationships that we tend to take for granted or, at best, undervalue.  And no wonder: Most relationship gurus focus on partners, parents, and children.  So why would you give a second thought to that pleasant conversation when Sam at the dry cleaners noticed your new hair cut or the delightful discovery that your child’s teacher is related to your dentist’s wife.  And yet those are the very people who are likely to give you advice, a connection, or support when you least expect it.  Lily agrees that if her neighbor hadn’t given her a job lead, someone else in her  “social convoy”–the collection of people she’s amassed over the years–probably would have.  “My last two jobs came through a former coworker,” she recalled, “and the one before that, through a friend  of a friend.”

To whom would you turn in case of a major upheaval in your life? Job loss? Divorce? An unexpected move?  Surprising research shows that most of us need not look further than our own social convoy, especially if it is comprised of intimates and consequential strangers from all walks of life.   It makes you “smarter” when you interact with different kinds of people. You learn a little from one, gather another tid bit from someone else.  You become flexible, knowledgeable about a lot of subjects, and better at conversational banter.  As a result, you can socialize anywhere–and travel up the career ladder. Most important, each one of your casual connections is a hidden  resource.  And the simple exchange of sharing a problem also sends a powerful message to your psyche: You are not alone.  

To find out how diverse your convoy is, take the Occupation Test to see how you compare to national averages.

More News on the Experiment

A follow-up to my May 28 post, An Experiment Worth Trying:   One of my neighbors brought me a torn-out Reader Digest page–letters on the December issue–that she knew I’d appreciate.  The first letter, from a woman read: 

I served in the Air Force for 28 years, and one of the first things I was taught was to greet everyone, regardless of rank.  This simple act establishes a connection–whether it’s between spouses or strangers–that really does make a difference. I hope this catches on.

Another talked about a visit to China where he’d practiced saying ni hao to anyone he encountered.  At first he assumed that because most passersby responded with a smile, that Chinese people were more friendly than Americans.  Then he tested  his assumption:

Back at home, I read Joe Kita’s article and decided to try it here.  Guess what? Americans can be just as friendly.

Naturally, I then looked up the article, “What If You Said Hello to Everyone in Your Path for  Month.”  Kita, who draws on research showing the salutary effects of social connection on health and productivity, saw the results for himself: 

After a month of doing it, I feel lighter and more connected and I have a better sense of well-being. 

If we put our minds to it, many (perhaps most?) of us can  master the smile-and-hello stage–and will be the better for it.  But Juan Mann, an Australian man, took the idea a step further with his “free hugs campaign.” Check out his official website and video.  No researchers have been called in to measure the effects of Mann’s work, but you can’t argue his intent:  “to reach out and hug a stranger to brighten up their lives.” 

Old Folks (Not) At Home

With all this talk about social media, let’s not forget that as far back as smoke signals and tin cans, resourceful people have always found ways to connect and communicate. (For a great review of a recent and yet long-ago time–the nineties–check out this article .) One thing is different now: It’s easier–and cheaper–to keep in touch.

So why should anyone be surprised that “older” people have found their way to–gasp!–sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.  They are using them the way they once wrote postcards or made the occasional phone call to an old army buddy.  Online venues are great for rediscovering acquaintances from the long-lost past and meeting new people as well. And unless illness or geographic isolation stops them, research shows, they’re bringing those encounters into the real world as well.

Staying connected and involved are the keys to graceful aging–and that means stepping outside our inner circles. In fact, it’s the people we don’t know so well who are more likely to…

Introduce us to a novel activity or experience. The people closest to us know what we know and often think the way we think. Make a new acquaintance or join a new group, and it opens a new door.

Allow us to exercise a different persona. Our loved ones can finish our sentences for us, but consequential strangers wonder who we are. With them we can be a blank slate all over again. Members of the Red Hat Society, according to its founder, “don’t have to conform to an old image or explain that they are changing certain aspects of themselves.” Try that with your partner or a really close friend!

Remind us that we are, indeed, part of something bigger. When you’re wielding a hammer as part of a Habitat crew or schmoozing with a old fraternity brother on Facebook, you’re connected to the greater mass of humanity.

Obama gets it

Listening to his speech yesterday, I of course heard his words through the  filter of all that I’ve researched and written over the last three years.  Obama’s speech drove home the point that we need to acknowledge, value, and connect with the broader social landscape at all levels of society.

As individuals to stay current, be informed, and access a full range of (human) resources–and to feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

As commercial enterprises, institutions, or organizations… to promote participation and engagement, spur innovation, and inspire loyalty in customers, colleagues, and constituents outside our own walls.

As nations… to deal with, and help find solutions to, global problems that requirer the understanding and insights from people who often have little in common but much at stake.

These ideas are not knew.  Since the Sixties, pockets of thinkers across many disciplines have called for more collaboration and connection.  But the fact that a powerful man whose background and success (so far) epitomizes the wisdom of reaching across traditional boundaries, sends a powerful message about how we need to view ourselves and the people around us.  It’s a matter of survival.

Still on the same page after all these years…

The paradox of consequential stranger relationships is that on one hand you have something in common–a work project, an interest or activity, the fact that you both own Tibetan Terriers–but you also traffic in different worlds, which opens you up to a new perspective, or a different way of looking at the same issue.  In the best situations, you’re able to take in from the other, which enhances your own thinking. 

Case in point: parenting guru Ron Taffel and I live very different lives and have rarely spent time in person.  But because we’ve worked on two books together (Parenting by Heart and The Second Family), over the years we have become each other’s sounding board.  We talk, we exhange tid bits of our lives, and we indulge our mutual fascination with culture and trends.   So I wasn’t surprised to learn that in his new book, Childhood UnboundRon (without using the term) exhorts parents to call on their consequential strangers–that is, to step outside their intimate spheres to connect with other parents, with teachers, with various characters in the community.   While Ron focuses on families, the same benefits accrue to individuals, to members of organizations and corporations, or to entrepreneurs who reach beyond their inner circles.  Living today is too hectic, too complex, and too uncertain to go it alone.  And loved ones, as valuable as they might be, are not enough. 

Ron and I also agree that we have something to learn from the younger generation when it comes to connecting.  For years, he’s been warning parents not to underestimate the power of the peer culture–a force he dubbed the “second family.”    In Chapter 7, I write about the same group, the Millennials–those Masters of the Internet (now 6 to 26) who didn’t know life before the digital revolution (or barely remember it). Cyberspace is part of the air they breathe. Online and in real life, they’ve already made more connections than some of their parents and grandparents will have made in a lifetime. If the future is about creating community in a hundred different ways, these kids are already there.

Check out all of Ron’s  books–he’s one of the most original and expansive thinkers in the parenting genre. He puts it all in context.   Childhood Unbound should be read by every parent and grandparent–to understand what “childhood” really means today–but also by anyone who cares about the future of this planet.