I often regret coming across well-meaning advice like “keep a gratitude journal”, “say hello to strangers” and “talk through the pain”. A gratitude journal sounds like something to me. As a journalist and writer who shares their stories with people for a living, I’ve always felt that I’ve had my fair share of interactions with strangers.
But after a close childhood friend recently told me I “looked like a train wreck” and “really needed to do something about it,” I realized that maybe it was time to try something different.
Thus I spoke to a psychologist, who had several initial questions to ask after the test. The last question was: “Do you want to do some more research, or let things slide?” The same wording, it was clear rhetoric. I needed more conversations with him, and deeper introspection.
Through our conversations, I now see how I had built my mental image over the years based on the ideal of “being brave.” The metaphorical hero I chose was the captain on the burning deck; A man who knows how to steer a ship even when everything looks hopeless. My ideal of bravery involves always rising above, keeping a lid on emotions, denying all weakness.
It became clear how flawed this story was when my psychologist suggested I attend a social event full of strangers and only talk to people I found interesting. There was one caveat: I should not try to ask for their professional credentials, nor give them mine.
But who could I be in such a situation, I thought? The import of the warning is clear: respect people for who they are; Not what they do. It’s a principle we all start with as children. This is why friendships are easily formed, over a shared love of an interesting bug or flat rocks.
But in adulthood, the prospect of trying to connect with a stranger on such a personal level felt deeply uncomfortable. I was reminded of the Simon and Garfunkel song, The Boxer.
When I left my home and family/
I was no more than a boy/
in the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station/
Laying down, looking for poor quarters/
Where do messy people go?
Finding places they only know…
Isn’t that how most people’s working lives start? Everyone is just a young person in the company of strangers, struggling and aspiring to “be somebody”. As life unfolds, work and the world take their toll and the boy turns into a fighter.
A boxer stands in a clearing /
And a fighter by his trade…
As the song goes; A fighter who had to box to build a life built around the pillars of work. Professional credentials become the pivot that determines the rules of the game, including who to engage with and how.
In the midst of it all, we lose the simple curiosity that helped us make friends as children. We shut down the obvious parts of our nature that enable us to walk up to a stranger and ask them what interests them. At some point in our adulthood, we quietly make peace with the fact that most relationships will be transactional from now on.
I’m beginning to see that all of this, the whole “captain on the burning deck” ideal, is a hopeless story. All our ships will eventually sink. Do we really want to “go down fighting”?
What if we turned to hope instead? This question is asked by psychologist Dan Tomasulo in his book Learned Hopefulness (2020). Embracing hope means embracing new heroes who feel their emotions, are curious about people, and accept others for who they are. This requires a lot of bravery, because this approach involves what Tomasulo calls a “reckless acceptance” of tomorrow. But this is the course of action. Angela Duckworth, co-founder of the research-focused nonprofit Character Lab and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016), puts it in her book: “‘I have a feeling that tomorrow will be better.’ I resolve to make it better tomorrow.’
As much as this next sentence once made me smile, I now say yes, open to new experiences. Keeping a gratitude journal isn’t as big a deal as I thought. Smiling at strangers in a non-professional setting is difficult, but it’s starting to get interesting. I’m excited to see what can come of it all.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel and co-author of Foundation Impact)