25 Conversations with Strangers

A few months back I was feeling rambunctious, uncertain, and directionless. I had applied to a government program down in Washington for after I completed my masters. I had prepared my application over the course of six months, spoken to people within the program, and completed the intensive exam prior to hitting “submit” with a wing, a prayer, and a dream. I was ultimately denied and received no feedback or reasoning behind the verdict. The path I thought I was on was on had just come to a dead-end. . . Now what?

I wish I could claim to have more of an understanding or give you (my lovely reader) an accredited recommendation on how to move on emotionally and psychologically from disappointment. . . but I can’t! I can, however, tell you that having conversations with strangers in coffee shops helped me come to terms with the fact that everyone has a crisscrossing, up-and-down, crazy life journey and departing from the expected is okay. Most importantly, an understanding that failure was fine and inevitable.

In November, I drew twenty-five blank lines in my journal and promised I’d fill the lines with names of people I’d have a cup of coffee with prior to May (my graduation month). And before you pass judgment, yes, I know that quantity and quality are very different things. I was thoughtful about who I spoke to and asked of their precious time. The number “twenty-five” felt like equatable to the number of minutes, effort, and uncomfortable-ness I wanted to dedicate to myself in search of answers and insight. Now, as we reach the end of February, I’m about half-way to my goal. I want to share with you what I’ve learned thus far from my journeys.

1. People are willing to help

When I made my list, I knew I’d have to reach out to people I had no connection with. I found their email or LinkedIn inbox and explained why I was interested in speaking to them. I was overwhelmed by these stranger’s willingness to help another stranger – blocking out time to talk and going as far to buy my cup of coffee. Some of the people I “cold-called” were my best conversations because there was so much to talk about. As I got into the rhythm of networking, people began recommending their friends, colleagues, and acquaintances – near and far. Through my conversations, I realized people are so willing to help and “give back” to young professionals in exchange for the help they received along the way. You just have to be willing to ask and show up to the table.

2. No one predicted their path

I spoke with vice presidents, major gift officers, marketing professionals, consultants, entrepreneurs, and everything in between. Despite varying careers, everyone shared the same sentiment. . . no one predicted their path or ended up doing what they sought out to do. It’s okay to begin your career one way and hop to something different. Likewise, it’s okay to have not a clue what you’re doing. Everyone starts somewhere.

3. Education is key

Education is a constant theme in my writings, but one that was present in many of my networking meetings. The professionals I spoke with encouraged education, had graduated from prestigious programs and universities or were on their way to returning to the classroom. Taking classes is an investment in yourself and your organization/employer. Education is key to your career and personal growth.

4. Relationships are priceless

I’ve heard and read so much about relationship-building and its importance in the workplace and professional world. I frequently see people view relationships as strategic moves on the game board of the corporate/nonprofit world. I’m here to remind you that people thrive on connection. . . and authentic connection at that. Meeting with the vice president of your company is valuable, but building a relationship with your colleague who sits next to you in your cubicle is just as important. Relationships are priceless, but it’s clear to others when your networking is inauthentic or transactional.

5. Questions need purpose

Since I was little, I’ve been “the planner” in every group. I’ve come a long way in living life more in the moment, but I take the good aspects of being a planner to my work and professional development. Before meeting anyone for coffee, I did research on their background and came prepared to ask meaningful questions about their career and journeys. I brought my notebook to each conversation and shamelessly took notes and did so afterward, too. Take the time to ask questions with purpose and intent.

6. Everyone has been where you are

I’m 24 and feeling the growing pains of my mid-twenties. The funny thing about age is literally everyone who is older than me knows exactly what it’s like to be in my shoes. Everyone knows what it’s like to be where you are. Whether you’re doubting your next move, unsure you’re in the right profession, or even in the right city, a stranger or fellow professional might provide guidance your friends and family can’t. You’re not alone on the journey to find your “dream job” or simply happiness in your day job.

7. Follow-up can vary

Many of my conversations thus far have ended with emails filled with resources, further connections, job application links, and promises for follow-up. On the other side, many ended with a “thank you” and well wishes. I found that not everyone has the capacity, interest, or inclination to keep expanding on the relationship – which is FINE! I left many conversations feeling like I got the most out of it being present in the moment and soaking in time with another person who has experiences and knowledge to share with me. I recommend to anyone beginning their networking journey to be thoughtful in follow-up and read whether or not the person wants to continue the relationship past the initial meeting.

The short of it? Get out there, order yourself a cup of coffee, and talk to a stranger. I guarantee you’ll learn the world is a lot smaller than you think and six degrees of separation is a very real concept.

If you’re interested in beginning your own networking journey, please don’t hesistate to reach out. I’d love to help you make your plan and get started! Email me at lauren@talkabouttown.org.