I was sitting on a flight recently, observing the informal “Golden Rule” among business people who frequently travel: You don’t bother me, I won’t bother you. By bother, we mean talk. Business people can actually sit next to each other for a full Trans-Atlantic flight never saying more than “excuse me” when we need to step over each other to get to the aisle. Strange as it may seem, we consider this polite. We are terrified of the notion of losing an hour or two of work time, reading time, movie time, or sleep time, to idle conversation time—or worse, opening the door to being asked for a favor. We like silence in our air travel. Silence is safe.
Silence is also a lost opportunity.
About twenty minutes before this flight landed the person in the seat next to me braved the opening of a conversation. He asked me if I was headed home or away. He told me he was headed home after playing a music gig in Seattle. Turns out he was a studio session guitarist who has been surviving as a professional musician for fifty years. I told him I used to play, but now was just a devoted fan. He asked me which musicians I admired and suddenly we found overlap in artists whom he had backed. He had played behind Don Henley onstage. He had played on an album with Frank Sinatra. I told him I had just seen Jackson Browne at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and he said he always wanted to play with Jackson Browne, that was on his bucket list. We agreed The Greek was the best live venue currently in the L.A. area, and he said the next time he played there he would try to invite me if he could get extra tickets. We exchanged cards. He asked me for nothing.
It was a great twenty minutes. I don’t know if I will ever see him again, but it made me think hard about that unwritten rule of bothering the strangers around you. How many amazing opportunities get away from us because we are too wrapped up in ourselves to reach out, or too exhausted from today’s turmoil to see tomorrow’s opportunity? We’ll stare into a tiny LED screen and page through infinite tidbits in a news feed, but we’ll hide from the tangible stranger who is less than a foot from our elbow. It’s a weird way to partake in humanity, and it’s probably costing us an unseen miracle or two over the course of a lifetime.
We all know well the image of the “Meet Cute” that plays out in romantic comedies. Two unlikely strangers bump into each other in the supermarket parking lot and knock their groceries to the asphalt. Eggs break, toilet bowl cleaner ruins their leather shoes. Ninety minutes of screen time later—after at least one baffling breakup and a healing montage of running along the beach—they get married and the best man offers a drunken toast about how the couple was always meant to be. The truth is, it does happen in real life. It happened to me over a quarter century ago, although the groceries involved had more to do with a commercial real estate rental. I wake up every day thanking my lucky stars I was paying attention. I could have let that go by. It would have been much easier to maintain silence. My life would not have been the same. The risk involved was sub-measurable. The reward was beyond belief. How close I came to blowing that. How very, very close!
Wait a second… risk… reward… aren’t those words better applied to, uh, business? Is it possible we are shutting down real possibility by obsessing in our solipsism? What part of the obvious are we shutting down for no good reason at all? If someone doesn’t want to talk, he or she will tell us. If someone doesn’t want to be bothered, that can be revealed in a nanosecond. Why are we so afraid of interaction? What might the avoidance of a kind greeting be costing us?
The “Chance Meeting” is the Platonic version of the Meet Cute, where the paths of two strangers intersect for any number of reasons and the grounds of some relationship begins. Like the Meet Cute, where romance comes when you least expect it, the Chance Meeting commences without expectation. In my own life this has resulted in a job opportunity, discovery of a favorite vacation spot, invitation to a speaking opportunity, the hugely rewarding chance to mentor a technology star, a book recommendation that changed the way I think about words, an affordable channel for collectible wines, and more than one new friend who likes to hang out at Dodger Stadium. The Chance Meeting is powerful, and yet I rarely leave myself open to it. When I think about what may have gotten away based on what didn’t, it’s scary. And stupid.
My new book, Endless Encores, is all about a Chance Meeting. It takes place in an airport executive lounge, where a veteran CEO offers a life’s experience to a rising executive who is about to encounter failure for the first time. When I was sending out early versions of the manuscript for feedback, one reader told me she really loved what the book had to say about what it takes to repeat success, but she couldn’t buy the premise that a successful woman in an airport would strike up a conversation with a downtrodden young manager who was in desperate need of all she had to say. Was it really that outlandish, I wondered, that a seasoned business leader would engage in dialogue with a stranger to pass a few hours and hand off her years of learning without expectation of anything in return? My reader said yes, that was a sticking point for her, if I could get past that, the rest of the wisdom was solid. I guess my reader closely observes the unwritten Golden Rule of the business traveler. These days, I’m trying to get over it.
Don’t miss out on a Chance Meeting. You never know where it could take you. You never know where you could take someone else. Learning happens when ideas are exchanged. For ideas to intersect, people have to intersect. That only begins when someone says hello. Imagine the power you can unlock with a single word. Or you can stay safe and stay silent.
Your risk. Your reward. Your choice.
This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.
With the book fresh in my mind and a trip to Europe in progress, I took the leap of faith and held conversations with strangers at every opportunity. The results were exceptional to say the least. Strangers sitting in restaurants became information sources and drinking buddies. Travel passengers were sources of fun and interesting life stories to say nothing of some becoming friends or business connections. We even came across an MD that works with one of my wife’s doctors at Stanford. It was a fresh and rewarding experience. Now the challenge is to continue this process at home where the pace is different and the priorities tend to get disguised.