When’s the last time you “clicked” with someone new? Someone you befriended in real life, not just on Facebook. Who you traded stories with, not just business cards.
It rarely happens, especially after college. We mostly meet people through work and resort to “networking events” to mix things up. Perhaps that’s why Americans held 1.83 million networking events in 2012 alone.
But many of us find these events inauthentic. We slap on a name tag, make small talk and try to get something from one another. So is there a better way to meet people we’ll genuinely like?
Enter Brandon Stanton. As the founder of Humans of New York, a photoblog with 13 million Facebook followers, he interviews strangers and posts their photos. “I’ve met over 5,000 people in the past three years,” Brandon says, “I take their portraits as they tell me about their struggles and insecurities, their highs and lows.” He’s so good at connecting with people that the United Nations recently invited him to interview strangers across 10 countries.
In San Francisco, another man is connecting with strangers — this time with a cup of tea instead of a camera. As the founder of Tea With Strangers, Ankit Shah hosts meetups in local cafes where people discuss everything from falling in love to failing out of law school despite having just met.
“It’s like going to the gym,” he says. “But instead of biceps, you’re working your conversation muscle with a few strangers who realize we’re not that strange after all.” Ankit has hosted 244 of these “tea times” with 1,220 strangers. Recently, he’s expanded to 10 more cities by training 192 new hosts who’ve met with 4,245 strangers.
Though they do it in different ways, Brandon and Ankit have a similar knack for connecting with people. In three years, they’ve collectively met 6,220 people and had deep conversations with many of them. The average American, on the other hand, only confides in 2.08 people.
In other words: if conversation was actually a muscle, then Brandon and Ankit are lifting kettlebells at the gym while we’re shopping for yoga pants at Lululemon. So how do we get stronger? How do we have deep conversations with people we barely know? Can we surpass small talk without feeling fake?
After spending time with Brandon and Ankit, I realized that making deeper connections isn’t about reading body language, asking better questions or being helpful. That’s secondary. The real way to meet others is by spending more time on yourself.
“Most of my time on Tea With Strangers doesn’t actually involve tea with strangers,” Ankit says. “It happens by myself, by my computer. During weekends and late nights. Trying to build the site and grow the community.”
Brandon is the same way — “I’m so focused on HONY that I’m bad about calling my mom. I’m bad about these cocktail parties and conferences too,” he says. “But I will say this: since starting HONY, there’s more to talk about. It’s not at all why I did it, but it’s interesting to have more people come out of the woodwork and approach you.”
That’s exactly the point. People can’t come out of the woodwork until you put in the work. That’s why passion projects matter. Why hobbies matter. Why art matters. Because once we start building something beautiful, that’s when we become attractive.
The key word being: start. You don’t need to finish for people to gravitate towards you. Just lay the foundation. Pick something. Anything. And begin. That’s what Brandon did in May 2010. He was a 26-year-old bond trader in Chicago. But unlike his peers, Brandon didn’t spend his free time networking or taking on extra work around the office. Instead, he spent nights and weekends taking photographs of Chicago. Then he did the same in New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia before moving to New York. Ankit did something similar. As a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, he didn’t spend his last months networking for jobs. Instead, he had tea with strangers.
“Passion can be polarizing,” Ankit says. “Some people won’t understand why you spend so much time on something. Others will get it immediately. And it’s those people you start meeting more of. It’s those people who start reaching out. Some of my favorite emails come from people I’ve never met before but who get what I’m trying to do with Tea With Strangers — and it’s like we click immediately.”
“Just do your work,” Brandon agrees. “If it’s something you truly enjoy without expectations, then you’ll meet others who feel the same way. Too many people wait for the right idea to be heard by the right person. But if you just get started, all of that will take care of itself.”
We each have our versions of Humans of New York and Tea With Strangers inside of us. But we often ignore them as we head into the real world. The artist trades her easel for Excel. The acapella singer replaces his concert halls with conference rooms. The engineer stops tinkering on side projects. Our day jobs consume us so we attend networking events hoping to find someone to bond with when there’s little to bond over. There’s an old saying: it’s not what you know, but who you know. Brandon and Ankit show a new path: it’s not who you know, but what you do. It’s about woodworking, not networking. So do something that speaks to people instead of just speaking with people — and you’ll find the latter becomes much easier.
This article wouldn’t be possible without Alan Eagle, Anita Saggurti, Brett Kopin, David Clavens, Hunter Horsley, Jack Dreifuss, Lizzie Youshaei, Scott Drucker & Simone Stolzoff. Special thank you to Andrew Garcia, Chris Lo, Claudia Hon, Evadora de Zhengia, Karthik Kumar, Lamar Gary & Marco Chiang for taking part in the main photo.