The first conversation we have with somebody can be awkward. We don’t know them, so the first thing we do is make connections, how do you know so and so if we are at a party or a wedding is a routine question. If we are both married with kids, we might ask about that, too. We just find common ground, essentially asking the question What do we have in common so I can understand you through the lens of my own experience? Or, perhaps more crudely How are you like me, and so how are you human? From there we tend to ask what they do, where they work. That’s not a bad question, because work often encompasses our passions and even our education, but it also rings of you are your work.
We are much more than our work and even our family. These formulaic questions evolved from the need to make conversation more than the desire to get know somebody. What results is we begin to think that people are fairly boring. But it’s not the case.
After writing Million Miles, I realized every person has a story. And I started asking different questions when I met strangers. And I was amazed at the result. Recently, on a trip to Los Angeles, I got to hear two amazing stories of the first two people I interacted with, the driver of the car that picked me up and the lady who put makeup on me (I know, strange but it happened) before an interview. And I was shocked. It made me wonder if nearly everybody around me had an amazing story, and I was simply asking them where they worked. I’ll share bits of the stories in a moment.
A story is a character that wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. So next time you meet somebody, delve into their story, not their job or the weather they experience where they live. To find out a persons story, you have to find out what they want or have wanted in life, what conflict they endured in getting what they wanted, and what great moments of celebration they have experienced. Questions like this:
A CHARACTER THAT WANTS SOMETHING:
1. Why did you come to America?
2. What drives you?
3. What do you hope for for yourself and your family?
AND OVERCOMES CONFLICT:
1. That couldn’t have been an easy transition to America. What was the most shocking thing you endured?
2. Was that a lonely journey?
3. Did you ever think it wasn’t going to happen for you?
TO GET IT:
1. When did you realize you were happier than the average man?
2. If there could be a moment in the future when you’ll realize that you made it, what would that moment look like?
3. When the credits roll, what do you think is most important in life?
If you ask these questions, I promise, you will be entertained for the next hour. Not only will you hear stories, but you will watch as a person truly reflects on their life, and you’ll learn a great deal about what most people find important. You’ll be amazed that most people don’t really care about money or prestige, they care about love, about weddings and funerals, about children, about dignity and integrity.
So the driver of the car that picked me up had come to America from Poland. He’d married and lived in Chicago where he had a son, but then got divorced. He’d been part of a small, polish community and had to move to Los Angeles in order to give his ex-wife space. They simply couldn’t share that many friends. He’d remarried a woman twenty years younger, and he loved her. His son was in college in Los Angeles. He’d been friends with the Polish President who recently died in a plane crash. He choked up as he told the story. He talked about grieving for his leader while nobody in Los Angeles understood his loss. He hoped to stay married and be a good man to his new wife. He wanted his son to respect him.
The woman who did my makeup? She had come to Los Angels to be a model and that worked out for a while, but as she got older there was less work (she was in her fifties and strikingly beautiful.) She had come to California from Mississippi. She missed the south, the meals, the family. Her Uncle was named Uncle Medgar, and she remembered him fondly, how he would joke with her and her siblings. He was assassinated by the Klu Klux Klan, an event that motivated national protest. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors. He was Medgar Evers.
I also met a man who worked at a 7-11. He had come to America from Iran, escaped to Greece and came to our country with a fake passport. While in Iran, he was trained in elementary school to assemble and disassemble a rifle. He watched religious fundamentalist kill one of his teachers. When he came to America, still in elementary school, he lived in fear that his teachers would find out he was not Greek, take him out back and shoot him. He was happy to be in America now.
So next time you are at a wedding or a party, don’t settle for answers like I work for Microsoft. Everybody has a story. Everybody is a story.