The popular wisdom that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with has never quite resonated with me. Originally touted by entrepreneur Jim Rohn and since echoed by many others, the sentiment shrouds friendship and connection in self-interest and the rigidness of “networking.”
The idea overlooks that much of who we spend our time with is outside of our control – work colleagues, family, life-long friends who we may no longer see eye-to-eye with (but still have the biggest belly laughs with.)
The example often drawn by admirers of this philosophy is that if you spend time with fit, active people who go to the gym, you too will find yourself fit, active and going to the gym.
Yet in truth, our natural instinct for friendships and connecting with people goes beyond taut abs. Chemistry draws us to partners and friendships that may not be the most beneficial to our careers or fitness level, but nonetheless add richness to our lives.
While we could cull such connections in order to ‘upgrade’ our social circle, there is something uneasy about forming relationships on the basis of how they will propel us forward, instead of how they will soften and deepen us in a myriad of ways.
What does resonate, though, is the idea that much of who we are and what we know comes from the people we surround ourselves with. Part of being a social animal is that we learn through engagement.
The question is, why does this growth need to be limited to five people? Rather, shouldn’t we seek out a diversity of friendships? Shouldn’t we be open to alternative ideas, activities, conversations, and approaches?
At the beginning of 2016, I wanted to see what would happen if I stepped outside my friendship comfort zone, outside the five people I’m closest to, and decided to meet a stranger each week.
Luckily, as a writer and interviewer with a decent social media following, finding a new person to meet each week came easily. From meeting someone in person to conduct a conversational interview, to reaching out to someone I admire on Instagram, or saying yes to a request to meet via email, in one year I met 78 new people, (or on average 1.5 strangers a week.)
It soon became apparent that there are so many parts of ourselves that are only uncovered when someone new is introduced into our lives, and vice versa.
What I learned from meeting a stranger each week
1. Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet
The adage proved true. With the expectation that most encounters would be superficial meet and greets, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly friendships can form between two strangers.
Of the 78 new people I met, some became good acquaintances. As someone who often feels a crippling sense of anxiety walking into a launch or event, meeting a stranger a week has meant that the chances of bumping into a friendly face have increased (and the trips to the restroom to take an "introvert-breather" have also decreased!)
Others became collaborators, whether it be as someone to have coffee with and talk about writing ideas or dilemmas, or referring work to one another. There were some that I dated romantically. Some that became good friends who I had over to dinner. Some became great friends who met my friends and vice-versa, and some even became housemates!
A year later, it’s astonishing to think some of my now closest friends were strangers only a few months ago.
The lesson being, you have no idea what impact someone can have on your life, or what they could become, until you meet them.
2. There will be a ripple effect
A few weeks into the strangers experiment, I found that meeting one new person would often lead to introductions to one, two, or even three more strangers.
Someone would mention that I’d really get along with so-and-so, and then make an introduction or pass on their contact details so I could get in touch. In other instances, after our initial meeting I’d be invited to an event or dinner and meet a handful of new people there.
What increased this refer-a-friend phenomenon was being generous in my own introductions. In other words, to attract new friends, connect friends. Start by switching on your friendship radar and being active in meeting new people – reach out on social media, follow up after you’ve met someone new, and say yes to requests to meet others.
3. Your world expands
At times, it’s easy to feel disenchanted by the routine of catching up with the same people, doing the same thing, and having the same conversations.
What I learned in my experiment is it’s important to go out of your way to meet people who are not like you, with different backgrounds, expertise, and experiences.
This requires being a little braver. Similar to dating, meeting new people for friendship or connection opens us up to rejection. It’s much easier to stay inside your comfort zone, but far more rewarding to be open to possibilities.
As Heather Havrilesky writes in her weekly advice column Ask Polly: “Socialising is no fun if you’re just seeing the people who are the easiest to see and never taking a risk and inviting someone great to spend time with you for the first time, because you know in your heart that the two of you are kindred spirits.”
I also learned from a former stranger (and now close friend) to be open not just to new people, but new experiences. Previously quick to say no to invitations as an introvert-default, I now have a rule that if someone new, or someone interesting asks you to do something, say yes.
4. Opportunities flow through people
Halfway through the year, I quit my job as an arts journalist to go freelance. Remarkably and without actively seeking them, some of my most lucrative writing jobs and opportunities have flowed through a stranger I met in this experiment.
I also found a dream room in a dream share house on the dream street in Melbourne through a stranger-turned-housemate. I’ve participated in surreal art events, been invited to speak at events, completed a Vedic Meditation course, and had Skype calls with people I’ve long admired.
I wouldn’t say it’s entirely who you know that brings opportunities – but it’s certainly a large part. As entrepreneur Ben Casnocha told said to Jocelyn K Glei in an interview: “Every opportunity is attached to a person. Opportunities do not float like clouds in the sky. They’re attached to people. If you’re looking for an opportunity — including one that has a financial payoff — you’re really looking for a person.”
5. A never-ending experiment
Despite having completed my year of strangers experiment and now well into 2017, I continue to meet on average one new person each week. Once begun, there’s a momentum and joy to meeting new people that is not easily halted.
After all, why would you want to put a cap to your friendships?
It’s not the five people closest to us that impact our lives, but everyone around us. Who we interact with, who we form friendships with, and who we offer generosity to, return it. Our world expands, and so does our luck.
As Glei continues: “Whether it’s in your career, in love, or in life, opportunities flow through people. If you want to increase your luck, start putting yourself in harm’s way.”
Experiment, be brave, and meet a stranger – or 78!