If you grew up in the late 80s and 90s like I did (and probably before,) your parents warned you not to talk to strangers. Strangers were strangers. They could be anything or anyone. They could hurt you, or steal from you. They could follow you home.
Then we grew up, and we quickly found that strangers are friends you haven’t met yet. They can also lead you toward your next great steps in life.
A Very Good Day
I was already having a good day. I’d been instructed to check out a hole-in-the-wall banh mi place not far from home, pick up some locally made tofu, and I found out that a brewery I like has a taproom nearby. I picked up a banh mi (which did not survive the six blocks between the shop and the taproom) and then sat down for a beer. Gigantic Brewing is one of the nerdier breweries in town, having lately finished a series of beers inspired by the Hellboy comics. Their Robot Room offers 16 taps of their beer and bottles for sale, connected to a Oaxacan taqueria and an African kitchen.
My intention was fully to sit down, have a bite of my lately-departed sandwich, and get some writing done over a tasty beer (such as I normally get my best work done.) Those plans were thwarted, however, the moment I started talking to Cody the bartender. The fact that this is my weekend led to the perpetual small-talk standby “So what do you do?“
The words “I’m a pastry chef” tend to start a lot more conversations than it concludes, and passionate people are passionate about a LOT of things. Very often that includes food, and Cody started telling me about how his COVID lockdown project was mastering making French Macarons. We chatted for a bit and I started telling him about the specials I’m working on for April in the pie shop. As we chatted, two men came in with their lunch and listened in. “Dude, what do you do?! You guys are making me hungry.”
THAT led to a conversation about what makes good pies, the best places to get vegan and gluten-free baked goods in the city (believe it or not, there are plenty of places to get VGF pastry that don’t suck,) and my own time spent exploring and writing about Portland’s food culture.
Even though I’ve only lived in this city for about six years, one of my secret joys is acting as a “food concierge” to visitors– pumping them for information about what they like and then pointing them to my favorite restaurants and eateries. “You’re tasting Chinese? What kind? What dishes? I’ve got a list.” “Central American? Name a cuisine, man- I know places for Venezuelan, Honduran, a few kinds of Mexican…” As we talked, the two men started looking up menus and locations on their phones.
As it turns out, you may see some of my work in travel magazines soon. It’s because I looked up from my phone and decided to have a conversation with some friendly strangers.
Connections Happen When You’re Not Trying
Maybe it’s the 80s and 90s cheesiness of “networking events” and the piles of books by business gurus that try to intellectualize the process, but I never think of getting into these conversations as “networking” or “making connections.” It feels sterile, inorganic, and frankly shallow. I will always believe that the best opportunities come when you aren’t looking for them, and that trying to force them into showing up defeats the point. Going to or hearing about one of those tiresome “liquid lunches” frustrates me to no end- every person has the same script they follow, the pasted-on smile and fist full of business cards. I have never made a single worthwhile connection at any of those damn things.
Where did my best opportunities come from? Meeting people where they are. Finding their real faces and showing them mine. Listening without artifice, speaking without motive, and engaging with no goal beyond meeting fascinating people. Special business cards and a sharp suit will get you attention, but authenticity and approachability will get you connected.
Skip the networking events and get into classes. Meet with groups. Make friends, eat at restaurants, ditch the bullshit and be a human. You’ll see, learn, and discover more than a LinkedIn profile can ever tell you.