I was flying somewhere – maybe Baltimore, maybe LA – and got into a conversation with the man that was seated next to me.
I actually started the conversation. I don’t know why. I rarely do that. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid I’ll get into a stupid conversation that will last the entire trip. Perhaps it’s because I’m not comfortable talking to strangers. Probably both.
The conversation began as it usually does: an innocuous comment about the service… leading to where are you going/coming from?… leading to whatever.
In this case, it meandered around to one of my pet projects: a 10-acre botanical garden that I’ve been developing for about five years. I explained to my seatmate that it is something I love. Something I’m proud of that I want to outlive me. To that end, I said, I’m thinking of leaving it to Delray Beach or Palm Beach County to maintain after I’m gone.
“Be careful about that,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said, “but I’m a consultant. And my job is to work with municipalities to save private botanical gardens that have been willed to them.”
“You’re making that up.”
Turns out he’d begun his career as a botanist, and was eventually hired by a large theme park in Florida as the director of management and maintenance. In this position, he had the opportunity to travel around the country to buy plants and equipment from dozens of municipal gardens that had fallen into disrepair.
In almost every case, someone had donated a beautiful private garden to the municipality. The municipality accepted it but – because they knew nothing about how to take care of it (and had no funds to do so) – they let it go to seed. Sooner or later, the garden was in such bad shape that they were forced to sell off what was left.
He explained that if I didn’t find a way to get my botanical garden to produce the cash it needed for maintenance, it would likely suffer the same fate. And then he explained what I needed to do to avoid such a disaster and offered his help.
When I tell that story, people are astonished at my luck. “What are the chances of sitting down next to that guy?” they want to know.
It does seem crazy lucky, doesn’t it?
But I’d like to think that I can take some credit for the good things that happen to me.
And according to a TED Talk by Tina Seelig that I listened to recently… I can.
Ms. Seelig’s contention is that what people call luck is very often the natural result of human action, not chance. In particular, a willingness to step out of your comfort zone and take small risks.
She illustrates her point with a story that is very similar to mine:
Flying home from someplace, she was seated next to a middle-aged businessman that looked “sort of interesting.” Although she was ordinarily too shy to do so, she struck up a conversation that wound here and there and eventually got to what they each did for a living. She was a fledgling writer looking for a publisher. He was a publisher always on the lookout for new talent.
She summoned up the courage to give him a copy of her manuscript. He told her he’d look at it and get back to her. Several weeks later, he did. He wrote her a very nice note saying that he thought the book was well done, but its subject matter was outside of his area. She thanked him for his effort and then, to her surprise, he wrote her back. Thus began a long-term relationship, And though he hadn’t been interested in her book, he introduced her to someone who was. Two weeks after that introduction, she had a book contract. And within two years, her book had sold more than a million copies around the world.
The outcomes of both of these examples are anchored on the same action: talking to strangers.
When I think back on the lucky breaks I’ve had, a great many of them involved some effort I made to start a conversation with someone I didn’t know.
How many times have you had such a conversation and ended up talking about something that linked the two of you in some way? A place you both visited? A restaurant you both ate at? A favourite author?
I’ve noticed that some of the most accomplished businesspeople I know frequently make helpful connections that way.
How many times have you had a conversation with a stranger that resulted in your being able to help them with a possible solution to a problem they had?
It happens all the time.
Luck exists. No doubt about it. You can increase the odds that you’ll get lucky by taking action. To that end, one of the most effective actions you can take is to make connections with new people. In other words, push yourself to step out of your comfort zone and talk to strangers.