Strangers: Would you help them out?
I often get asked why I spend a considerable amount of my spare time giving back to strangers in some shape or form. More often than not I really and I mean really struggle to answer the question. It’s complicated to put into words because it’s just something that is so inherently natural to me, like it’s just a part of my DNA. The psychology researcher Abigail Marsh studies ‘why some people are more altruistic than others’ and she concludes her Ted Talk by stating that whilst there are people that are “inherently more sensitive to the suffering of distant others”, the ability to be compassionate towards strangers “is within reach for everyone.” Now I am completely aware that giving back to strangers might not be for everyone, but I thought I’d share with you some of my experiences and why I believe everyone should give it a try.
There have been increasing amounts of research in recent years about how our need to connect with others is as basic a human need as food, water and shelter. Over the past year whilst embarking on a variety of giving back endeavours, from mentoring to even writing these LinkedIn posts, I’ve met a wide array of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Now I will confess to those of you that don’t know, I am as far on the introverted scale as you can possibly imagine which is a complete paradox considering I am absolutely fascinated by people and their stories. Let’s just say there has been a considerable amount of what I’ll call ‘temporary discomfort’ in the way of new introductions. Having said that the amount of new connections I’ve made, the in-depth discussions I’ve had (introvert delight), the things I have learnt, the ideas we have shared has fuelled so much personal growth.
“Especially at a time where there is so much divide, uncertainty, negativity it is through our passions, interests and causes that we come together as one.”
Ditch the labels
When I’m on my way home on occasion I will sit, and have a chat with a homeless person. When I share some of the fascinating stories I’ve heard with other people I get the most varying and interesting reactions. When I read that there was due to be a TedTalk on ‘why you should talk to strangers’ I was filled with excitement and anticipation. Kio Stark points out that “most strangers aren't dangerous. We're uneasy around them because we have no context. We don't know what their intentions are. So instead of using our perceptions and making choices, we rely on this category of ‘stranger’." In other words, we have pigeonholed and labelled a group of people with all sorts of connotations. We are so quick to make judgements, rely on what labels society has given certain “categories” and in turn we stop ourselves connecting with the most profound and unique individuals that walk amongst us.
“It is entirely up to us what meaning we chose to give someone, remove the label or category and they are simply a human being.”
The reality check
During the summer, I spent numerous nights over the period of a week surveying homeless people in my community as part of WHAT. I went to work from 09:00-18:00 and then from 21:00-02:00 I went out on the streets of London to talk to homeless people. My colleagues and friends thought I was crazy and the question they kept asking was "why would you do that?". My answer was simple, "because tomorrow it could be you or it could be me". Yes, it was incredibly difficult, yes I was terribly exhausted but it was the most heart-wrenching, humbling and moving experience I’ve ever been a part of. We are so focused and head down in our bubbles that sometimes we inadvertently turn a blind eye to what happens outside of our own lives. Humans have the tendency of thinking we are fundamentally selfish but we have the power to change that.
"Sometimes it is simply the gesture of lifting our heads up that puts life into a completely difference perspective."
Pay it forward
Another question I often get asked is “with an office job, studying in the evening and having a social life, where do you find the time to write, volunteer, mentor?”. As with anything in life that matters to you, you will make the time. Adam Grant, author of the best-selling ‘Give and Take’ talks about how he as a giver focuses on “five-minute favors as micro-loans of his time” and how the success of our career is down to how much of our time and knowledge we give back. I chose to give back because whilst I get incredible amounts of satisfaction, I remember situations in my past where I struggled to find that helping hand or where I felt a little lost and could have done with some guidance. That’s why I’ve made it my mission to not be the person that says “no, I can’t help” and be the person that says “how can I help?”.
“With so much animosity, anger and disconnection in our world let us start paying it forward rather than back.”
A few months back over lunch I was asked “what do you want to do in life?” and I replied with the most clichéd answer, which I’m slightly embarrassed to share but I will share nonetheless, “to leave this world having created an impact.” My answer was completely dismissed and I was told it was “too generic and extremely cheesy”. There I was left with a question that had completely thrown me. Then I started reflecting about three things: what I’d done in the past year that mattered to me, what I had really loved doing as a child and what I just wouldn’t be able to live without. All three bought me to the same conclusion, “to help people”. Helping strangers is the purest and most genuine form of interactions that holds no implication or obligation. I had found that giving back to strangers was the food that feeds my soul.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” - Ian Maclaren