A few years ago as I was wandering through the “Self-Help” section of a well-known local bookstore I noticed a young woman who seemed more than a bit perplexed. Catching my glance, she smiled and said: “I know that one of these books could change my life. I just don’t know which one it is.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. So I smiled back, buying a bit of time to think through her predicament. And then I said, with the half-baked logic of an amateur sage: “You know, we’re all in that situation. Only you’re smart enough to realize it.” A response that was more thoughtful in retrospect than it seemed at the time. “Thanks,” she replied, “I don’t feel quite so foolish now.”
I haven’t seen her again and can only hope that she found what she was searching for. Maybe it was a book on one of those shelves. Or an idea, or another person to connect with, or a story, or a quote, or a lesson from another culture, or a spark of inspiration from an unknown source that gave her the right direction to follow. Or maybe she ended up discovering it somewhere other than the bookstore. On a journey halfway around the world or on a walk through a familiar park. During an episode of a popular TV show or a day spent at an art museum. In the words of a favorite song or the experience of a concert held in a grand orchestra hall. In a lecture on a subject she knew very little about, or a familiar sign posted along a busy neighborhood street. In the mysterious ritual of someone else’s religion, the best practice of a renowned corporation, or the daily life of a creature from another species.
The fact that she was looking curiously to fill a gap in what she knew—to find her own missing piece—was the essential first step. It’s a step that too few of us ever take as individuals, companies, and organizations, or even as communities and nations. But a step that reminded me of just how close we all are to unlocking our real potential. If only we dared to be curious and open to the world around us and all of the strangers in it—in order to find something that could make the essential difference.
Each day we pass by literally hundreds of people, places, and things that could change our lives, but we never take the time to notice them. In our rush to get from Point A to Point B, we walk past strangers who know things we’ve yet to discover. We walk past stores, offices, galleries, libraries, and even billboards with powerful insight to share. We observe or ignore holidays and events filled with meaning. We stroll through new or familiar places failing to look below the surface to figure out what makes them remarkable. We watch movies, listen to the radio, read a newspaper or a blog, or search the web without seeing the real brilliance in an idea that could matter to our life or the success of our workplace or the place we call home. All because we have forgotten how to be curious and open and, lacking confidence in this innate human talent, we are unable to believe that important ideas abound and that we can be more remarkable simply by connecting with them, understanding them, and combining them with what we already know so well. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
January is a perfect time, despite the unseasonably cold weather, to make a fresh start. Our chance to reengage with the world around us in a brand new way. Our chance to understand not only the necessity of strangers but the power in all of us to do work and live lives that are filled with even greater meaning—and to become more remarkable at the things that matter most.
As humans we have the amazing abilities to be more open and to dream, imagine, learn, share, collaborate, innovate, and grow. And together we can reinvent our companies, organizations, markets, communities, relationships, and ourselves. Simply by finding our missing pieces.
So commit to making 2014 a year when you and your colleagues get out there and find the idea or the stranger that could change your lives.
I’m certain that you can.
This post was adapted from The Necessity of Strangers.