The opportunity killer in your hand

Twenty-five years ago, I couldn’t find a job in Massachusetts. A recession was squeezing businesses, nobody was hiring, and unemployment would be tripling in the next two years. I packed my dog and all my belongings into a small car and headed west.

After job-seeking stops in Syracuse, Columbus, Detroit and Chicago, I ended up sleeping on a friend’s couch in Minneapolis, MN. Before heading out to my 7th interview at Dayton Hudson Corporation (extra points if you know what that became), I walked my dog in my friend’s small neighborhood park. There, I met a woman who said her husband’s organization was looking for someone with communications skills. After one meeting, he hired me to manage communications for a new university department he was leading. That job kicked off a career in communications.

Fifteen years ago, I worked at an agency and shared my commute with another employee on a regular basis. We got to know each other as we talked about everything from his screaming children to how to make our company better. Making use of that car time and many hours of conversation, we built a business plan and started what became HB. We are still business partners today.

Three years ago, I flew to a business meeting on the West Coast, and sat next to the CFO of a sustainable food production business. Turns out we live near each other in rural Massachusetts, and I was surprised to learn that his business was headquartered nearby. He was surprised to find the head of an agency like HB living so close to him. Today, our companies are exploring ways to work together.

These results, and many others, stemmed from conversations. In two out of three instances, they were conversations with complete strangers that would never have happened if I:

  • had my head buried in a device when walking my dog;
  • used every airplane minute to work and catch up on media;
  • exchanged “work time” with my commuting buddy, where one of us would work wirelessly while the other drove.

Today, I’m surrounded by people whose faces reflect the glow of electronic absorption. I can’t even make eye contact. When I’m away from home, I sometimes eat at the hotel’s bar. The last time I did this, three men and one woman were also at the bar, each one glued to a smartphone. I pointed it out to a bartender, and he said, “If I weren’t talking to you, I’d be doing the same thing.” One of the smartphone users looked up, smiled for a moment, then looked back down. Some distant part of his brain heard me talking about the way people used to meet, learn from each other, find opportunities. But he turned back to an important email conversation, probably thinking that I was speaking a foreign language. If we had talked, we might have found common ground and ended up helping each other in some way. We would have certainly enjoyed the evening more.

How often do you sit in waiting rooms, airport lounges, restaurants, or bus, airplane and train seats where you completely ignore those around you? For what? To catch up on one more email only to chime in “I agree” to a message thread where you’re one of a dozen recipients? And for this, you kill the opportunities around you. In some cases, like the ones I described, these opportunities are worth thousands or millions of dollars. In other cases, they’re worth a shared moment, a laugh, a common thread that reminds you of your shared humanity.

Connecting to other people is a privilege, yielding moments of learning, absorbing stories, sharing perspectives. Such live connections offer the best opportunity to lead a richer existence, whether or not financial gain is involved.

Today, many of us use the devices to avoid connecting with others. We write email when we should call, text when we should talk. This means we’re becoming more task-oriented and losing much of the value that comes from human interaction. By hiding in our devices, we lose a level of humanity: our advice is more easily dismissed; our tone more easily misinterpreted; our value more easily forgotten; our people more easily fired.

Put down the device. Think. Write a letter. Think some more. Say hello to a stranger. And notice the flood of ideas, the opportunities and the good feelings. Next time you’re on an airplane, introduce yourself to the person next to you. You might find you know a few people in common. You might find reason to get to know each other more. You might find that connecting outside LinkedIn feels better and lasts longer than connecting inside LinkedIn.

 

 

Mower

About Mower Boston

Boston's Mower office is a full-service technology marketing, PR and branding agency. Our B2B stories illustrate projects and campaigns in a variety of markets and media that range from local impact in Boston and New England to global proportions.

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