06/09/2014 01:38 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Stop Ignoring Everyone: Why you Should Talk to Strangers


Ten months ago I started a project.

The idea is simple: talk to at least one stranger every day for a year. Workdays or holidays, good mood or bad mood, rain or shine I would stop focusing only on myself and be more aware of the people around me. Then, I would let them know I noticed. That's really the only rule.

Sometimes letting someone know I noticed is as simple as saying hi and throwing a smile their way. Other times I go further and buy them lunch and get to know them and their story. I always want my interactions to be about them, not me. I try to make sure those interactions are more than the mindless autopilot conversations the world has sadly become so accustomed to. "How is your day?" "Good," ...silence. "Have a nice day." "You too."

I hate those conversations. So much so, I feel wrong even calling it a conversation. It's no better than talking to a character on the TV.

These autopilot nonsense rituals we allow ourselves to take part in daily are dulling our sense of awareness. They turn what could be meaningful exchanges into wasted time and missed opportunities.

Humans crave interaction with others though most people believe or convince themselves otherwise. In a study done by behavioral scientists in Chicago, people were asked if they believed they would enjoy their commute more if they sat alone in solitude or struck up a conversation with a stranger. Most people responded that they would enjoy a quiet subway ride more than one where they were forced to have a conversation. In the end, those who interacted with strangers had a more pleasant commute than those who didn't.

So why do we allow ourselves to live through so many meaningless interactions and all but ignore those around us when we know there are better alternatives? Because anything else would be uncomfortable.

Comfort is the enemy of happiness and success. Look at anyone who has done anything remotely great with his or her life. They're probably pretty acquainted with that sinking feeling in the bottom of their stomach. The one so many people run from at the first sign of discomfort.

So it's uncomfortable to have a genuine conversation with the person sitting next to you. I understand. I've been there. But may I remind you, you do have a choice. You can stay comfortable or you can conquer your fear and possibly brighten someone's day -- including your own. Your call.

So you don't know what to say or what they'll say back. That's fine, too. It's intimidating. It's a risk opening your mouth. You never know what will happen. While I've had a few awkward interactions, in my experiences talking to a stranger every day for over 250 days straight now, the bad is all but nonexistent when compared with the good. I have made the choice not to dwell on the awkward or negative experiences. You can't control what will happen but you can control your attitude.

The best things I've done in my life are the things I was most nervous about doing beforehand. The nervous feeling stops the weak dead in their tracks. You have to take risks if you want to accomplish anything of value. That means even though you don't know the outcome, you still go for it. Once you learn to embrace the discomfort of getting out of your comfort zone, you will find more meaning in life than you ever thought possible.

It's not always going to work out. That's the nature of risk and trying new things. But even when you fail, you did something you were afraid to do and you can learn from that. That's where real progress is made. Good or bad, experiences are the currency of life.

My experiences have changed who I am and I have no doubt they will do the same for anyone who seeks a similar path of discomfort. I no longer fly on autopilot. I wake up every day ready to live in the same world as seven billion other people. I wake up ready to acknowledge they exist and then do something to let them know I noticed. I wake up ready to find more meaning in my life, and talking with strangers is one of my favorite ways to do that.

I'd love to hear what you think. How have you found fulfillment in embracing discomfort or talking to strangers?