04/25/2013 01:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Learning to Rely on the Kindness of Strangers


Family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances rarely spark epiphanies or the sudden realization of great truths. Over time, the people we feel most comfortable with and with whom we enjoy most of our life increasingly think more like us and we like them. As a consequence, we, ever so slowly, stagnate. Realizing what you don't know that you don't know and fostering new thoughts takes a proactive effort. One has to reach out and rely on the kindness of strangers. They are all around us and all it takes is asking and "ye shall receive."

In the past, mingling with strangers in everyday life took a serious time investment and extra effort. In the context of business life it is still considered a high opportunity cost to "waste time" on unimportant (read unprofitable) people. If a relationship does not seem to immediately bear fruit, it is not even pursued. Fortunately, the growth of social media makes it effortless to explore and to connect with new valuable individuals who can help us question our paradigms and maybe even progress to the next personal and professional stage.

Here are four approaches, ordered in degree of involvement, well worth trying to gain surprising insights and challenge one's current paradigms.

Help someone -- Asking if you can help someone by looking into something for them, is a good way to expand one's search field. As an example, if you are attending a conference, trade show or other network event, mail out an invitation to friends and colleagues asking them if there is something you can look into for them while you are there. They may even do the same for you one day.

Crowdsourcing -- Posting open-ended inspiring questions on social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn can yield new insights. To attract attention and keep the discussion flowing it is important to moderate the conversation daily over a period of one to three weeks, by injecting encouraging but neutral comments. Beside gaining new insight, this is an excellent way of expanding one's network and including people outside your usual social group.

Trust More -- Trust more than you usually do. Trusting strangers can seem risky, however, studies show that if one lives in a reasonably benign environment taking even an unwarranted chance on unproven people could be worthwhile. A good way to start out is to collaborating on a small time limited project, such as a short article, and if that works out proceed to a more involved project, such as a small research project. The mere increase in exposure and experience from collaborations can outweigh failures.

Live abroad -- Living in another country and picking up a new language is an excellent way to challenge one's assumptions of how things should be done.

For example, I have lived in Switzerland, where working in a French-speaking engineering department was an "aha moment," while working in Germany provided a completely different set of rules. Then there was the melting pot of California, where there seems no limit to what people can imagine and finally Korea, where an extremely homogenous society with many traditions provide Confucian guidelines for how to successfully live one's life.

As the old adage goes, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears" and he may not be in your own back yard.