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5 Lessons I’ve Learned From People on The Subway

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Since I wrote the first installment of “Commuting Conversations” in December, the parade of fascinating—and some dull—interactions with strangers has only increased. With a commute that is now one hour and forty-five minutes each way, what else is a girl to do? (Besides the obvious of course: read everything.) There was the Jimmy John’s Guerilla Marketing Expert who wondered if I was interested in the sandwich marketing field, the Tech Account Manager who came to the U.S. from India, the middle-aged man who wrote a memoir while incarcerated in New Orleans, only to have it destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and so many more. These conversations make me feel lucky to have a long commute with the potential to learn something from someone new every single day. Here are just a few of my takeaways from recent “commuting conversations.”

1. It’s never too late to learn something new, but you might as well do it now.

A few weeks ago a slight, elderly gentleman wearing a Corona Extra hat sat next to me on the train, clutching a tiny canvas bag with shriveled hands. Even though I had my headphones in that night, he eventually smiled at me and asked if I went to school in the city. It turns out that, of all things, the man was returning home from a dance class in the city. Twice a week, this guy rides the train to Penn Station to learn the swing and the Argentinian hustle, a dance I had never even heard of. In the bag were—what else?—his dance shoes. It was just about the last thing I would have expected this particular man to be doing on this particular Wednesday night. He raved about all the learning opportunities and classes available these days, and encouraged me to try some myself. It was a beautiful reminder not to get so bogged down in the day to day that you forget to take advantage of fun, new opportunities to learn.

2. Sometimes people are genuinely terrible.

I view my commute as a personal improvement exercise in empathy, patience, and understanding. In “3 Levels of Rude People and How to Deal with Them,” I wrote about my tried-and-true David Foster Wallace-inspired method for dealing with obnoxious, inconsiderate people, and usually that works for me. But over the past couple of months I’ve been smacked in the face with the realization that every so often, people are just awful. Last month I saw a young pregnant woman get onto a completely packed train, directly ask a middle-aged man if she could have his seat (“I’m so sorry to ask, but would you mind letting me sit there?”), and have him completely ignore her and turn away. (Don’t worry, I jumped up so she could have mine.) You sir, are not a quality individual, and there’s nothing any of us can do about that. Another day, I saw a woman scream at another woman simply because she was blocking the train board without realizing it. Even though the woman under fire quickly apologized and moved to the side, her attacker would not stop. She called the woman fat and ranted about her “ugly eighties hair.” It was one of the most unnecessarily aggressive encounters I’ve ever witnessed. Sometimes people don’t deserve excuses. They’re just the worst.

3. Sometimes people are awesome.

As you can see, on a long, crowded, tense commute, it can at times be a struggle not to give up on humanity. And then…someone does something awesome. Recently a Villanova graduate offered to flat-out give me her flip flops because she saw I was nursing some serious blisters. (She was coming home from an interview at Louis Vuitton—I hope she got the job!) Just last week I forgot my train pass and without saying anything, the guy I was sitting next to went on his app and bought me a one-way ticket. Three cheers for humanity!

4. The most uninteresting people are the ones who think they’re super interesting.

This isn’t so much a specific story as a strong belief of mine that gets reinforced every single day, with each new person I meet. It’s truly remarkable how many “conversations” I end up having with people (almost entirely men, let’s be honest) who are so fascinated by themselves that all I do is nod, occasionally say “cool,” and try to put my headphones back in. If you think your life is supremely fascinating, it probably isn’t. If you are the type of person who asks questions and spends the response thinking about what you’re going to say next, talking to you sucks. If you think your particular interests are so captivating that everyone must want to hear about them in detail, you are delusional. If you are the type of person who talks for half an hour and then says, “Now you tell me something interesting,” you are a pretentious bore. Ask questions and actually listen to the answers. It’s amazing how many people don’t do that.

5. You might be sitting next to a superhero, and you don’t even know it.

In my relatively struggle-free life, I know that I haven’t come close to the limits of a human being’s strength and resilience. Over the past month I’ve been lucky enough to meet a couple of people who have. I struck up a conversation with a man next to me on the train over our mutual love of The Glass Castle, which he was reading. Eventually he told me that he was headed to a detox center to give a speech on his recovery from addiction. There was a time in his life when his heart stopped, his liver shut down, and he was on life support. He showed me a photo from that time, and the man lying there bore absolutely no resemblance to the (okay I’ll say it, very fit and very handsome) one in front of me. His sister took the photo just in case he woke up from his coma, to inspire his recovery. Remarkably, it did, and he has now been clean for five years.

I spoke to another young guy on a Southwest flight about his impending move from Chicago to New York, relationships, and other things, until it eventually came out that he was hit by a drunk driver during his freshman year of college. He was almost killed, left in a coma, and the road to recovery was long and painful. He had to learn how to walk and talk again, and you would never know any of this from talking to him. In a manner typical of genuinely interesting humans, he brushed it off with a casual, “Well, everyone has a story right?” Indeed.

Photo: Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

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