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Commuting Conversations: Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Talking To People On Public Transportation

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For me, there’s something profoundly uncomfortable about spending an hour, three hours, even fifteen minutes sitting arm-to-arm with someone, so close you can tell if he or she has been to the gym lately, and pretending they don’t exist. That, or I just have a compulsion to talk to strangers. Either way, getting into conversations on public transportation seems to be a hobby of mine.

Don’t worry, I’m not the type to bother someone who clearly does not want to be bothered. Eight times out of ten I’ll just throw out a “Good morning,” or for a girl, “I like your shoes,” and the person is so shocked by the human contact that he or she will pick up the conversation, ask me what I’m reading, and so it goes. Often I have come to know the details of a complete stranger’s career choices before 8:00 a.m. And even more often, I’ve emerged from Penn Station, O’Hare, Port Authority, etc. with some gem of wisdom I’m turning over in my head for the rest of the day. Here are a few from recent commutes.

1. Don’t give up on your passion just because it isn’t your job.

A couple of weeks ago, my train stopped and the conductor called for a doctor to help one of the passengers who was “in distress.” I commented to the forty-ish Indian man beside me that a doctor is the only profession in which you may be called at any time in your everyday life to perform your job. He pondered this for a solid five minutes and said, “You know, you’re right. No one ever says, ‘Quick! Is there a photographer on the train?’” Naturally this segued into a conversation about his passion for art and how he was pushed to go to RPI (which he hated) and become an engineer. Unlike many people I encounter on the train though, he didn’t seem bitter about his job. He seemed genuinely content to be supporting his wife and two-year old son of whom he sincerely, heart-wrenchingly, said, “He’s my best friend.” The kicker was that even with a young son, a tough job, and two-hour commute each way, he still makes time to paint, and loves it.

2. You can be happy in any job.

This lesson is brought to you by my favorite person I see in my daily commute: the man who sells coffee (and other things) at the Madison train station. This guy is a straight-up legend. Selling coffee to cranky commuters every morning could make a lesser man cranky as well, but instead he’s the happiest guy and improves the day of every single person he encounters. He’s a living tribute to the fact that happiness is a choice that you project outward, not something you happen upon by luck.

3. Stop looking backwards.

There’s something about talking to a freshly graduated woman that makes middle-aged suburban fathers get wistful about keg parties, sex with 22-year-olds, and no responsibility. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me. But to me, there’s no more depressing thing to hear than, “College is the best four years of your life,” especially from a dad with two mind-blowingly adorable, well-behaved children in tow. So you’re saying my life is on a downward trajectory from this point on. It can really get a girl down first thing in the morning. The thing you learn though, looking in those forlorn dude’s eyes, is that it’s the looking back that’s the problem. One dad recently got that nostalgic look in his eyes about his days at UConn, but I managed to bring him back around to the subject of his kids. Before long he was showing me pictures of the five of them, all the cutest little gingers, and that look had changed completely. Focus on the good that’s right in front of you.

4. If your job is making you miserable, find a new one.

This lesson comes courtesy of a 26-year-old HR manager, who I swear to you looked exactly like Skylar Astin with glasses and was watching the third-to-last episode of Breaking Bad on the train. (If you know the episode, you know he was highly distressed at the end of it and naturally wanted me to commiserate.) In any case, he was previously in a job which required flying to different locations across the country for the sole purpose of firing people. Yes, firing people is part of working in HR, but he said this job was too much, and was making him miserable. So (imagine this!) he found a new one and is much happier. You don’t have to dread going to work every day.

5. Networking happens everywhere.

This is one of my favorites from the past few months. On a Southwest flight to Chicago, I chatted with an impeccably dressed, very sweet, thankfully not longing to be in college again, fifty-something father who was going to visit his mom. We talked about his son and my brother applying to colleges, ND football, the list titled “Ideas” he was in the midst of composing on his iPad, and so forth. Turns out the guy was the CEO of a major corporation and, ahem, a multi-millionaire. Granted, I have absolutely no interest or affiliation with the industry in which he works, but it was a lovely encounter and we went on our merry ways. A few weeks later, my company moved into his company’s building, one floor apart. I sent him an email with the subject line, “Hi neighbor” and he emailed back, “Amazing! I was just telling an ND friend I met a fantastic young grad on a flight. Let me know if you want to get coffee.” The world is tiny. Don’t ignore the person next to you.

6. Share what you’ve learned with other people.

Sometimes there’s a slight downside to opening myself up to conversation with my fellow humans. You get the crazies, the ramblers, the creeps, the flat-out bores. Recently on a flight I spoke with an older woman who seemed intent on sharing every single lesson she had learned in the past seventy years. She was very sweet, but I think I sprained my neck from spending two straight hours nodding. From talking to people, especially older people, you can tell that at a certain point you’re going to feel compelled to share everything you’ve learned, especially careerwise. Don’t wait until it gets to that point. Offer your best advice when friends are in a tough situation, go out of your way to make a helpful introduction, trade stories with strangers. It’ll help you as much as the person you’re helping.

Photo: Thinkstock

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I could never do what you do, but love the stories you've pulled out of these encounters and your fun writing. Great tidbits :)

I think this has just earned its spot as my favorite article of yours! Some inspiration for those of us who are the ones shocked by the human contact ;)

Such a prestigious spot! This article is honored :)

Aw thank you so much Charmaine! I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that.

I commute to work every day and usually sit there reading. After reading your insightful encounters I think I shall try striking up a conversation or two on the train this week!


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