By Justin Graves
Hi. I’ve got two questions for you.
- When you think about your own unique talents, what are some things you think of?
- When you think of what’s important to you in the world, what are some things you think of?
There’s a whole realm of possible answers. Maybe you value the fact that you have a really strong artistic ability. Maybe you’re really passionate about your faith, or about sustainable and green living.
For me, the answer to those two questions are intertwined. For as long as I’ve had legitimate memories, I’ve valued the fact that I’m an extrovert. I write “extrovert” to mean that I get most of my energy from other people. Simply being an extrovert is not a special or unique talent, though. But I do think being able to connect with other people through such a trait is unique.
When I think of what is important in the world, I consider this fact: if you are reading this then you are probably, also, a human being. As human beings we have the wonderful opportunity, numerous times throughout our day, to connect with other people. As an extrovert, I take that responsibility very seriously. I own it, I practice it, I refine it, I learn from it, and I live by it.
I have a goal of meeting 1 new person every single day. This goal relates directly to what I think is unique about me, and what is important to me in the world: human connection.
It hasn’t always been that way, though. I’ve been told stories my whole life about how I was profoundly introverted as a young child. I wouldn’t really stray too far from my parents and older siblings and I always preferred to keep it that way. Even in the grocery store, it was like pulling teeth to get me to make eye contact with the nice person helping us bag our groceries. But that all changed, and apparently it happened on one particular day. It was the day that I gained my physical disability of paralysis.
I’ll save that whole story for another day, but here’s a shortened version: I was 3 years old and was at my baby sitter’s. I laid down to take a nap. When I woke up, I couldn’t feel my legs. After months of doctor visits and hospitalizations the diagnosis that would likely prevent me from ever walking again, due to paralysis, was Transverse Myelitis (TM).
As a result, I’ve learned a lot in the time since I’ve gained my disability. The most important thing I’ve learned is how to use a wheelchair to get around. And I use those words very intentionally: “using a wheelchair to get around.” I am not “in” a wheelchair, nor am I confined to any device. I simply use it as a different mode of transportation. Yes, by necessity; but to me, it’s just different. Not less than, not bad, just … different. I’ve also learned that sometimes I may have to do things a bit differently than others, but I can certainly still accomplish the same things. Just in different ways.
The second most important thing I’ve learned, very directly, is that we are all creatures of judgment and perception. As human beings who think critically, we take in our environments through any of our senses and immediately begin to perceive and judge the space and the people around us. When strangers look at me, it is often natural for them to stare at my smaller-than-average legs, do a visual assessment of my wheelchair, and maybe begin thinking about how each of those things are connected … or not connected.
And then they look at me. Into my eyes. After staring, sometimes they look away. Other times, they smile back.
When I graduated high school at age 17 and went to university at Virginia Tech, I was hyperaware of these habits of others. Not being one to sit idly by and continue receiving interactions I did not prefer, I decided to do something about it. Then, in 2008, is when my goal of meeting 1 new person everyday was established. I thought that if I could give as many people a positive interaction with me – an African-American male who is well-spoken and outgoing and also uses a wheelchair to get around – maybe that could help change their immediate judgment or perception of other people who are similarly situated, that they may come into contact with in the future. Maybe it would change the way they treated me, too. Just because, at some point through meeting each other, we had shared connection.
Meeting 1 new person every day began as a kind of advocacy that at times focused on my disability and other times focused on my race and at other times focused on my gender and sexual identity and at other time focused on any other part of my social identity. But the common theme through all of the interactions that I’ve had through this now 9-year old goal? Human connection.
Whenever I launch into a meaningful conversation with that 1 new person that day I like to ask one common question:
“What makes you awesome?”
I believe this question gets at the root of not only what that person may feel is important about themselves as an individual but it also encourages them to think about what it is important to them in the world. This is a window into a person’s personality, their priorities, their habits, and what they genuinely and passionately care about. This is a very efficient yet vulnerable way to ask someone “Who are you? What makes you tick? What or who do you love?” All of those questions, I feel, are kind of wrapped into one when you ask someone what makes them awesome.
I write to remind you that despite what barrier you may perceive that exists between you and the rest of the world, human connection is not to be taken for granted. By meeting 1 new person every day I have had the opportunity to connect with, literally, thousands of people in their own natural habitats. I’ve learned so much from them. And I love to learn … just not always from books. From a local bar to the bus to the train to the dog park … the environments in which I’ve asked folks “What makes you awesome?” are varying and different. But there is a common thread.
These conversations beget connection.
And as human beings, if we don’t have connection, what do we have?
Through meeting 1 new person every day, my quality of life has increased, the opportunities I’ve had accessed to have multiplied, and the quality of the loved ones in my network has ballooned. I’ve thrown “Stranger Dinners,” connecting strangers with each other, around the country. I’ve spoken around the world and connecting folks from one continent to people in another. There aren’t really words, at least none that I can think of right now, that could express the gratitude that I have for the people brought into my life through this goal.
Please do not perceive this as a call to action to establish the same goal. I know that not everyone craves human interaction with others, much less on a daily basis. But instead, accept this as a call to action to adopt a goal that is more achievable for you and your lifestyle based on one theme: achieving more human connection.
Yes, you should also prepare yourself for some instances of rejection. Yes, there are some times where others won’t want to engage. Yes, it can be a challenge when all you want to do is sit on the couch and watch Netflix for the entire day.
Curiousier, itself, is all about how we have ability to enlighten each other every day with different perspectives and open minds. That is fostered through connection.
Connection is not easy. But it is beautiful, it should be shared, and you can do it. You can bring a lot of joy into someone’s life by simply making an effort to connect with them. You can change their mood, brighten their day, or exposed them to a story or opportunity (and vice versa) that wouldn’t have happened if that conversation didn’t happen. It is wild to think that a small greeting could change the entire trajectory of someone’s life, like a butterfly’s wings. But it can. It’s the greatest and also the easiest form of service. Because, “life is all about what you have done for other people.”
Justin Graves is a motivational speaker and also the founder/owner of HESONWHEELS. He has a goal of meeting 1 new person everyday and has done so for the past 9 years. Through these adventures and through his research, Justin travels the world telling stories of connection, inclusion, advocacy, and service. You can learn more at his blog, HESONWHEELS.com. He looks forward to meeting you someday soon.