When I landed in Australia from my home country of India, everything was new. Even the air seemed exciting. Life was sparkly and there was a sense of anticipation about what the future held in store. This had been a massive decision of uprooting ourselves from a well settled life, leaving everything that was familiar behind and starting out on a brand new adventure. Then the sheen of it started to get dull over time. Reality set in. There was just too much of 'new' to deal with and not enough mental energy to process it. Too many things to straighten out and not enough clarity on how to get it all done. Decisions to be taken, but not enough information to decide the next best step.
In this phase, one advice began to roll in over and over. We might as well call it the Australian national advice. It went like this:
"Sonali, it's not what you know, it's who you know."
When I had heard this more times than I care to remember, I took a few steps back and thought of why this was not working out for me. I didn't even know what it meant. My mind could not get over the hurdle of having to put aside what I had worked my butt off for twenty years to 'know'. Knowing was my thing. Maybe, the advice did not mean we ignore what we knew, but there still was the issue of 'it's who you know'. Well, that was precisely my problem. I didn't know enough people. What was I to do then? After finding this frustrating for a while, I did what comes most naturally to us living in our super virtual world, I got active on social media with considerable energy.
I started to send out cold connection requests on LinkedIn. Something I had never done before. This was cringe-worthy even as I did it. I felt self-conscious, a bit embarrassed and my temporary sense of brashness that said, let's get this done, soon wore off into absolute doubt. I don't advice spamming people, and even though I was targetting connections in my areas of work and common interest, this was definitely out of my comfort zone. I sent out several requests over a period of time, but wasn't sure why I was doing this. I withdrew some the next day hoping the person hadn't noticed it yet.
Then something happened. People began to accept my invites - they had trusted a stranger. More startling was this, a few people wrote back warm notes saying they really liked my professional profile, and would I care for a cup of tea sometime to discuss if there were opportunities to collaborate? (Well, they said, coffee, but I am partial to tea.)
I was stunned. Strangers not only connected, but wanted to meet with me? My old self kicked into gear. What had I gotten myself into! Was this even safe and sensible? All my hang-ups about meeting strangers and putting myself out there sprang into action from all corners of my mind. I wasn't at all sure I wanted to do this. Yet, there they were, invitations waiting to be responded to. I took a deep breath and stepped out from behind my screen. And that's how my cups of tea with strangers started out, but what they turned into blew my mind and continue to do so.
When we meet strangers, we sometimes discover the stranger within us, the part of us we didn't know existed or wanted to come face to face with. Meeting strangers isn't about them, it's a lot more about us.
Those first few conversations were not awkward at all and I began to realise this was doable. I could do this. It was surprising that this was even fun, and not hard. So, I took a bold step forward and started to ask a few of my connections on LinkedIn if they would be happy to meet sometime and grab a cup of tea. To my utter surprise, they agreed and I started to get out and about taking care of the business of meeting people. I didn't even have to go back to social media anymore, I was meeting many more people in-person and serendipitously - it was almost as if fate was bringing us together. It was effortless.
As more and more conversations began to fill my appointment diary, I started to see a pattern. We were two strangers who were not obsessed with practical stuff like what we did and how we could work together. Instead, we were talking about our stories. We were talking about who we were, not what we did and what we wanted out of this conversation. Stories tumbled out most unexpectedly of pain, joy, mirth, discovery, exploration, epiphanies in life, hopes and dreams, children and partners, our histories and culture, food and family and what the future might hold for each of us. This was not the plan. This was not the script. This didn't match up to my prejudice and bias of meeting with strangers. This didn't match up to my own perception of how I wasn't the kind of person who went out of her way to meet with strangers. This was a bit of an upheaval. A happy one, though.
Unexpectedly again, friends, supporters and mentors began to emerge. Our conversations felt natural, joyful and uplifting. Life did not seem so unmanageable anymore. I didn't feel so new anymore. I felt comfortable, good in my skin and that I was on to something here. I was beginning to find myself again, but my discovery didn't lead me to the same old place I was familiar with, this was a new space and I liked it much better. This is my discovery and I hope it proves helpful to you, as it has to me.
We are our stories. We aren't what we do, it's who we are that's worthwhile to share.
Connection is easy, it comes naturally, it feels right, it feels normal and it fills you up with joy of having met a real human being. This was inspiring in a way that's hard to describe or pin down. I can describe to you how a rainbow looks, but the wonder of seeing one in the sky has to be your experience. This was nothing like a virtual connection or the temporary sense of achievement of having met with someone sitting behind their screen as we wrote to them from behind ours.
Human beings are meant to experience connection in a way that is inspiring and genuine. We truly meet within the uncertainty of taking chances, of placing the bet on our instincts and our wisdom to know what's right and what feels good and who feels safe. That's where real connectedness lives and that's where we feel like we belong, we are linked and that someone understands who we are.
In the glow of this new-found connectedness, I could see myself clearly. I could understand myself better and I could relate to my own fears and hopes better. It's in our mutual context that we truly live and experience life in all its fickleness and unpredictability. Loneliness and sitting behind desks on our own is not our natural state. That's not where we thrive or come up with our best ideas. We do our best thinking and our best work wandering around in the interconnectedness of our human experience. We are built for inclusion, for connectedness and belonging. We'll have our disappointments and amazements on the way, but that's what makes putting ourselves out there worthwhile. We knew this all along, sometimes, we all need a reminder.
I can now make better sense of the advice I could not understand earlier. This is how it makes sense to me now - It's not what you know, it's what you are about to discover and it's not who you know, it's how you know them. I don't put much stock in getting to know 'important' people, I am very focussed though on getting to know real people who have something valuable to share and who believe that our life is lived in the shared experience of being compassionate, flawed, hopeful and vulnerable.
To share with you an update; instead of sending out cold connection requests, I now do this instead. I get out of my home and attend interesting events, talks, lectures, festivals and discussions. I sign up for places that inspire me. I work with people whom I have something to learn from as well. I never come back without having met some fantastic strangers and learning about their stories and sharing a few of mine!
Who can you have a cup of tea with this week? Who is waiting to be discovered and what can you hope to discover about yourself?