Strangers on a Train: Why Authentic Communities Start Small

-Heather Braun

“That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” ― Audre Lorde

Bringing strangers together to design their lives reminds me of traveling by train. In my twenties, I toured Europe solo and entirely via trains, meeting new friends on board whose experiences and itineraries varied dramatically from my own. But lately, when I take the train from Baltimore to DC and back, I default to reading, listening to music, or just looking out the window. It turns out I may be doing this all wrong. Research suggests I’d be happier talking to another person on my ride.

In their study, “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude,” Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder gave people stepping onto a train a $5 Starbucks gift card to either (1) sit in deliberate solitude the entire ride or (2) start a conversation with a stranger. While the majority of participants predicted they’d enjoy solitude more, researchers found it was those people who talked to strangers who reported an overwhelmingly more pleasurable experience.

Social connection can also make Zoom better. As a facilitator, you don’t even need gift cards to turn notoriously awkward and isolating video calls into authentic, collaborative communities that grow larger over time. The first step is helping people discover what they share and how they might help one another in meaningful ways.

That leads to what someone in the virtual Alumni Life Design Experience (ALDE)* class described as “a guided way to get out of my head and limiting beliefs and into a constructive dialogue with myself and others about my future.”

During our final week of ALDE, we worked in small teams to build on the momentum of deepening our connections by translating our skills and experiences into resumes tailored specifically to job ads. Alone, participants tended to downplay their accomplishments, but paired with people in this community, they were able to reframe their setbacks and embrace their skills with a new confidence to become stronger job candidates.

I’ve witnessed the power of personal connection throughout my career. As a faculty member, I launched the University of Akron’s first “Design Your Life” course with a small group of undergrads and grad students. They bonded across their differences, supported each others’ ambitions, and became good friends. This new community continued well beyond the class as they co-taught life design principles and mindsets to high school students looking to strengthen their leadership skills.

These students also gave me the confidence to introduce these practices to groups as diverse as project managers from Brazil, female executives, incoming freshman, and faculty from across academic disciplines. No matter how disparate their individual backgrounds and experiences were, over time, group members came to value and respect what everyone brought to that small community. This kind of engagement can look like magic, but it’s a direct product of having a safe space in which to build authentic relationships.

Of course, I want to offer this kind of experience to everyone, but it doesn’t work that way. Community doesn’t scale immediately. When I’ve taught students in crowded lecture halls, it’s a lot harder to foster these connections, and they seldom extend beyond the last day of class. To make a lasting and durable impact, the roots must run deeper. It doesn’t have to be complex, but it does take time and work.

As a leader, that can be your competitive advantage. When others are looking for shortcuts to success, you can outsmart them by outworking them. It’s tempting, especially these days, to want to go viral, to try to get everybody with one big swing. Yet, as Chris Anderson, the CEO of TED Talks, observed in his book, The Long Tail, there’s a large opportunity in serving several overlooked niches. Blockbusters are great when they happen, but they’re expensive to make so it’s a disaster when they flop. Cult films are less risky and often spawn loyal fans for decades because it connects with people. Blumhouse Productions built their reputation (and their fortune) with small, cheap movies like “Get Out”, “Whiplash” and “M3GAN”.

Connection has a long tail with lasting benefits for both the participants and the institutions that provide these opportunities. That’s why I focus on co-creating communities of support regardless of whether I’m in a physical space or on a Zoom call.

Here’s what I’ve learned about connecting virtual strangers across demographics and disciplines:

Be curious about people whose lives look different from yours.

This curiosity can’t be faked. It’s also essential to recognizing what we do not know and learning how to be vulnerable enough to ask for help.

In her novel, The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer describes the beginning of connection this way: “one person reveals a moment of strangeness, and the other person decides just to listen and not exploit it.” This is the closest I’ve come to describing how unlikely but genuine connections can be fostered, even in a virtual setting.

It can be easier to ask for what you need when you can offer something valuable in return.

Most of us would be far more comfortable asking for help if we knew we had something of value to offer in return. This “pay it forward” principle of the “reciprocity ring” was popularized by Adam Grant in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Success. While it’s proven to work successfully in corporations, it can also be an effective way to learn about the needs of a group and connect people who are primed to want to support each other.

Remedy self-doubt by building up the people around you.

It may seem obvious, but we often lose sight of how helping someone see themselves more accurately makes it easier to do the same for ourselves. An ALDE participant explained it this way: “The answers are often like dust on a mirror: your reflection is underneath but shrouded in self-doubt, lack of clarity, or avoidance…. This group really came to feel like a safe space to share big ideas, address fears, ask for help, and have vulnerable and productive conversations. I feel better equipped now to network within the JHU system and outside.”

Lean on collective intelligence whenever you feel lost or uncertain about the next step.

At its simplest, ‘collective intelligence’ can be understood as the enhanced capacity that collaboration can produce when our focus in on gaining new information, ideas and insights. Again, it isn’t complex. It just takes time and effort. However, if you want to change lives — not to mention repeat business — then a little elbow grease is a small price to pay.

*Alumni Life Design Experience (ALDE) is a collaborative effort among Johns Hopkins Alumni Association/ Lifelong Learning, OneHop Mentoring, and the Imagine Center, led by Farouk Dey, Vice Provost of Integrative Learning and Life Design. Our team of experts (Heather Braun, Brian Davis, Michael Gonzales, Casey Miller, Janine Tucker) specializes in mentorship, development, alumni relations, and life design. ALDE’s mission is to connect Hopkins alum from around the world seeking to make personal and professional changes by giving them tools for getting unstuck and moving forward despite uncertainty.

By Heather Braun
Heather Braun Assistant Director of Life Design for Graduate Programming