I’ve always been fascinated by the term, sonder.
In the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, it’s defined as the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
So, what happens when you start living outside of the bubble of your own life and start becoming more than just an extra in the lives of those around you?
Over the last five years, I’ve spent my time meeting complete strangers as part of my mission to spend one hour, one-on-one, with 10,000 different people. Since starting my project (Robs10kFriends) in November of 2015, I have met over 4,000 individuals from all across the earth. I’ve viewed the world through the lens of sonder, and as a result have seen it grow from an interesting concept to an incredible everyday awareness.
Taking a step back for a moment, though, I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia to a middle-class family. I attended Penn State University, graduated with my finance degree, got a girlfriend and started working a well-paying job at Deloitte Consulting. At this time in my life, I failed to pay attention to the lives of those around me. I had my own ambitions on which I was working that required my full attention. Work was busy, my relationship was fulfilling, and I wanted to reach success as soon as possible so that I could fully enjoy my life.
After about a year and a half, however, I left Deloitte for the chance at rising within the ranks of a hot startup that had $24M in funding. I joined the company as their 80th employee, and started to climb the ladder, yet I still felt a void. I needed to work on my own mission and create my own path in life.
Cue in: Robs10kFriends. While living in the city of Philadelphia, I decided I’d spend my free time connecting with complete strangers with no agenda other than to hear their stories and to treat human connection as an experience rather than a transaction. As a result, I very quickly learned that the other people occupying the same city limits as me had been through struggles much different than my own.
During my second meeting, my new friend, an artist, shared with me how his work had at one time reflected a dark period in his life. Around that time in his career, his father had stood up from his armchair one night, walked in the other room, and had taken his own life using a shotgun. This shocking story was very, very different than the experiences that made up my own upbringing, and I would come to find that many people around me had life paths wildly different than mine.
After taking on my project full-time, I encountered the lives of an incredible collection of people - everyone from artists, to students, to CEOs, to those experiencing homelessness, to millionaires, to politicians, to surgeons – the list goes on. I heard some incredibly sad stories, similar to that of my second friend; however, I never came away from my meetings feeling sad. I always came away feeling inspired.
Despite the challenges that others had been through in their own epic stories, we were always able to come together in a warm, respectful environment; one where we could enjoy that sense of belonging fueled by human connection and teach each other lessons from our respective paths. My new friends were a testament to the resilience of the human spirit - from talking to a girl who’d survived being shot 7 times and who’d lost her leg in the process, to a guy who’d been run over and severely injured by the engine of a boat, to the several people I’ve met who’ve experience the loss of a loved one in their lives.
I learned from them how generous people can be to complete strangers. From people buying me coffee, to hosting me in their homes in locations like Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, El Paso, Seattle and Orlando, to sending me gift cards for food or gas as I worked towards my goal, I’ve found an incredible sense of community with the world around me.
I no longer fail to pay attention to the lives of those around me, for my entire life now exists to discover the stories of the passerby. Working towards my goal of meeting 10,000 people, I continue to be reminded that each and every one of us has a family dynamic, a way of paying the bills (or a plan to be educated in a way that will help us do so in the future), a routine of passions or hobbies, and dreams for the future. We all have fears, doubts, insecurities and uncertainties; all of which make us human. We all have our favorite tv show, musicians, ways of spending time with friends, etc., which come together to create the beautiful intricacies that are our lives.
Having now met over 4,000 people, I’ve bonded with those around me by discussing these parts of our lives, and I consequently feel welcome in countries from all around the world. I also feel welcome by myself in every coming stage of my life, armed with the collective experiences of the 4,000+ kind souls who’ve prepared me for situations, which so far exist only outside of my path.
I feel as though I only now truly realize how each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as my own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness — an epic story that continues now visibly around me like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that I now know exist, in which I might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
I implore you to ask yourself: what happens when you start living outside of the bubble of your own life and start becoming more than just an extra in the lives of those around you? It has certainly changed my life for the better. Maybe it will change yours.
- We tend to think of empathy as a trait - you're either born with it or you aren't. It turns out: it's a skill. You get better at it the more you practice it. Read: "the War for Kindness" by Psychologist, Jamil Zaki, to learn more about how to cultivate kindness as a skill and to learn to view others as an extension of the self.
About the Author
Rob enjoys working out, playing guitar, listening to artists like Jon Bellion & AJR, watching shows like Ozark, reading biographies of figures like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra & Alexander Hamilton, and spending time with close family and friends.