My weekend job at the airport is to approach strangers and ask them to fill out a survey. It is not glamorous, but it sure is human. At every international gate, I find people from all over the world. Some burnt-out and bone-tired from traveling for hours already, others waiting with eager eyes and flip flops in vacation mode bliss. My job is to read people, to greet them with kindness and sell them on filling out this voluntary, 15–20 minute survey for the Department of Commerce…
It’s not an easy sell. To be frank, the survey sucks. Rejection happens. Here’s what I’ve learned about selling from those “Uhh not interested…” people.
Rejection is inevitable.
To sell -- to persuade someone of the merits of something — requires communication skills. Whether you are trying to get someone to fill out a survey, buy a product, or hire you, date you, or help you, you need to know how to connect with people. Sometimes you won’t, and rejection is inevitable. You should keep selling anyway.
Some people will ignore you. They will give you no time of day. You will walk up to them and look them in the eye — but they are far too busy to see you. They will look away, mumbling an excuse as to why they don’t want what you’re offering. They will squirm and make you feel like a real perpetrator for putting them through this absolute misery of a conversation.
You will smile anyway. It will be a disheartened smile, but you will carry on.
You will get rejected once and then rejected twice. And the third time will make you wonder. Am I doing something wrong? You will start questioning yourself. Am I even any good at this? Can I really connect with people? I don’t know what I’m doing here.
But then you will approach another person, and right away they will see you. They will look you in the eye and listen. It’s like they’ve been anticipating your arrival, waiting for someone like you to come along. They will be absolutely smitten by your energy, your talent, the experiences that shaped you.
In this moment you will realize with sweet relief that you have been on the right path all along. Waiting to connect with the people who truly see your value, your potential, and the things that make you human.
She may be a kind woman who fills out your survey and says, “I don’t know why other people aren’t helping you, you’re such a treat!” Or he may be a potential client or company that wants you on his team. Or an endearing person who asks you out on a date. Or perhaps an acquaintance who drops you an encouraging like or line.
In the face of rejection, the people who see you will give you hope.
You cannot move every person. And you will not. But you will move a few. You will move the ones who share your worldview. The ones who believe what you believe. They will be receptive to your kindness and open to your ideas.
Keep going until you find the people who are open. To your vision, your talent, your soul.
They are out there. The only way to find them is to keep going.
Keep selling. Showing up. Talking. Connecting. Listening.
You will find them. I promise you this. I’ve talked to hundreds of people at the airport, and there is always, always someone who sees me.
At the gate for a departing Buenos Aires flight, I notice a strange smell lurking. It’s the same odor that haunts sidewalks and city buses. A blend of urine, sweat, and bodily filth. It’s a whiff of poverty out of a place, in an area where passengers pay close to $1,000 just to get on a plane. Perplexed, I glance at the people around me.
On my left sits an older Hispanic couple looking at an iPad, the man wearing a crisp button-up and the woman a soft lavender shirt. On my right, a twenty something pale girl with dirty blond hair and faded jeans chats with a stranger behind her. Like a true undercover detective, I shuffle my bag and lean in to see what direction the smell is coming from. Nothing checks out.
Until I turn around.
A little animal carrier lies empty next to a young girl a few rows over.
Houston airport, we’ve got a problem: it’s a smelly cat.
Leashed and frozen in a tense position —the cat fixates on an invisible force on the carpet. Just another day for a cat brain, but I wonder about the girl.
“Oh didn’t even see that cat there! Are you going to Buenos Aires?” I say to the protector of the smelly cat.
“Yes, I am,” she says, her eyes are tired and she looks defeated. I take a seat next to her.
“How’s it going traveling with your cat?” I ask.
“Not good. She threw up and had an accident in there,” she says, pointing to the carrier. “She freaked out on the last flight and it was 3 hours long. I had to clean this in the bathroom, it was a mess. I don’t know how I am going to get through this next 8 hour flight,” she shakes her head.
It’s easy to wince from an awful smell.
It’s heartbreaking when you realize this smell signals a soul (or two) in need.
I want to help this poor girl, so I offer some sage advice on potential ways to drug the cat.
“I remember one time a cat owner told me about how he would crush up Benadryl and give it to his cat before flights,” I tell her. “They sell Benadryl here too!”
Her eyes lite up at the sound of this sweet secret. “Oh my gosh…really?!”
“Yea, I would Google it to make sure it’s safe,” I say, acknowledging my haphazard advice.
“Okay, thank you I’m going to look into it!” she says, energized and filled with zest.
I continue on my way, passing out surveys and talking with other passengers. But I wonder about this girl and her cat.
It’s hard for me understand the bond between a human and a cat.
One time I woke up to a cat trying to sleep on my face at a kid sleepover, and it’s been a rocky road for me and cats ever since. Curious to hear if my cat drugging advice checked out with Google, I walk back over to the cat girl.
“So what did the internet say about Benadryl?!”
“It was mixed. It could help her, or it could make her freak out more. I’m not going to risk it, we’re just going to go all natural and get through this,” she says, a little more chipper than before.
“Good call! How did you decide to bring your cat to Buenos Aires, anyway?” I ask.
“I had to bring her with me. I will be gone for 3 months, and the last time I left her for this long she ran away for 2 months and didn’t come home until the day I came home. I don’t want her to do that again,” she tells me. “I couldn’t leave her again.”
She feels for this cat, and I feel for her. I think about how hard it must be to have a pet that will run away in a depressive boycott if you leave. She loves her cat too much to let her walk out of her life. So the girl pays the money to bring her and suffers alongside her little animal who is so nervous she’s made herself sick.
And there it was, all the evidence I needed right in plain sight.I thought I was on a mission to get to the bottom of an intrusive odor. Turns out, there was no bad guy, no object, or animal to point to in disgust.
There is nothing gross about love.
From the outside, it’s difficult to understand someone else’s love. If there’s anything I’ve learned from trying, it’s that love is messy. Love is irrational. Sometimes it smells, it hurts, and it sucks.
But love is deep. Our hearts hang on tightly to the connections — the partners, pets, and people — we’ve given our whole selves to. We are willing to do whatever it takes to keep our loved ones by our side.
So we hold onto the ones we can’t live without. And sometimes they freak out, they vomit, they get scared. They are vulnerable. They may run away, they may hurt us.
But love is patient, love is kind. Sometimes it’s smelly. And when sh!t hits the fan (or more literally the floor), others are quick to judge.
It’s easy to wince from an awful smell.
It’s eye opening to look deeper. To see things as they are. To find an example of great love. The messy, complicated bond that ties souls together at the heart.
There are moments when I forget I have a body. When I am teaching, I forget about what I am wearing, how I am walking, that I am taking up space. I am so focused on reading faces, hearing voices, and connecting with the souls in front of me that my body awareness escapes me. It is only when I run to the bathroom and glance at the mirror that I remember the blue eyes, pale skin and familiar frame that carries me.
A curious thing happens when I forget I have a body. I am not in my head, not worrying, not thinking about anything except the present.
I am open, and people open up to me.
Not everyone, of course. You will not connect with every student or person that crosses your path. But you will connect with a few, and those are the ones that matter. Stay open for those. Nuggets of wisdom are everywhere.
With no one to impress and work to do, I walk through the airport gates reading the faces of travelers. I scan the swarms of eyes glued to screens and find the anomalies. It is not hard to find someone that is present. They look around with a slight glimmer in their eyes, like the experience means something. Their travel is not business as usual.
“What time does this flight board?” a woman asks me, wheeling her rolling suitcase with a quiet man trailing behind her.
“Sorry, I’m not a flight attendant! It’s usually an hour before the flight for internationals,” I say.
“Okay, thanks,” she says. Her short white hair is tucked under the simple gold frame of her glasses and the eyes behind those rimless lenses stay fixed on me. She hesitates to walk away, that’s when I know she has a story to tell.
“Are you going on vacation in Costa Rica?” I ask. She takes the bait and tells me everything.
“Yep, four weeks in Costa Rica! Finally taking my bucket list trip!”
Her outfit is something dreams are made of; shamrock green pants, an evergreen fanny pack promoting a brand for walking shoes and — my favorite part — a white T-shirt with a deep green outline of two 1950’s housewives sharing a secret, “Everything is Bigger in Texas.”
Her name is Lori, and she has two sisters. One of them is at home watching her 11 cats while she takes her dream vacation.
“All rescues,” she assures me. “Over by me, we have a shelter that does Feral Fridays where they fix cats and clip their ears for $20 bucks!”
I hate cats, but I love everything about this woman’s energy and life as a full-time cat mom.
“I had like four cats hanging on me before I left, they knew I was up to something!” she says.
All cats aside, Lori gets real with me.
“Don’t wait until you’re my age to take your bucket list trip. I wanted to take mine before I was Medicare age — even though I’m on Medicare now but I’m not Medicare age. I had a few heart attacks and now I have nowhere to be. So I’m like hey, I’m going on my bucket list trip!”
It’s remarkable how much people share when you are open. Inspired by her story, I tell her about my own bucket list vacation, a Euro trip my sister and I want to take this summer.
“Do it! Do it before your thirties!” she says, shaking her head in a confident and cautious sort-of-way. She almost missed the boat, had a few heart attacks, and doesn’t want me to risk missing it. I thank her for that.
As we say our goodbyes (good things can’t last forever), I wish her the best and leave the gate smiling. At the next moving walkway, I slip my phone out to text my sister. We have a bucket list trip to plan.
No matter where you are — on the clock, in a Lyft, or waiting at the airport — don’t be too busy to notice the people around you. There will always be strangers with stories to tell. Stay open for those. Who knows, they just might inspire you to take a bucket list trip, save all the cats, or wear more fanny packs.
Here’s to looking at the world with open eyes. May you find your own pair of shamrock green pants — those ordinary people with funny nuggets of wisdom.
With 10 minutes to spare before my next flight, I grab a seat in a hallway of the airport. Talking to people makes me alert and on and constantly noticing. So I sip my tea and steal this moment to disconnect. But I can’t tune out the commotion around me. People and carts and kids with mini suitcases and service dogs in embroidered vests.
I watch a group of men enter the hallway, their rich brown arms deeply contrasting the hues of their blue jeans. They are all of similar stature with deep eyes and dark short hair. Some look twenty, others look forty, but they are all wearing these smiles — timid yet eager. There is an energy about them. This experience is new.
“CART ON YOUR RIGHT,” an airport cart driver yells from behind.
“Cuidado!” the leader of the pack says as he sprints ahead to the side.
The rest scatter and laugh. I wonder where they are going. Are they arriving to work here, or simply passing through? What really gets me are their shoes.
They are all different. Sneakers and brown work shoes and sensible walking shoes and boots and a pair of bright red gym shoes…all neatly framed under the blues of their jeans.
I think about how each of them chose their shoes. Trying them on in the store, giving them a test walk, gazing into those tiny floor mirrors, talking it over with their wives, kids, mothers, brothers — or whatever circle surrounds them in life and the shoe aisle. I imagine them considering the price and finally rationalizing with a confident smile that these shoes will be their shoes.
And this hits me right in the heart. Because these men are strangers and so different, except they are not. They are humans with hearts and families. And we are all in this together. Searching for shoes, love, connection, and meaning.
We are working jobs to make money. We are stepping on planes to go to new places. We are shopping for shoes because we are all walking softly each day on the same planet we call home.
It is in this moment that I wish I had something more to give. I have nothing with me except a stack of surveys and mini pencils. So I smile so big it hurts because these people are lovely and kind and welcome here. I cannot give anything except kindness.
But maybe kindness is all there is. Maybe it’s the only gift we truly have to give.
And this kills me. Because it was never about the shoes. It’s always been about the heart.
An international airport can give you a fascinating glimpse at humanity. People from all over the world collect in one space for a brief, transitional moment. They are all heading somewhere, carrying their backups, worries, and stories.
As a market researcher at an airport, I am starting to believe that the way people react to a stranger approaching them is the way they react to most things in life. Occasionally, people act annoyed — how dare I approach them while they scroll Facebook? I imagine I am one of the many inconveniences of their day. Yet the overwhelming majority of people receive me with genuine smiles and kind eyes.
They share their travel sagas with upbeat attitudes, remaining positive despite the hours upon hours they’ve already spent commuting. I wish I had something more to give these people; the gems whose tired eyes still see the glass half full.
I find it both strange and delightful how much information our eyes can give. A simple moment of eye contact can spark human connection. Sometimes, it can even change enemies into humans and egos into empathy.
At the gate heading to Amsterdam, I approach a man with dark hair and thin glasses. He is energetic and warm.
“I am not going to Amsterdam, but the woman with me is!” he tells me with an eager smile.
The seat next to him is empty, but the excitement in his voice is all the evidence I need. Say no more, this man is lusting after his mystery woman.
New love is endearing, so I pass him a survey to give to her when she returns. A little conversation piece to kick start the next round of flirting.
A few minutes later, a woman with bleached blond hair and thick eyeliner struts over. She carries herself confidently with wisdom and sass. I now understand my dark-haired friend’s admiration.
“How long will this survey take me?” she asks.
“Ten minutes, depending on how quick you can do it!” I say.
“Oh okay! Let me get to work!” she says, smiling at the man next to her.
I appreciate her enthusiasm and continue passing out surveys. Each time I look their way, she is talking while he leans in, grinning.
She finally brings her survey over to me, but this time her gaze is different.
“This survey did not take me 10 minutes, it would take me 30 minutes. You are asking the questions all wrong!” she says, visibly angry.
“This has nothing to do with the airport! You are doing this all wrong. You will learn nothing from this survey. I do this stuff for a living, and this is all wrong!” she says sternly, asserting her authority as she stares me down.
Caught off guard, I want to tell her more about this survey; that it has been conducted every month for the past 34 years; that the questions haven’t changed for consistency; that it is not about the airport, but the travel trends in and out of the US. But I say none of this, because I am a weak little butterfly and confrontational situations crush me.
I see through the facade, how she speaks loudly to impress her dark-haired friend and prove just how important she is.
I wonder, have I ever been that woman and made someone else feel small?
“I am just the messenger,” is all my butterfly brain can tell her in between her rapid-fire strikes.
She stops mid-sentence, tilting her head like a confused puppy trying to figure me out.
“Oh, yes I know,” she says, extending her hand onto my shoulder. “Of course, I won’t shoot the messenger. I just wanted to tell you this,” her eyes and voice soften.
For the first time, she sees me. Not as the enemy, but a human. And this makes me want to cry, because I am a dumb, weak butterfly and somehow, a total stranger just went from trying to crush me to giving me an arm to rest on.
No matter how you’ve acted in the past, it is not too late to reach your arm out to a stranger. Let go of your ego and really see them; speak from a place of empathy, not authority. We are all doing the best we can to figure this out.
Perhaps basic human connection is the simplest form of love. This Valentine’s day — and everyday — let’s not only be kind to the ones we know dearly, but also to the strangers that cross our paths. May we smile, open our eyes, and make no one feel small.
A month before the travel ban and protests, I started a job interviewing strangers at the airport. Not just any strangers — people waiting for international flights.
Since I find meeting new people both thrilling and lovely, this market research opportunity looked perfect. I said to myself, “Listen Linda, you’re pretty good at talking to strangers. Why don’t you do more of that?”
Sporting my best pantsuit and an official TSA badge, I set out on my journey. Aside from the survey data I needed to collect, I wanted to explore another intriguing question:
How many words does it take to turn a stranger into a friend?
Turns out, in a world where love is universal, not many.
Marriage Advice and Mexico
“How old are you?” a man says to me in his thick Spanish accent. He sits with his arms crossed over his plump belly, waiting for a flight to Mexico City. The woman with him looks up at me, her pink shirt as bright as her smile.
“Ugh…guess?!” I reply, thrown off by his haste in cutting right to the chase.
“Twenty-two? Are you married? Don’t get married,” he says to me.
And just like that, a fifty-something stranger becomes my life coach. His name is Jorge and he speaks from the heart.
“I have 4 kids, she has 6 kids. We had bad divorces over money. Don’t get married,” he says in a cautious tone.
As I stand in front of the couple wearing my boxy black suit, he looks me up and down.
“You are pretty skinny,” he decides, shaking his head in a mas-o-menos kind of way. “You can probably find boyfriends all over the world. Don’t get stuck in one place.”
I thank Jorge for his ominous advice and assure him I will not get stuck.
“Okay good, now come to Mexico City to visit us. We will teach you Spanish and you can work with us,” he says — our friendship now progressing quickly.
“Sure thing, I will fly to Mexico City and ask for Jorge,” I tell them.
We laugh together because we all know he is the only Jorge in Mexico City.
Diamonds and Doha
In the waiting area for a flight to Doha, Qatar, a sparkly diamond catches my eye. A young woman with tired eyes stares blankly into the distance with her head resting in her hand. Her shimmery ring contrasts so beautifully to the rich color of her skin.
As I approach her to fill out my survey, she waves me away.
“No, I am too tired,” she says quietly.
“That’s okay! Also, I want to tell you — you have a beautiful ring. I noticed it from afar!” I say.
Her eyes perk up.
“Oh, thank you! It would look better on your skin!” she tells me.
My heart breaks a little bit because I see how wonderful it looks on her. How do you tell a stranger that the color of their skin is perfect and beautiful and right? At a loss for words, I mutter, “No way, it looks so pretty on you. I almost want to take a picture of it!”
“Yes, please try it on!” she says, as she slips her wedding ring off her finger and hands it to me.
It’s remarkable how quickly one can go from a sleepy stranger to an outgoing girlfriend.
I soon realize that her skinny frame means her fingers are definitely skinnier than mine. If this gets stuck, Houston we will have a problem. Sensing my hesitation, she pushes her ring over my knuckle.
“There you go! Now, take a picture!! Please!”
Love and Lagos
“Psssst!” someone whispers at the gate waiting for a flight to Istanbul. Scanning the area, I notice an older woman summoning me with her hand. The deep colors of her clothing lay snug on her body — filling the whole chair like a cupcake risen over the tin. Her skin is a deep brown, her eyes are gray. As she starts to whisper again, I lean in and take the seat next to her.
“I need a wheelchair,” she whispers, looking around cautiously as if we are being watched.
“Okay, I will ask the flight attendants to get you one. Now, where are you from?” I ask, trying to place her accent.
“I am from Lagos,” she says quietly. Her name is Elizabeth. She is charming with a warm grandmother-like aura.
“My boyfriend loves Lagos, Nigeria. He did an Engineers Without Borders project there! We might go someday,” I tell her.
Her gray eyes widen with a smile as she wraps her arm around my back.
“I like you. Come to Nigeria, you will be my wife!”
People are People, No Matter How Far
The hours I spend in the airport give me a great deal of hope. At every gate, new people share their stories with me. The more I talk to strangers from all over the world, the more I see the universality of love. Though our conversations are short, the connection is real. We humans are far more alike than we are different.
If you are feeling stressed about the current state of the world and our country, I urge you to talk to strangers. Smile big and speak with kindness. You may be surprised by how few words it takes to turn people into friends.
It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them.
When I walk past a grandpa wearing sky-high pants over a big round belly, I can't help but smile. It's ridiculous and funny and so cute it hurts. I want to know everything about this grandpa. What are his favorite cookies from the cookie jar? Who does he love most in life? What was he like as a child?
I know underneath those high pants and that big belly, there's a beating heart hanging on to emotions and stories and people. I want to know everything about the heart that makes him human.
As a researcher, teacher, and writer, connecting with others on a deeper level is integral to all the work that I do. When I notice the quirks, curiosities, and absurdities in the people around me, I feel a little human-to-human love. We are all flawed and vulnerable.
A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.
Connecting at the Heart
The further I dive into getting to know people through my work, the more I realize how truly interconnected the heart is in business. Robert Greene captures this concept so beautifully in his book, Mastery.
In the book, Greene studies the greats--everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to modern day masters like artist Teresita Fernandez--and breaks down the role of the heart on the road to becoming a master in a field. He simplifies the journey into three distinct phases: apprenticeship, creative-active, and mastery.
The mastery phase is where the magic happens.
In the third phase, we have access to the heart of life--to human nature and natural phenomena. That is why the artwork of Masters touches us to the core; the artist has captured something of the essence of reality. That is why the brilliant scientist can uncover a new law of physics, and the investor or entrepreneur can hit upon something no one else has imagined.
I built Humans at Heart to explore the existential question: how do we access the heart of life?
I don't know the answer quite yet, but I'm jumping into phase two to learn more. If you are ridiculous, lovable, and at all interested in the role of the heart in life and business, I'd love for you to join me on this journey!