What happens when you start asking a total stranger all the right questions?

One of my favorite games to play is Connect The Dots. Not the game we played when we were kids, where you drew lines between numbered dots to form an image of a kitty or  Jack-In-A-Box. The version I like to play is with humans.

It’s pretty simple. When you meet someone new, you try to discover their dots and connect them to your own. This helps build a bridge or a common bond between two people. Note, I use the term ‘dots’ symbolically to represent someone’s key facts, personal history, experiences and friendships. I don’t usually draw lines connecting someones moles and freckles. Although I am not above it.

Madtown

Two weeks ago, after watching our local high school win a state championship at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, my daughter Ava and I attended a UW Madison track and cross-country reunion hosted by The National W Club. There were over 200 alumni gathered on the eve of the NCAA Cross Country National Championships in Madison. I saw dozens of former teammates and friends. But I also met new people. And we played Connect The Dots.

A Young Couple Walks Into A Bar…

Ava and I were standing near the entrance to the bar, when a nice looking young couple walked in. I recognized the woman immediately as Taylor Amann, a recent UW graduate and an All-American pole vaulter from Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wisconsin.

I had connected with Taylor in the spring, after I saw her LinkedIn profile and recognized that I may be able to assist her with some career connections based on her interest in fashion and retail.

We had exchanged a few emails, but had never met in person. So I approached her and introduced myself. Taylor was very nice, and acted as if she totally remembered our email exchange. She talked about her great new job as a buyer at the UW Bookstore. We talked about the interesting challenges of transitioning from college to the real world, and discovering our new identities after the end of our athletic careers.

Plot Twist!

Then I started talking to her boyfriend. And that’s where things got really interesting. His name was Clay. And since we had never emailed each other before, I started playing Connect The Dots.

I asked him where he was from. He said Ohio. This was a very good start. Because Ohio is dot-rich territory for me. I asked Clay where he went to college. I learned that he was a recent graduated from Ohio State, where he also played football.

I asked, ‘Where in Ohio did you grow up?  He said, ‘Dublin.’ Boom! I said, ‘We lived in Dublin for seven years.’ I asked, ‘Where did you go to high school?’ He said, ‘Coffman.’

At this point I knew we would have at least 2 connections. Because my friend Mike Ulring is the principal at Coffman High School. And I figured that Ava’s former babysitter, Rachel Weber, would have been in high school with Clay.

But I kept asking questions.

I asked, ‘Where did you go to Middle School.’ He said. ‘Karrer.’ That was the school our neighborhood went to, not far from where we lived in Dublin. So I told Clay that we lived across from Avery Park, in Hawks Nest subdivision. His eyes got wide and he said, ‘The stone that says Hawks Nest on it was in my yard!’ I asked, ‘Did you live on Jacana Drive.’ He said, ‘Yes!’  I said, ‘I have been on your roof!’

It turns out Clay Raterman and I lived 3 houses apart. And as soon as we connected the dots I knew exactly who he was. Not only did he remember me, he remembered Ava as a little girl who was always playing outside. We talked about our neighbors the Philbins, Sherbuns, McGoverns and Ashs. We recounted a legendary neighborhood story about Clay and his brother who ding-dong-ditched our next door neighbors, who found little humor in the prank. (The boys had painted a marshmallow to look like dog poop and left it in an unlit bag on the porch).

We also talked about the time when hurricane Ike hit Columbus and took part of the roof off of Clay’s family’s home. Mike Sherbun and I climbed on the roof to nail down a large corner section that had been blown off by the wind. We scrambled to cover the section with a tarp donated by my neighbor, Phil Turner, before nightfall came, and rain wreaked havoc on the exposed home.

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Ava, Adam, Clay and Taylor walked into a bar…

Two ships in the night.

Clay and I may have spent the evening within feet of each other and never talked. Or we could have said a pleasant hello and left it at that. We would have had no idea just how much we had in common, and how many people and places we both knew. We talked about Donatos Pizza and Jeni’s Ice Cream and other favorites Columbus originals.

There is something wonderful about discovering our common bonds. It makes us feel connected. It makes us feel like someone else knows us and understands us. Networking is nothing more than building your own safety net. When I play connect the dots, I am trying to make each of our nets a little bigger, and a little stronger.

Key Takeaway.

Get to know as many people as you can. Discover your common ground. We all have it. It’s just a matter of whether or not we find it. Turn strangers into friend. Make the world feel smaller and friendlier. You never know who you may be able to help along the way. Or who may be able to help you when you need it most. Like when a hurricane hits central Ohio, and dark is closing in. Or when you are a Buckeye, and you walk into a bar full of Badgers.

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How to make a business trip more than a business trip.

I like to make the most of my business travel. After my work obligations are Sharpied into my calendar, I always fill the open spaces in my schedule with personal activites. That might include eating at an interesting restaurant, exploring, museuming or exercising. But my favorite activity to add to a work trip, by far, is socializing. Sometimes I meet new people. Sometimes I reconnecting with old friends. And sometimes I do both at the same time.

This Week

I had to travel to Atlanta this week for a film shoot. Since I had to fly in on Monday I began filling my afternoon with interesting activities. Here is what I did between 12:30 and 6:30pm:

  1. Had lunch with a former client
  2. Had back-to-back-to-back meetings with 3 different freelancers who are currently working with my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry.
  3. Met with a college senior to talk to him about his career options after he graduates.
  4. Guest lectured to a college marketing class about creativity and the creative process.
  5. Stuck around 20 minutes after the lecture to talk to a group of 5 students who had more questions.
  6. Drove to my Atlanta neighborhood in East Cobb and talked to my neighbor, Dr. Betty Garrot about my recent trip to India (Betty’s family is from India, and they contacted me when I was in Bangalore).

Monday Night

It was a fun and interesting day. But what I had planned for Monday evening was really special. Last Friday I texted my college teammate Jabari Pride, who lives in Atlanta, and asked him if he would like to get together Monday night. He said yes. So I reached out to another, former University of Wisconsin track athlete, Lenton Herring, who lives in Atlanta, and invited him too. Then I reached out to Stephanie Herbst-Lucke, who was not only up for getting together, she invited us to gather at her home. So we decided to contact a couple more former Badger track athletes to tell them what we were doing.

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Jabari, Adam and Lenton. One fo these guys is allergic to shoes.

Just three days later, on a rainy Monday night in Atlanta, these are the Badger track alum who showed up:

  1. Adam Abrecht: Discus and hammer thrower from Norwich Vermont, now living in Milwaukee (but still a proud Atlanta home owner).
  2. Jabari Pride: Sprinter and all-around athlete from Los Angeles, now living in Atlanta.
  3. Lenton Herring: Jumper and sprinter from Gainesville Florida, now living in Atlanta.
  4. Stephanie Herbst-Lucke: Distance runner from Chaska, Minnesota, now living in Atlanta.
  5. Tina Erps-McGee: Sprinter and jumper from Bettendorf Iowa, now living in Atlanta.
  6. Terry Reese: Hurdler from Fort Wayne Indiana, now living in Atlanta.
  7. Scott Jenkins: Distance runner from Kenosha, Wisconsin, now living in Atlanta.
  8. Stephanie (Bassett) Orman: Distance runner from Bloomington, Indiana now living in Atlanta.
  9. Mark Euler: Jumper from Madison, Wisconsin, now living in Atlanta.
  10. Reed Connor: Distance Runner from The Woodlands, Texas, now living in Atlanta.
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Tina, Stephanie and Steph, between two lamps.

Socializing not Social Networking

It was an amazing night. I got to see friends and teammates I have known for decades, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. I also got to meet three new Badgers. We talked about our families and careers. We shared stories about our days competing for the University of Wisconsin. We talked about our coaches and the things we learned from Ed Nuttycombe, Peter Tegen, Martin Smith, Mark Napier, Scott Bennett, Mick Byrne, Mary Grinaker, Robert Hackett and others.

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Lenton telling us the story of how he invented the fist bump.

We talked about how there is no other experience quite like spending your college career in Madison. We talked about the unique people, the unique setting and the unique educational environment. Because of our shared history, the group instantly felt like a community. We traded contact information and made plans to gather again. Just like that, the W Club-Atlanta was born.

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The W-Club Atlanta, freshly birthed.  

Connect In Person

This was a great reminder to make sure you see your people in real life. It is great to keep in touch with each other on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. But people are better in person. We all need to experience real human connections. Those connections are strongest, and most impactful, when we are in a room, talking to each other, face to face.

Key Takeaway

I encourage you to reach out to your people. Get together with friends from home, from college or camp. Organize a gathering of former co-workers, teammates or roommates. Get together with your neighbors. Or create your own social or professional groups.

At the end of our days, the only thing that will really matter is the relationships we build, and the impact we have on each other. Don’t be afraid to make the first move. I did. And because of it, ten former Badger track athletes are now part of another special community 803 miles from Madison.

*Special thanks to fellow Badger, James Lucke for hosting us and joining us Monday evening! On Wisconsin!

The best career move high school seniors should make right now.

Most high school seniors will graduate within the next 30 days. High school commencement is one of the most exciting events in a human’s life. And with good reason. The best, most interesting chapters of your story start after high school. Unless, of course, you were in an epic high school-based movie. In which case, it’s all down hill from here.  (You can check the 50 Greatest High School Movies of all time here to make sure you weren’t in one).

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An Open Letter to High School Seniors.

Dear Seniors,

Four to ten years from now, when you graduate from college, finish your military obligations, or give up on your Hollywood/Nashville/Lottery dream, you will start focusing on your real career. When you do, everyone will tell you that you need to start building your network.

But they are wrong. You need to start building your network now. So before you throw your binders in the trash, your graduation cap in the air, and carve your initials into he wood paneling of the senior lounge, you should start building your professional network.

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WTF Is A Professional Network?

Your professional network is a collection of the people you know that may be able to positively impact your professional career. The people in your network, or community, will be able to help with career advice, finding a job, and connecting you to other people and businesses that are important to your career advancement. You will also be expected to provide the same sort of help for others in your network. Because it takes a village to keep a child from moving back into their parents’ basement.

So Who Are My Connections?

Your connections are your friends, your family members and your teachers. Your connections are your friends’ parents. They are the adults you know from church, and the extra curricular activities you’ve participated in. They are the kids you competed both with, and against, in sports. They are the kids you know from camp (like that one quirky girl who played the flute).

Starting A Connection Collection.

The best career move high school seniors should make right now is to create a profile on  LinkedIn, and start collecting your connections. LinkedIn is an online social networking site for the business community. And right now, before you graduate, is the best time to start collecting your network. By starting now, you will collect the most connections. And the more connections you properly maintain, the stronger your network will be. It’s kinda like being popular in high school. Only this type of popularity can dramatically impact your salary (your salary is the adult version of an allowance).

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Grow As You Go

You will want to continue collecting your friends and acquaintances throughout college, trade school, military service, or your creative exploratory period. Every time you meet someone new, don’t just think about adding them to Snap or Insta.  Sure, do that too. But definitely add them to LinkedIn. Granted, the filters on LinkedIn aren’t as good as Snapchat. But having a good job makes you look better than any photographic editing or augmented reality can.

It’s All About The Network, (and the Benjamins)

Eventually everyone is going to tell you to network and build your network, and that it is all about your network. That’s just an adult way of saying:

Stay in touch with the people you know, because it will connect you to opportunities, advice and endorsements that will prove highly beneficial down the road.

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Why Start As A High School Senior?

You know a lot of people now that you are going to forget. Those kids you go to school with are going to do amazing things with remarkable organizations. And they are going to have opportunities for you, if you stay in touch. You are also going to have opportunities for them. Even better, in the real world, there are things called referral bonuses. Which means you can make extra money for helping your organization find good talent. #chaching

Monitoring Your Classmates

Adding your friends to LinkedIn is like putting a tracking device on them. It will allow you to collect intel on each person, like where they went to school, what they majored in, and where they worked after college.

It also puts a tracking device on you, so that others will remember your educational track, your career path and your special interests and activities. That way your connections will know when their opportunities cross paths with your skills, interests and abilities.

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The Adult Rock Stars Around You

Your neighbors, teachers and friends’ parents are more successful and connected than you know. Four or five years from now you could end up in a job interview with them. Or with their friends or relatives. When that happens, you will want every advantage you can get. Like a good endorsement from someone who knew you were always such a good kid. You were always such a good kid, right?

Trust Me. I Know.

I started my career in advertising as a copywriter. But I always envisioned becoming an entrepreneur and someday starting my own ad agency. Twenty years later, that’s exactly what I did. In 2016 I launched my own advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry.

You know who my very first client was? My friend Dan Richards, whom I have known since 7th grade. Dan is the Founder and  CEO of a badass company called Global Rescue.  Which means that Dan and I went from high school classmates, and football and track teammates, to trusted business partners. We have helped each other launch companies, and have exchanged hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of services.

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Key Takeaway

They say the best day to plant a tree is 20 years ago. And the second best day is today. The  same holds true for building your network. Start now by collecting your connections before you leave high school. But if you are already in college, serving your country, or in the workforce, and you haven’t been building your network, start today.

There are amazingly talented people all around you. So start collecting them today. It’s the very best way to assure an abundance of everything you will need later in your career. By doing so may help one of your high school classmates find their dream job. Or launch their own business. I know. Because it happened to me.

-Adam Albrecht

Founder & CEO of The Weaponry


*If you know a high school senior who is about to leave the nest, please share this post with them. If you are a teacher wondering how to keep your students’ attention over the last few days, consider sharing this with your class. And if you want to connect with me, I’d love that. But you might want to read this post I wrote about connecting on LinkedIn first.

 

 

 

You are NEVER going to be in my network unless you do this first.

LinkedIn is an amazing professional resource. It’s offers a great way to further your professional development through education and association. Thank you Reid Hoffman for creating LinkedIn. But I’m sorry to say that I wouldn’t accept a LinkedIn request from you. I get requests from people wanting to join my network almost every day. But I have a clear philosophy that guides my networking on the platform. It goes like this:

I only Link In with you if I know you.

I can’t tell if this is a really simple and obvious philosophy, or if it is a radical departure from the norm. But I am always surprised by how many requests I get with absolutely no introduction or context as to why we should be LinkedIn. I find this very odd. Which is only surpassed in oddness by people who send me an introductory note trying to sell me something. I hate that. It’s like be approached by a stranger whose opening line to you is, ‘Hey! Let’s have sex.’ It tells me everything I need to know about you. And your sex.

My Network As A Garden

I think of my LinkedIn network as a garden. Everyone in my LinkedIn garden is there because I planted them. So if anyone in my garden says, ‘Hey Adam, (yes, these are talking plants) I see there is a Bob Smith growing in this garden. Tell me about Bob.’ I say, ‘Ah, Bobby is one of my college track & field teammates. He grew up in little Marshall, Wisconsin, near Madison. He used to raise ferrets, and he could put the shot farther than most people can throw a fit. He is an art teacher. And he makes amazing pottery. I own two of his pieces.’ Suddenly Bob Smith goes from the most generic name in America to a specific human with colorful details.

What strangers need to do first.

I want to be able to vouch for everyone in my network. Including you. It’s how my network becomes valuable. This doesn’t mean that we can’t meet and develop a relationship on LinkedIn. But if you want to join my collection of professional contacts, we must have contact first.

Here’s how it works.

  1. You send me a LinkedIn request.
  2. You add a note about why you think it would be good to connect.
  3. We set up a call or a chocolate milk meeting (I don’t drink coffee).
  4. We talk, and you don’t try to sell me anything or exhibit psychologically deviant behavior.
  5. I accept your LinkedIn request.

This process works because I make connections quickly. I can learn a lot about you in an initial conversation. Then, when someone in my network asks me about you I can share your story.

The Right Way.

Here is a request I received recently. It is a great example of the right way to introduce yourself to a stranger on LinkedIn:

Adam -We don’t know each other, yet. I moved here from Minneapolis and I am hoping to connect with a few fun people. My sister-in-law sent me your blog. You seem fun. -Jennifer

This stared a dialog. I discovered that Jennifer is related to one of my former coworkers (that’s co-worker, not cow orker). I have invited her to stop by The Weaponry, my advertising and idea agency, for an introduction. After that, we can be LinkedIn.

Key Takeaway

Don’t let just anyone into your professional network on LinkedIn. It devalues your network because there is nothing that distinguishes those inside your group from those outside your group. When you are sending LinkedIn request don’t be lazy. Don’t be random. Be purposeful and personal with your introductions. And for Reid’s sake, please don’t try to sell anything in your intro. It’s a turnoff.

Do you have a LinkedIn philosophy? Please share it in the comments section. If you want to know my other philosophies consider subscribing to this blog. If you want to know about my philosophy that Vanilla Ice tweeted about, click here.

A creative ice breaker to get people talking.

It’s always interesting to observe the social dynamics at play when a group of strangers gather. When I am in business meetings, at parties, on planes and at the gym, I like to convert strangers into friends. Simple conversation is the key to this social alchemy. As the founder of the advertsing agency The Weaponry, I know how conversation and rappoire enhance creative ideation, customer service and networking. But getting strangers to talk (without waterboarding) isn’t always easy. But there’s a simple technique that works like magic. And I have been using it since college.

Gotta Go Back In Time.

When I was in school at the University of Wisconsin I lived with a really fun group of Badgers. Slosh, Boo, Hammer and Jacquer. We had a lot of great parties at 1117 Mound Street.  In fact, at our very first party we had the police come to our house at 4 o’clock in the norning (somewhere between night and morning). At another party we had to turn the music off for fear that the massive dance party in our living room was about to crash through the under-equipped floor, and become a deposit-erasing dance party in our basement. We knew how to have a great time.

One of our favorite party games involved name tags. We would hand out tags to all party-goers as they arrived, with just one simple rule:

Write anything you want on your name tag, except your name.

There is simply nothing better at getting people to talk to each other than an interesting, non-named name tag. It’s a fascinating study in psychology, sociology and creativity. The more fun you have with it the better it works. Be sure to tailor your non-name to the type of event you are attending. An interesting nickname, pick-up line, icon in pop culture, or the start of a joke can all work. Names like Knock Knock, Mime, My Little Friend (people always Say Hello to you) are proven, G-Rated winners. My great friend Betty Garrot, often reminds me that when we first met my name tag said, Person of Interest. 

I forgot to mention, I play this game at gatherings now, even when I am the only one playing. Because it works that well. In fact, if I was to open a new bar, I  would call the place, “Hello, My name is…” and implement this time-tested, conversation-sparking technique.

So buy a stack of name tags, have more fun and get more people talking at your next work party, social gathering, mixer, professional event, or wedding (I’m not encouraging you to have more than one wedding).  If you have a great ice breaker that I should know about, please share it in the comment section below. Or is it comments section? Or does it depend on how many comments there are? I don’t really know.

The simple way to make anyone feel like an insider.

I want you to try an experiment. Over the next 24 hours note how many people you encounter that you don’t know. I warn you, it may freak you out. Most of us live anonymously in a sea of strangers. They are everywhere. Like minivans. Yet we have become immune to these strangers that surround us. It’s as if they disappear when we ignore them. Like reality TV stars.

I was reminded of my own anonimity recently at my gym. After I scanned my membership card, the guy who routinely works at the reception desk said, “Have a good day, man”. A normal person would have just done what they were told, and had a nice day. But instead, I had a flashback to college…

It was my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. I was on the track team, and was lifting weights in the weight room (research indicates that’s the best place for such activities). One of the football players who I saw regularly walked through the room. When he passed by he said, “Hey! What’s up man?”  I replied with something like, “Hey, Man. What’s up?’ I thought nothing of it.

But then he stopped and asked, ‘What your name?’

I said, ‘Adam’ (that’s my go-to answer).

We shook hands.

He said “My name’s Aaron. Enough of this bullshit, saying, “Hey man.” or “What’s up bro?” F-that! I see you in here every day.  We should know each other’s names!’

Aaron ‘Scrappy’ Norvell was right. It was bullshit that we would repeatedly see each other, even greet each other, and not know each other’s names. After this introduction he was no longer a guy I saw. He was a guy I knew. The difference is profound.

I expect I wasn’t the only person Scrappy made an effort to get to know by name (he currently has 4,912 friends on Facebook).  He is  funny, outgoing and entertaining. We would see a lot of each other over the next few years in Madison. Today, he is an actor in Hollywood.  If you ever need to cast a police officer, Obama look-a-like, former college linebacker, or someone who can deliver the line, ‘Hey, what’s your name?’ he is your guy.

Now, back to the story…

With this random flashback playing in my head, I asked the guy working the counter at Elite Sports Club, “What’s your name?’  He replied, ‘Andrew’. I said, ‘My name is Adam’ (that’s my go to).  We shook hands. Now, every time I walk into the gym we greet each other by name. We have real conversations. Instead of an awkward, “Hey-Man” relationship.

Insiders vs Outsiders

Everyone we encounter in business, at social gatherings and at the grocery store are either Insiders or Outsiders.  The difference is whether or not we know each other by name.  That sense of familiarity and friendship that can only develop once you know a person’s name makes an enormous difference on this planet, where we are so often surrounded by John and Jane Does (that was supposed to be Doe-plural. But it looks like does, doesn’t it?).

I think about names at work. At the advertising agency, The Weaponry, we encounter people when we visit our clients that we don’t have to know by name. The receptionists. The people who sit next to the conference rooms where we make too much noise.  The IT person who inevitably saves every presentation. But I want to meet them too. So I make a habit of introducing myself, by name. Suddenly we are not just people who see each other regularly. We become people who know each other, by name.

I encourage you to convert more of those people you see or say hello to regularly into people you really know by name. It’s easy. Introduce yourself, by name and ask for their name in return. Write the names down. Start a list with a description of who they are on your phone or in a notebook. Refer back to the list as neccesary. The rewards are profound.  Just ask Andrew from Elite. Or Norm from Cheers.

The one thing you need to know to effectively work a room.

We’ve all been told not to talk to strangers. But I love strangers. The stranger the better. This may be because I have moved a lot. Which means I’ve often found myself amongst people I don’t know. But most people are less comfortable with total strangers than I am. This is probably a good human survival mechanism. A mechanism I lack.

As the Founder of The Weaponry, I know that the ability to talk to strangers is critical for entrepreneurs. If you don’t talk to strangers you are not growing your business. Or helping  anyone else grow theirs. When I meet a potential new client, it is our ability to connect as humans first that leads to us working together.

I believe in building on my strengths. So recently I listened to the audio book How To Work A Room by Susan RoAne.  I figured I would find a valuable new nugget or two.  And I did.

The most important thing I learned from the book is this:

When people find themselves with other people they don’t know, they adopt one of two behaviors:  1. A guest mindset. or 2. A host mindset.

The guest mindset adopts the attitude of the outsider, of the person who waits for others to make the first move. They wait to be introduced, or welcomed or fed. They wait to join or participate until they receive an invitation. If you have a party full of guest-mindsets, you don’t have a party.

The host mindset means you initiate. You welcome others, introduce them, offer them food or drink or a crack at catching the greased pig (depending on what kind of event you typically attend).  You activate the party. If you want to feel at home and enjoy any group of strangers, take on a host mindset.

This is what I do. I just didn’t have a name for it. I don’t wait for someone else to decide whether or not I am worthy to talk to (I probably am not).  I make the first move. I create the introduction. I act as if it were my job to make people feel welcomed.

I’ve found that when you don’t worry about rejection you don’t get rejected. Think of it like a Junior High dance. You just have to walk up to someone and say, ‘Stairway to Heaven is a sweet tune. Let’s dance. And let’s not worry about the fact that this song will gradually speed up, and we’re going to go from a slow dance into a full-on rock song, and we won’t know when we should stop holding on to each other.’ Remember the Stairway analogy. Because holding on to one person too long at a social gathering also becomes awkward.

If you want to enjoy a room full of strangers more, lose the Stranger Danger, and act like it’s your party, your wedding, your conference or luncheon.  Start by introducing yourself to others. Ask people about themselves. So, where are you from? What do you do for work? Where did you go to school?  How do you know the homeowner?  Why are your palms so sweaty?  Why the neck tatttoo?

There are people at every gathering who are just dying for someone else to make the first move. They don’t know they should be doing it. Because they never read this blog. Or How To Work A Room. Or danced with me in Junior High. Help them out. Be a host. They may be extremely interesting or valuable to you. They’re just not comfortable initiating. So you have to be. And you’ll enjoy the rewards.  You never know when that total stranger may have the kindness, connection or kidney you need.