I like her dress, was my first thought. So I made the comment to the tiny woman with the long bob as she sat next to me on the plane.
“Thanks!” she replied, her eyes revealing surprise that I’d acknowledged her presence. She put her bag under the seat in front of her. I returned to scribbling unabomber-style notes in my journal.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her juggling two phones, hurriedly texting on one while she cued up a podcast in the other. That’s interesting. I didn’t meet many people who also carried two phones. I vacillated for a hot second on whether to bring it up, not wanting to invade her bubble too much.
As a frequent flyer, I’d often been on the receiving end of passengers wanting to talk, really just looking for a distraction from themselves. I always lacked a gentle way of informing them I wasn’t interested in talking and would typically end up engaging out of politeness. What if she wasn’t interested in conversing?
The plane took off. Oh, what the hell, I concluded. If she doesn’t want to talk about it, I’ll take the social cues and get back to my regularly scheduled flight plans of writing and reading.
“I too, play the two phone game,” I said, nodding to her hands. She laughed.
“Yeah, it’s the only way to really separate work from the rest of my life. Gotta have those boundaries, ya know?”
I nodded. “What do you do for work?” I hated asking this question simply because I don’t believe occupations serve as defining characteristics, but it seemed like a logical next step given her previous response.
“I’m a regional sales director for Tesla.” Oh. Okay. Well THAT was a new one.
What transgressed over the next hour-and-a-half flight to Chicago was pretty remarkable. Two strangers, sitting tightly packed next to each other, engaged in a casual conversation that quickly flowered into deeper discussion.
Here are some of the highlights I remember from this seemingly chance seating arrangement:
On her position at Tesla
“I am grateful that I get to mentor other women,” she reflected. “Going through school and working my way up the ladder, I was constantly seeking strong, powerful female role models. They were hard to find. I’m glad I get to be a resource now for others.”
I could identify with what her struggle all to well. I felt like part of my path over the past year was just finding females who I wanted to emulate, let alone seeking their mentorship. It was comforting to know successful women not only had this problem, but that they were also working to resolve it.
I launched into a sales pitch of Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, which sat conspicuously on my tray table. She pulled out her Kindle and swiped through books she’d recently finished. She highly recommended Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I told her about my recently finishing Good to Great by Jim Collins and weeding through Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
“Why are you reading these types of books?” She asked leaning back against her head rest, staring at me curiously over her giraffe-like eyelashes.
I was thrown off by her ask. I had spent a good deal of time formulating my reading lists, and knew why reading had recently become so important to me again. But I hadn’t spent any time thinking about why I had chosen these books specifically.
I chewed on her question for a minute before replying. “I think it goes back to our earlier discussion about mentors. I want to continue to grow and push myself and these people have had resounding success, not only with self-improvement, but inspiring others to replicate their success. I want to learn how to do that.”
I asked her why she’d chosen her authors. She echoed my sentiments. “I always want to be growing and feel better equipped to handle life.”
Note: Since this encounter, I’ve committed to being more aware of evaluating why I’m reading/listening/watching content as a way of practicing quality assurance. I want to feel efficient and enriched with how I’m choosing to spend my time. I know all-too-well the urge to binge-watch Netflix and then wonder, What the hell did I just do with my day and why do I feel guilty? I’m learning that knowing why you’re doing something is just as important, if not more so, than doing it.
A product of long commutes, she’s constantly listening to Podcasts. She highly recommends This American Life, Freakonomics and The Daily. I referred her to the Tim Ferriss Experiment (are you seeing a pattern here?), Dear Sugars, and NPR’s How I Built This.
We exchanged information and said our goodbyes. As we parted from the plane, I thought about how kismet it was that we happened to sit next to each other (given she rarely flies my favorite airline), my having the balls to talk to a stranger (because I almost never do), and how easily our conversation flowed. The familiarity and ease of the time spent was what triggered me to think it was important.
My logical brain almost immediately wrote off the magic of the moment. Maybe she was just being nice. It wasn’t that long of a flight. Maybe she just didn’t want to read her book. She’s in sales. It’s part of her job to grow rapport.
As these thoughts percolated in my brain, I ran into her again in the Uber pick-up lane.
“Oh hey!” she said. “I’m glad I ran into you. I just wanted to say thanks so much for the great conversation. I never meet people like you when I travel.”
I smiled, pleasantly surprised. “I was really glad to meet you, too.”
“Is it okay if I hug you? I feel like we’re at hugging level.” I laughed and nodded yes, embracing the tiny woman.
Well Universe, I thought, getting in my Uber, you showed me.
The lesson learned from this encounter with a Tesla executive? Follow your instincts. Say hello to a stranger on a flight if you feel called to do so. Compliment someone, ask their name, whatever gets the ball rolling. If they are willing to engage, ask as many questions as you can and learn.
Very rarely are we put in circumstances where we get to connect with people with such different levels of life experience. Make the most of those moments when they appear. You never know who you’ll meet or what they’ll teach you.