There are moments in our lives when we have the choice to embrace opportunity and redefine ourselves or continue down the well-trodden path of mediocrity. I faced one such crossroad a few years ago after watching the film The Motorcycle Diaries
, which chronicled Che Guevara's journey of self-discovery by depicting his travels across South America. His story lit a fuse inside me.
I was 28 years old and working in a brokerage office in London. My family had always expected me to be a businessman. But the job, and my life, just wasn't for me. I felt trapped. I had always been an extrovert masquerading as an introvert, secretly craving emotional connection with others yet simultaneously shunning exposure. I stayed in the shadows and behaved myself so that attention was not directed my way.
The film sparked a powerful urge to express my true nature, no matter what the cost. What better way to shed the expectations of others, I thought, than to cut all ties to my old life and become a kind of professional adventurer in a distant land? To keep from falling into old habits of isolation, I decided to travel in such a way that I would be forced to connect with others by relying on the kindness of strangers. I would allow myself $5 a day, which could be used for food, accommodations, or travel.
I traded in my luxury car and briefcase for a pair of walking shoes and a backpack and started a cross-country journey from Times Square. My aim was to reach the fabled Hollywood sign by relying on whatever social skills I could muster. A friend who ran a production company helped cobble together a small crew to film my travels. I later sold the show to Fox Reality and National Geographic International as the series Amazing Adventures of a Nobody.
If I had no money, my theory went, I would have to meet other people to help me. Otherwise, getting from A to B would be impossible. In my everyday life I had a car, cell phone, money, and other ways to bypass true human connection. I would be laid bare by my inability to use the normal tools associated with modern life and forced to find myself through others. I simply had to relate to people on a deeper level, or they would never have brought me into their homes or helped me with a meal. (Well, maybe some of them hoped we'd get them on TV.) I wasn't consciously aware of this at the time but what I was really doing was learning how to break out of my shell and experience new situations without fear or judgment.
When I arrived in the small town of Galesburg, Illinois, for instance, I panicked. There was absolutely no one on the streets; it was as if I had found myself in a 19th-century ghost town. My first reaction was, "I'm screwed. What the hell am I doing here?" I needed to find an inexpensive place to sleep, quickly. I saw a friendly older lady in a car and began chatting with her. She offered me $20, and I told her that while I appreciated it, I couldn't accept money outright, in accordance with the rules of my social experiment.
So she called her son, Bob Franey. He treated me to dinner, and then invited me to go home with him and spend the night on his living room couch. His wife and two daughters were exceptionally friendly and completely game for this unexpected visit by a wandering Englishman. The next morning, Bob had me throwing axes at trees in a field by his home, a typical competitive activity in the Civil War reenactments of which Bob is an aficionado. Not something I would have otherwise engaged in. I must admit to being smitten with my newfound pastime.
Then Bob took me into town and vowed to raise the money necessary to get me to my next stop—Denver. He spent about four hours talking to people and convincing them to pitch in, then bought my train ticket with the donations. We've stayed in touch, and I call him regularly for advice. He's a fun-loving, loyal, honest man. I'd never had any mentors before, but now I consider him one.
Other adventures ranged from the bizarre to the sublime: I spent the night in a hotel with a woman who was convinced she was the target of a hired assassin and that the FBI was building a drug factory under her house. A complete stranger gave me the keys to her place while she and her young son were not home. I stayed in a curiously blood-soaked motel room. I was invited to spend the night in the middle of the desert with a 42-year-old man who looked and behaved eerily like the motel manager in Psycho. He insisted that I come alone, without the film crew, and without telling them where I would be. I declined.
Once I was walking in downtown Indianapolis when an inebriated guy came out of a side street. Every time I tried to walk away from him, he would stop me by stepping into my path. I tensed up. I realized that as long as I listened to his ramblings, his belligerence dissipated. I managed to get the attention of a porter in an apartment complex and gestured for him to call the police. After some desperate miming, the porter finally caught on; the police soon arrived and took the guy away.
The grittier experiences taught me that when we are up against a wall, we generally find a way around it. In fact, one of the most valuable effects of my trip was that I learned to be resourceful—to work with what is at hand to get what I need.
From rapping with local gangsters in inner city Chicago to traveling with a group of Iraq War veterans through the stream-choked mountains of Colorado, I learned that the true essence of life is found in the sweet connection of two souls. It's a high that can't be reached by getting the newest iPod or following the latest celebrity scandal.
And it's not a temporary high; I've continued to get satisfaction out of my friendships with people like Bob. And I continue to learn something from people I meet on my mundane trips to the grocery store or coffee shop—because not only have I learned to talk to strangers, I've learned to really listen to them.
I even met my girlfriend when I walked up to her at my local Starbucks. The shy guy that began the journey morphed into the gregarious one who loves people and embraces life's challenges. I have all the people I met along the way to thank for the transformation.
Leon Logothetis lives in Los Angeles where he runs Shankly Productions. Read his blog at www.leonlogothetis.com.