Getting to Know Yourself by Looking at Outward

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Art Decker.

“Getting to know yourself” has become a billion-dollar industry. Self-help books have carved quite a niche out of it. Myers Briggs and countless others reap quite a profit every year from people like me who hope to “find themselves” by plugging some information into a magic formula and then expecting to look over to the other side of the equation to discover who we really are. But is it really that simple?

All the fuss got me to thinking that the whole self-evaluation thing is maybe a tad overrated. And that if you are finding it difficult getting to know yourself, then maybe the answer just might be to start looking outward instead of inward. In other words, perhaps some of the time we spend reflecting could be put to better use living and engaging.

“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Learning about others just may be the best way to learn about ourselves. One of the most obvious ways to gain perspective about others is to travel. The opportunity to explore disparate geographies, experience distinctive cultures and subcultures, and encounter engaging and perhaps even conflicting ideals is bound to broaden one’s horizons. But travel is expensive, and not an option for everyone.

Reading widely is less expensive, and no doubt enormously enriching. But you can also get your nose in a book – and, ironically, while “learning about life” you may be simultaneously avoiding it.

What got me thinking about all of this was a chance encounter with a client several months ago. Having just moved from South Africa, he was storing his polo gear in one of our units. We got to talking and I learned more about his country and the continent of Africa in 30 minutes than I ever knew before then. How incredibly valuable, I thought afterwards. It was almost like taking a course at Harvard (except much less expensive!).

I couldn’t stop thinking about it for hours and on my drive home that Thursday evening (by the way, driving is my brainstorm/reflection time) I made a resolution. It was based on my epiphany that I had been severely missing out on an incredible opportunity. I vowed to meet a stranger every day. So, you’re thinking, “Big deal… strangers come into your facilities all day, every day.” So I added a caveat: the stranger had to be from outside of my work environment. And that would be my challenge! At this point I hit the brake, noticing that I had picked up speed in my car as I got lost in the beauty of this new experiment!

Since that Thursday evening, I’ve used the challenge to myself as an opportunity to meet some amazing people. And what I want to share are a few of their stories and how they have not only made me more aware of who I am but also have helped transform the person I used to be into a much richer and more substantive me. (And yeah, the names are changed to protect my new friends.)

Stranger One: “Hank”: On a street near my house, they have been repairing a faulty sewer main and a slightly older gentleman holds the “SLOW” sign to signal to the cars passing by. I had driven past a few times, always noticing his rather pleasant demeanor and smile, so the day the sign actually read “STOP,” that’s what I did, and rolled down my window. It was a quick conversation, but I learned that Hank had moved from Washington State where he was involved in auto glass repair. He had lived there for 35 years before moving here for the weather with his traveling companion Charlie, an old lab who sat in the truck off to the side every day making sure Hank never left his sight. Stopping to talk to Hank, I realized I was actually a tad jealous of his simple life and loyal friend. Some of us spend a lifetime looking for that.

Stranger Two: “Bobby”: There is a homeless man who hangs out on the corner near my morning caffeine infusion. I had passed him countless times; he sadly had almost become a fixture in the background to the extent that I considered him nothing more than part of the scenery. A few days into my new commitment I decided to stop, despite the fact that it was a particularly busy morning. But this was important! I bought an extra black coffee and offered it as a friendly gesture. Turns out Bobby had owned a small landscaping business, and had loved his work, but he suffered an injury on the job that required an operation. The injury was treatable, but the surgery was exorbitant and unaffordable. And slowly but surely, his clients began to disappear, causing “Bobby” to hit rock bottom. I saw from “Bobby” that life can turn around in an instant; we can lose strength in an instant and money can seem to evaporate. It hit me when I left that I needed to focus on the things I could not lose, and those things cost not a penny and require not an ounce of strength. (By the way, “Bobby” and I enjoy a cup of coffee at least once a week now.)

Stranger 3: “Courtney”: As I was waiting at the train station on my way to visit my sister, my train became delayed because of the inclement weather. A middle aged woman who was waiting for the same train sat down fairly close by. She was dressed in a sharp looking black dress but soaked from head to toe — absolutely drenched. I had an extra coat and offered it to her. She politely refused my offer but we started chatting. Turns out she was dressed up to visit her child but sadly the locale of the visit was a graveyard. Somehow this incredible mother had found good in a terrible tragedy almost ten years past. She now lived on the other side of the country but came back each year on the anniversary to visit her boy and add a new plant to where he lay. Enough time had passed that she was able to talk a bit about it and she shared with me how she had used the accident to propel her forward in her life. She realized that she couldn’t control time or tragedy but she could control her decisions and her effort to make something happen. She had moved east, and opened a flower shop in a small coastal town, and spent her life brightening the days of others.

Stranger 4: “Anita”: The cashier at my local pharmacy does something quite rare. She looks every customer in the eye. Never having conversed much with Anita, I decided to compliment her on this well received trait. She told me why she did it and I will never forget her words. She said “I don’t know where these people came from and I don’t know where they are going. I just want to make sure that at least one time today, somebody looked at each of those people as if they were a human being.”

I met countless others and continue to meet them. It’s almost overwhelming because there are literally new strangers coming into my little corner of the world every second, but it’s also inspiring and incredible. Without a text book, without a plane ticket, without really much effort at all, I’ve gained more insight and traveled further than ever before.

And, I’ve also gotten to know someone I never knew that well before — myself.

About the author: Art Decker is a division manager with Self Storage Company, which operates a group of websites, including a California self-storage locator. Though busy, Art enjoys meeting new people and clients when traveling to sites, like San Francisco or the Los Angeles self-storage center.

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