My first day in Dubrovnik, Croatia, was a traveler's nightmare: I was running on three hours of sleep, had been traveling half the day since 5 a.m., and, for the first time since I set off to circumnavigate the globe by couch-surfing through my social network, I could not find a host. Disgruntled and frustrated, I decided to treat myself to a nice (and slightly unaffordable) dinner in Old Town.
I squeezed myself behind a tiny table in the middle of one of the town's traditional stone alleys, a space so tight I could practically touch elbows with my fellow diners. It wasn't five minutes before my neighbor, an older gentleman dining with his daughter, invited me to join a friendly conversation he was having with other neighboring diners. Long story short, my night quickly went from being a quiet, consoling meal on my own to being a dynamic, joyful dinner with a few strangers-turned-friends.
This man, who knew nothing about me or how my day was going, proceeded to treat me and the other couple we were chatting with to dinner and invite us on a boat ride through the Adriatic the next day. He asked for nothing in return.
This has not been the first time an incident like this has happened to me.
Repeatedly in my travels, both strangers and friends have gone above and beyond to help me. Regardless of country, culture, or relation to me, I have been the recipient of countless acts of kindness, many times without my asking. In fact, I would say that it's the culmination of all these little favors that have propelled me towards achieving my dream to travel the world.
I've come to understand that these acts of kindness are in and of themselves their own form of currency. Like any currency, it's up to us to invest or waste it. We can view people helping us as isolated incidents, or we can work to build a network of people who in one way or another pitch into filling our giant pot of dreams.
I may not have a lot of money in the bank, but I feel rich when it comes to the social network that I've created for myself. Whenever I need something - whether it is advice, a connection, a home to sleep in, or a local guide through the city - there is always someone who has my back wherever I go.
Here are three lessons I've learned about leveraging my social network in life, business, and to travel the world.
People Generally Want To Help
The media constantly barrages us with news of what a bad place the world is. Everywhere in the news, we find stories about wars, murders, attacks, and how wicked people are. It's no wonder that some people are afraid to travel.
It's true that there are bad people in the world, but that's been a reality since the beginning of time. I've traveled to 37 countries so far, and from my experience, that perception is the exception, not the norm. Rather, I've found that most people are genuinely helpful.
Just in the past few months, a stranger in Austria almost missed his train to help me find mine, a friend of my host in Milan spent the entire day showing me the city despite not knowing me, and a Japanese acupuncturist I met at my meditation retreat in Nepal skipped his dinner to spend the evening treating my bad stomach. I also witnessed this willingness to help in the workplace - more times than not, my co-workers were happy to help whenever I needed help understanding or improving a project.
I go out into the world believing that people are good, helpful, and kind, and consequently, those are the type of people I tend to attract. I can't stress this enough - believing in people and their willingness to help us is the first step to actually receiving help and building a strong social network. And, while most people are receptive to helping, it is important to remember that it is a two-way street.
Accept Help And Never Refuse To Give It
I grew up believing that asking for help was a sign of weakness. With time I realized that it's quite the opposite: we need people to move forward in our goals. We make our lives unnecessarily difficult when we try to figure everything out by ourselves: it takes more time, planning, and effort than it needs to if we had just reached out. Please note that I'm not advocating that we run to somebody for help every time we hit a small obstacle. We should first try to figure out problems on our own, but it takes wisdom to recognize that we all need help sometimes and that's okay.
Do not be afraid to ask for help, and much less to take it when it is offered. After all, we cannot get what we don't ask for.
When I first started couch-surfing through my social network a few years ago, I was shy about asking people to sleep in their homes as I didn't want to be intrusive or rude. I realized, however, that if crashing on someone's couch meant that I could afford travel, it was worth the awkwardness of asking. I would never know unless I did.
I was surprised to find that the vast majority of people that I reached out to in my social network were happy to host me. If I didn't find someone who lived where I wanted to go, I would ask around until I did. It was my positive experience with finding places to stay wherever I went that encouraged me to take on my couch-surfing experiment around the world.
The same concept applies to entrepreneurism - a huge chunk of building a business is creating a strong social network and growing it by giving and getting. There will be many times we have to ask for help and even more when we have to give it. We have to learn to get past that initial shyness and just ask for what we want in both business and life.
People often ask me how I'm traveling full-time with limited funds - the kindness of strangers, and my willingness to ask for help when I need it is a large portion of the answer. Without people helping me, I wouldn't have places to stay, get freelance work, or make so many helpful connections around the world. And because they help me, I do everything in my power to help others.
It's really true that the more you give, the more you get. I've found that the best way to create a rich social network is by never refusing to help someone if it's within your means.
You may not always have the ability to repay those who help you right away, but when someone asks you for help, do not make excuses or refuse because it's inconvenient. Do whatever is in your power to help in that given moment. If it's not much, that's okay... as long as it's what you can do.
Life is a game of paying it forward, and those who play the game well get the farthest in life. It all comes back around at one point or another.
You Are Part Of a Bigger Game - Be A Good Player
Have you ever heard the phrase that to make money, you have to spend money? The concept is quite similar when it comes to social currency. I think of my social network as a favor bank: every month, I chip in my part by helping whenever and however I can. Whenever I need a favor myself, I'm comfortable withdrawing as much as I need.
Having worked in New York City and attended a super-competitive Ivy League school, I've lived through the cutthroat, competitive side of achievement. It can only get us so far before we piss people who matter off. Our real, long-term worth lies not in a paycheck but in the network of people who are willing to help us at a moment's notice. As I have witnessed with both work and my travels, sometimes that will get us infinitely farther than cold, hard cash (in my case, human connection is literally moving me around the world). To build a network of social currency, however, we have to do our part.
When we help each other, we move forward. The goals we are trying to accomplish move forward. As a result, the world moves forward. The dinner someone treated me to on a bad day will turn into the couch I offer someone in need. The website a friend helped me build will become the job recommendation I give a college graduate. The few bucks I spared from someone giving me a ride will turn into the extra metro ticket I leave behind for a lucky finder. All the ways that people can help may appear seemingly unrelated, but in the end, these acts of kindness feed the same beast.
My advice for those looking to have a rich social network: do your part to this giant bank of favors. Pitch in and help others indiscriminately, without expectations of repayment. You will find that even so, repayment will come in ways you may not have even imagined, at times you wouldn't have expected.