The Power of Plates

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

When it comes to people I have a very simple rule: if I can’t share a meal with you I don’t want to know you. Regardless of our backgrounds, food has the magical capacity to bind us, allowing for real, meaningful connections even in the moments we don’t realize it. What we reveal about ourselves when faced with a table, napkins, flatware, and plates go beyond words — it’s something kinetic, visceral. We are our truest selves when exercising the most primal of acts: nourishment. We eat to sustain; we eat to comfort an ache and complete something within us that’s missing.

Whenever I meet someone new I rarely go for coffee because it’s cheap and quick, and I’ll never truly know the kind of person you are until you’ve held a fork in your hands. Do you fall in love with what’s on your plate? Are you present to appreciate the color and texture and taste of what you chose to eat? Are you considerate enough to ask about my meal? Are you appreciative of the waitstaff or do you ignore them when they refill your glass?

When I was full-time, I use to have this informal test when I’d interview candidates. The waiting area gives you valuable information about a person — it’s the space between the street and the interview when they’re not as aware of their informal tics and subconscious behavior. The interview mask has yet to be affixed over their face. So, I’d watch how they’d interact with the receptionist and staff. Do they greet and chat with the receptionist? Are they polite or dismissive? Do they assess the surroundings and make eye contact with the staff or are they staring at their phone?

You learn so much about a person in the moments when they’re not performing. When there’s a degree of awkwardness on the table — whether it be a waiting area or a restaurant.

We have this one body, our home, and are you the kind who cares about how you’ve outfitted it (have you given care to the selection of fabric and furniture), or do you just purchase the most expensive, visible item to only discard it to the floor? Do you eat without tasting? Do you swallow without savoring? Do you spend your meals only for the sole purpose of getting a contact or lead with food being anomaly, or do you genuinely appreciate the totality and intimacy of the experience? It’s not about your practiced pitch over a plate of pasta, rather it’s about the kind of person you are over the course of the meal.

So many “expert” networkers will talk to you about acquiring business cards and working a room — virtual or otherwise. They’ll talk to you about follow-ups and how to strategically mine your contacts folder, and while I appreciate the methodical nature of this kind of hustle, it’s not my bag. While a large part of being a freelancer boils down to hustle and networking and meeting as many connected people as possible, I focus more on cultivating what in yoga folks call a “kula” or community. I build the village around my house brick by brick. I mix the cement, I lay the foundation and I choose which bricks go where. I focus on how much I need and how I will build a village that will sustain me, lift me up, inspire me, and catch me when I fall.

I don’t own cards. Large groups of people give me vertigo. I tend to forget people’s names, and the idea of asking for favors outright feels uncomfortable. Instead, I meet people individually and get to know them as people, and in that process projects, connections, favors are organic and intuitive. I seek out my kindred spirits and collect them, and I help them selflessly with no expectation of anything in return. Connecting with people as people rather than contacts allows me to cultivate real, meaningful and lasting relationships that survive the ebb and flow of consulting, career and life changes. These relationships are built on trust, mutual respect, reciprocity, and creativity — not a shared Google Doc.

Do we get married on the first date? In a culture consumed with personal velocity, we don’t want to hear that things take time — we have to put in the work. We want the now, the immediate, the can you connect me with…

When I lived in New York, much of my work came from these long-standing relationships. I nurtured them. Checked in on my friends and acquaintances. Coordinated lunches, walks, and workout dates. And then I moved to Los Angeles, a place that feels like the Sahara for the kind of work I do. There’s an odd element of ghosting here (I’m told it’s layover from the film industry), so I find it hard to cultivate the kind of relationships I enjoyed in New York. So many people rave about the idyllic freelance life — the pajamas, dominion over one’s schedule and client roster, the pajamas — but few talk about the intense loneliness. The feeling of isolation that comes from sitting in a quiet home all day long with just the hum of your laptop and some ambient noise to keep you company.

The loneliness is palpable and I feel it acutely, especially this time of year when people are holed up with their families and functions and their time is scarce. And while I love working on my own, alone, I’m finding that I’m often lonely. I miss my plate dates. I miss the walks and workout dates. I try to replicate this with Skype, but it’s easier to cancel and reschedule virtual dates. There’s an element of commitment involved with meeting someone in person and it’s nearly impossible to replicate that level of intimacy. Some can and do it well — I’m just not one of those people.

And part of me feels that work is suffering a bit as a result. I view my work as a symbiotic relationship between the physicality of the work and deliverable and my relationships with people. It’s hard to nurture most of my relationships from a distance and next year I plan to focus on how to (and I’m loathed to use this word) scale my “power of plates” strategy. How to cultivate and maintain professional intimacy when you struggle with the reality of distance.

Otherwise, people forget you. Even in this tech-first culture, people often need to be reminded that you exist. They need a visual “proof of life” as it were. I try to do that with my writing and it certainly has bridged much of the gap. But I’d be remiss to say that this evolving strategy is a work-in-progress and you’re seeing some of that mess here.

Have you ever asked yourself: do I know the people I know? Do I know what wakes them up in the morning and how they take their coffee? Did I make the effort to know this person for who they are rather than what they can give? Have we thought about what we can give?

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +395,714 people.

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