How Traveling Alone Helped Me Remember the Power of Real-Life Connections
When I ventured outside my cozy virtual comfort zone, amazing things happened.
Lately, I’d been feeling like my life has become a little too… insular.
I’m an introvert, and I’m also a freelance writer. That in itself is a recipe for loneliness. But I also think my iPhone — that device that has become an almost literal extension of me — has made me, and all of us, more disconnected from others than ever in the past. We walk around, wait in lines, and sit on the subway with our heads down, eyes on the screen. With a tap of a finger, we can text, email, FaceTime, Snapchat, DM, our closest friends and family, wherever they are and whenever we want. With our “near and dear” at our fingertips, why would we branch out to someone new, let alone have a full-on conversation with a stranger? I can’t remember the last time I did, when it wasn’t for networking, dating, or other unavoidable circumstances. Which isn’t good, I know.
That’s why, recently, I decided to change things up and make some connections with new people in my life.
Okay, the truth is, I signed up for a Summit weekend retreat. So I didn’t really have a choice. I’d be staying three nights in the idyllic-sounding Eden, Utah, with a bunch of people — more than 100, in fact — who I didn’t know. In other words, an introvert’s nightmare.
To be honest, I am more of an “extroverted introvert,” so I actually am pretty social. I love having one-on-one conversations with pretty much anyone, and I am not afraid to introduce myself to people in a social setting, even if I do get a little quiet in groups. Yet 8 days in the Utah mountains with no one familiar around me was still a giant leap outside my comfort zone.
Taking that leap started before I even left my apartment. Before the trip, I emailed a fellow guest who’d be flying into Salt Lake City the same time as me to see if she wanted to share a ride to the resort to save some money. But I was worried about facing an hour-and-a-half Uber trip with a stranger. Would we have anything in common? Would we just sit there in silence?
Turns out, I had nothing to fear.
After noticing my area code, she asked where I was from in Florida. Turns out, she was from the same city. We also attended the same high school.
And when we got in the car, we discovered the similarities didn’t end there: We were both only children; we’d both majored in English in college; and we had the same exact birthday. Oh, and she got married the same tiny town in North Carolina where I hope to get married one day. I mean, the chances of this are probably 0.0001%.
And that was just the first sign of what I learned people called “Summit magic.”
In the days that followed, I found more meaningful (if not as eerie) connections with all types of people — people who, on the surface, I wouldn’t think I had anything in common with: a snowshoeing guide from London, a yoga instructor from inner-city Baltimore, an entrepreneurial doctor from California. Each person had fascinating stories, backgrounds, and insights that somehow applied to something I was going through in my own life.
One day, in a workshop, a woman spoke about how she had coped with an illness in her family that I am also dealing with. After she spoke, I went over to introduce myself and thank her for sharing her story. Suddenly I realized tears were running down my face as we talked for a little about our shared experiences. I walked away feeling grateful for her vulnerability, and somehow more at peace.
Another day, I decided to try to ski — which I’ve only done once before in my life. When I reached the top of the mountain, I realized I was completely terrified. Then I saw a fellow guest who I knew was a confident skier. I “skied” over to him, freaking out, and confessed that I didn’t think I could get down on my own without falling off the side of the mountain. Even though we had hardly spoken before, he patiently skied with me all the way down a green run, reassuring me that my fears of dying were a bit exaggerated.
His confidence in my abilities, coaching tips, and constant encouragement helped me make it down the mountain, and I finished my first (and only) run of the day feeling insanely grateful toward this person, now a new friend, for his guidance (and basically saving my life).
Finally, on the last night of the retreat, I sat next to a woman at dinner I hadn’t spoken with before. We ended up sharing hopes and dreams we’d both been secretly harboring but never had the courage to voice out loud. She encouraged me that I had everything I need to achieve my own, again leading to tears springing from my eyes. Long after we finished our food, we embraced and promised to stay in touch.
In the beginning of the weekend, we’d all arrived to Summit as complete strangers. By the end of the three days, we left as inter-connected friends.
After the retreat, I returned home, happy to be back in my usual surroundings, but I also felt a weird sense that something was missing. I realized that I missed making connections with strangers, and forging connections with new people in Ubers, at meals, on ski slopes.
I decided I didn’t want to go back to my limited interactions with my “chosen few” friends and family, so I tried to bring more connection into my day-to-day life. I resolved to, at the least, stop rushing through interactions with strangers and simply put myself “out there” more. I worked out of local coffee shops (sans headphones), sat at a bar for dinner by myself, and chatted with people I crossed paths with, from Uber drivers to the woman on the mat next to me in yoga.
Each time, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the power of these simple interactions. Every person I’ve spoken with has been nice to talk to, even if we didn’t open up about greatest hopes and deepest fears, as I had at the retreat.
That’s OK though. You definitely don’t need to go on a weekend retreat in Utah to reap the rewards of connection. These moments of human connection can happen wherever you are.
Hang out in the breakroom during lunch and chat with a coworker. Get to know the barista at the coffee shop, or talk to the doorman at the front desk of your building. Or maybe just catch yourself — and stop — turning to Instagram or Facebook for an instant dose of comfort.
It may take a little more effort for those of us who are naturally shy or reserved, but the rewards of forging relationships with others are endless. I believe one of the easiest ways we can all make the world a better place is to simply commune with other people. Plus, you never know who you’ll meet.