Robin Williams was one of the most celebrated actors and most successful personalities of all time. Millions of people admired him, thousands knew and loved him, and dozens felt close to him. Yet in August 2014 Robin Williams took his own life. Despite all that love and success, Williams was profoundly lonely.
The same night Robin Williams died, I attended a party at a bar in downtown New York City to support an editor friend of mine. With my wife having gone home already, I planned to make a quick appearance at the party, say hi to my friend, and leave. But I needed to charge my cell phone before heading home, and so I asked someone at the party where I could charge it. She sent me downstairs, where I plugged in the phone and sat down on a couch to wait. Next to me sat Sandy, a thirty-one-year-old employee of one of the sponsors of the party, who had consumed a few alcoholic beverages before I sat down.
“Tell me about yourself,” I said to Sandy, and that was really all I had to say. In the twenty minutes that followed, while my phone’s battery charged, I learned Sandy’s story. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, Sandy was sad not to have a partner with whom to share her life. She had achieved great success in her career, rising through the ranks at her current company, but she told me that something was missing. Sandy told me about her career ambitions and her fears and challenges. She told me about her dreams and her goals and her love of travel—and nearly every place she’d ever traveled to.
I had barely said a thing except my initial “Tell me about yourself” and then a few words to acknowledge that I was listening. Yet Sandy opened up to me as if we were the best of friends. Perhaps she was lonely, perhaps she was really seeking a connection; it’s hard to say for sure. But what happened next was truly shocking.
“You were really great to talk to,” I said. “But I’m afraid I’ve got to get going.” I turned to the outlet to retrieve my phone, and Sandy realized she’d been doing all the talking.
“Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry. I haven’t asked a thing about you. Traveling anywhere interesting soon?” asked a sobering-up Sandy. “Actually, I’m going to San Francisco next week for my wife’s birthday.”
“Oh, I love San Francisco!” she replied. “I’m there all the time for work.”
“Got any connections to French Laundry by chance?” I asked. You see, I had been trying to get into the exclusive Napa Valley fine dining establishment for months in the lead-up to the trip.
“As a matter of fact, I do!” Sandy replied enthusiastically. “Let me make a phone call and see what I can do.”
The next week I was dining in style with my wife in Yountville, tasting scrumptious delights at one of the hardest-to-get-into restaurants in the country. On one hand, I had done nothing but ask a stranger for help to get this special unexpected night. On the other hand, I had dedicated real-time—twenty minutes of my life—to help fill a void of loneliness in someone’s life, something that perhaps rarely happened for her.
Listen to understand, authentically try to connect deeply with people, help them feel less lonely, and you will find yourself far more able to influence them.
The key to this lesson, as in many of the lessons in this book, is to do this authentically. This means not helping people feel less lonely in order to influence them but because it’s the right thing to do. I had no idea, of course, that Sandy had connections at French Laundry. I didn’t even expect the topic to come up in conversation. Instead, I listened and connected and helped her feel less lonely, if only for a few moments, and that happened to lead to my getting exactly what I most wanted at the time.
Even the most well-adjusted, psychologically healthy individuals have moments when they feel lonely and long to be more connected to other human beings. By approaching people with the intent to understand them and more deeply connect to them, we differentiate ourselves from most people in the world, who don’t care or are too busy worrying about their own problems to spend time focusing on others. When we do focus on others and help them feel less lonely, a world of opportunities opens up for us.