The Latest Episodes of INSIGHT with Chris Van Vliet
Jan. 27, 2022

How To Talk To Anyone - Rob Lawless Is On A Quest To Meet 10,000 Strangers

How To Talk To Anyone - Rob Lawless Is On A Quest To Meet 10,000 Strangers

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Rob Lawless (@robs10kfriends) is the founder of Rob's 10k Friends, a project where he's seeking to spend one hour with 10,000 different people to see what comes from opening doors for no particular reason. He joins Chris Van Vliet to discuss how you can talk to anyone, why he started this project, what his goal is with it, the difference between an interview and a conversation, what's he's learned about people through doing this, his interactions with celebrities like Ryan Seacrest and Kelly Clarkson and more!


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I think at the core of this, it is such a simple concept. It’s just the idea of meeting people and having conversations with them. What is the goal of this with you?

“It started as a personal mission. I always said that I wanted to meet 10,000 people for one hour each to see what comes of opening doors for no particular reason. To me, I have this belief that every human interaction has the potential to change your life, no matter how brief. To me, sitting down with a person for an hour, you are unwrapping the gift. You have no idea what you are going to learn from that person, when you will see them again and how they will impact you 5 or 10 years down the road. So for me, it’s just personally fulfilling and I am interested about the people around me. I also want to treat human interaction as an experience rather than just a transaction. A lot of us, once we go through school and graduate, relationships are so transactional. I used to think that if it’s not networking or dating, then why am I doing this? It became my way to infuse authentic connection in my life, and to encourage others to do the same.”

It’s so easy to make friends in high school and college. But then you get into the “real world” and it is so difficult to make friends as a result.

“I agree. I think a misconception is that everyone’s friend group is solidified when they graduate. So everyone is walking around with this mindset that ‘I want to make friends, but people are already set and they don’t want to spend time with me.’ I think once everyone walks around with that mindset, no one takes the time to reach out to each other. It’s only when you move to a new city that you are forced to break out and start to go down that path. It’s something that a lot of people want, but they don’t have the confidence.”

I want to make it clear that you don’t want 10,000 interviews, you just want to meet 10,000 people.

“Correct. And with everyone that I meet, I send them a PSA that I am not interviewing people. I just want it to be a 2 way conversation like if you were meet someone at the bar or a friend you have not seen for a while. When you do that you have the opportunity to ask new questions. If people think I am doing an interview, they will be like ‘OK Rob, grill me!’ I’m like well I have nothing here, I just want to get to know you. I think it goes back to that connection, if it’s an interview, then it just formalises everything.”

The word ‘Interview’ scares a lot of people, because for most people you are either interviewed for a job or by the police. For you, what do you think makes a great interview and what makes a great conversation?

“I think interviews are when you do research beforehand. I used to be terrible at them at school, you have to research the company and tell them what you like and come prepared. A conversation is a blank canvas and see where you go from there. I think the difference is that an interview has expectations, conversations don’t.”

You don’t do research for your conversations beforehand. So how do these conversations begin?

“I usually say ‘So where are you calling from?’ For context, I have met 4,768 people. The first 3,259 were all in person. I intended for the entire project to be in person, but I did not foresee COVID coming. When I went virtual, I started meeting people all over the world. It gives me an idea of where the journey starts if I know where they come from. My style is about building a timeline and figuring out their life story. I just then ask casual questions to fill in the timeline, it’s like asking questions about a movie. I’m just interested in the story arcs of people.”

Why is one hour a sweet spot?

“So I started 10 minutes at a time, but I never went 10 minutes, that was a bad idea. In my job, I started doing 30 minute conversations, but it was very surface level. I decided that I wanted to do an hour with everyone, I’m not going to run out of time to find things to talk about, and I get to dig a little deeper. I wanted to get to know people beyond the surface, and the 10,000 people and 10,000 hours, I think a lot of people are familiar with the 10,000 hour theory. It was highly underestimated in how long this would take. I thought it would be done in 4 years, but I am now 6 years in and still less than half way.”

We have to mention that this is a full time thing right now.

“Yes. I started in 2015 while I was working at a tech start-up. 8 months later, that company was bought out and I was laid off. I jumped into this full time in July 2016 and I haven’t looked back.”

When you told your family and friends about this, what was the initial reaction?

“I was one of the people that they kept on when the initial layoffs happened in 2016. I was telling my brother at the time that if I meet 50 people by June, I will jump into this full time. My brother said that was stupid becasue I need money to support myself, I was living in Philadelphia at the time. Then the company was acquired, I was laid off and I had no choice, just kicked out the door. It was not a sad event, it was that I can focus on this full time. My sister and my parents questioned me about what I was doing with my life. My sister has come around and my parents have started to, but they don’t really understand the modern world.”

So who was the guest that really got the ball rolling?

“Have you heard of ‘Yes Theory.’ They have had the biggest impact on my project. I don’t want to say of anyone, but they gave it legs that it did not have before. Even today I have met people who know me from Yes Theory.”

You’re almost halfway through. What is the biggest thing you have learned about yourself and about people in general?

“The biggest thing I have learned about myself is how wealthy I am in terms of life. I have gained so much gratitude for the things that I have. Going into this full time for over 6 years, you just don’t have the money to put in clothes or other new things, it really makes you focus what your value is on. For me, it is my friends, family and support system.”

So if this your main thing, how do you make money now?

“I had 3 years of savings from working at the tech start-up. When I took it full time, that was my budget to get this off the ground. I have had partnerships with everything to help me, dog walking wedding bands… When I met Ryan Seacrest and had that interview, I sent it to a working space and said that was where I was meeting them. I asked to do a partnership where I met the people at their space for a month, and fortunately that went well and extended another 6 months. The partnership ended March 2020 on thatday. But this is the first time I have paid rest since 2017, being able to cut that out was a big expense. I was able to just focus on this.”

A lot of the interviews are now virtual. How has that changed things?

“I think that you miss out on the atmosphere of things. So I used to meet people in coffee shops or bars, you miss the handshake, hug or a third party interjecting themselves for whatever reason. I forget that every day I just sit at a chair everyday, my mind could be in Ecuador or in Germany. We all have that perception of how we experience things, and I have had the most unique COVID experience.”

So what happens when you hit 10,000?

“I don’t think that I will stop at 10,000. I imagine hitting 10,000 and people will be like ‘That’s so cool!’ And I will be like ‘Yeah, I did it.’ I will still be going for that connection, but I don’t think I will be talking to 3 people a day like I currently do. But I want to speak now and speak throughout my life and impact other people.”

I think a lot of people think there is a catch to this. Did you find that?

“I think they might be thinking it secretly. I did a podcast with a guy afterwards, and he was like ‘Yeah I thought you were running a marketing scheme and I was waiting for your pitch, but it never came.’ But I think people who thought of that never really reached out. The same way that they don’t understand what I am doing, I don’t understand what they are doing.”

Do you have a bucket list of people you want to talk to?

“I don’t have a bucket list as such. I find the best people are the ones who really want to be part of the project. If you think about celebrities, not that I have met many, but it feels like they are doing a favor to be here. Jon Bellion, a music producer, he is a musical genius. We are the same age and I would love to know what is going on in his mind. Music is my biggest passion in the world aside from this.” 

I end every interview talking about gratitude. What are 3 things in your life that you are grateful for right now?

“The fact that I have this apartment, my friends and family and the Philadelphia Eagles are in the playoffs.”