An Evening With Humans Of New York

Brandon Stanton Humans of New York

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK: Getting to listen to the man behind Humans of New York – Mr. Brandon Stanton.

In my last semester of uni I took a third year management unit on leadership and one of our tasks was to select a leader to follow over the 12 weeks, and collect any materials we could find that demonstrated their style(s) of leadership. The actual assessment involved reading a bunch of peer-reviewed articles on one or two distinct leadership styles we had identified for our chosen leader, and bringing in the materials we had found to analyse their behaviours in accordance with or against the qualities of their supposed leadership style. I thought long and hard about who I wanted to focus on over the next 12 weeks and struggled at the fact that I’d never really had one leader that stood out to me or one leader that was inspiring enough for me to find the motivation to read through large quantities of text every week. I wanted to pick someone that no one else was going to write about, and I was trying to find someone who perhaps wouldn’t be so obviously considered as a leader (e.g. Obama, Trump, Theresa May, Dalai Lama). The narrowing-down process that I began involved collating a list of people who were personally inspiring to me and people whom I aspired to be like – on the list was of course, Brandon Stanton. After a few quick Google searches, articles, and getting lost in his talks on YouTube, I realised that there was a lot of good content I could use and decided that I’d found my leader.

One thing that I didn’t quite think through was the amount of relevant and new content I was going to be able to find every week, as most of the material I had been obsessing over were from past events and interviews. Unfortunately the lack of social media activity and news updates every week left me with the challenge of having nothing new to analyse and comment on, and I was so in awe of what Humans of New York (HONY) had managed to achieve and the story of Brandon Stanton himself, that I’d sidetracked myself from the main purpose of the assessment which was the in-depth analysis of leadership styles using the peer-reviewed articles. So sadly, I N/A’d that assignment (i.e. failed) but I overall still managed to pass the unit (and graduate) and also got to learn more about a really amazing person. No losses there!

Brandon Stanton very quickly became the Number #1 person on my list of people to meet/see before I kick the bucket and on Monday 12th February, I got to fulfill that goal. I used ticketek for the first time ever and purchased my ticket as soon as I found out (thanks Dru!) about this very last-minute Melbourne visit he’d decided to make. It was held at the Melbourne Convention Centre, and apologies for the shitty photos but I was seated relatively far back in the room.

Brandon Stanton Humans of New York

A large part of what he spoke about was familiar thanks to my hours and hours spent reading interviews, listening to podcasts, and watching videos of him online about a year ago. It was comforting to hear the words again and this time, it was all live and he was directly in front of me. I think there were a couple of moments where I full on teared up because the truth in his words was just too real.

He spoke about his way of approaching strangers on the street and how critical it is to be genuinely interested in what they have to say. He discussed how the simple act of listening can create levels of intimacy in a conversation that have resulted in people sharing their untold thoughts, pains, and confessions to him – a complete stranger. I’ve been all too familiar with the cathartic nature of raw and unfiltered word-vomit to strangers, and though there are unhealthy habits that can emerge from relying on that single path of mental and emotional relief, in some rare cases it’s what is necessary to break that barrier to voicing that out loud in order to start that intimate conversation with those who are not strangers.

He brought attention to the need that everyone has to feel important in some way, and the sense of importance that a person feels when you show them an authentic desire to listen and hear their story. I know many people who take things at face value or battle with their ability to find the space to put all of their shit aside to listen to someone else. It takes practice to listen without mentally talking over the other person with already-formed opinions, counter-arguments, and judgement. I definitely have been guilty of it, but I’m cognisant of that and learning to be more respectful of everyone’s individuality. There’s less discomfort and temperament when you’re able to acknowledge another person’s beliefs or decisions with a “you do you” mindset.

And of course, his infamous line that I’d already anticipated:

“There are so many people that use ‘following your dreams’ as an excuse to not work. When in reality, following your dreams, successfully, is nothing but work.”

I grew up thinking that the two were mutually exclusive and that there was no way that an ordinary person could experience joy and passion in what they do and make a living from it. Over a decade ago, the idea of filming videos for fun full-time would have seemed ridiculous yet it’s now recognised as a legit job that has made millions for some. When I first started my assignment last year, it was the same time that grad applications had opened and I was frantically searching high and low for what it was that I was supposed to do for the rest of my life. Attending the event on Monday made me reflect on my decision last year to not settle with these expectations that I had set myself and of others over the years. For the first time I had challenged many of the beliefs that I’d just absorbed from conversations that I’d heard around careers and how life should be. It took a period of adjustment to start separating myself from old ways of thinking around this topic to figure out what I actually believed and wanted to live by. For a long time I thought that my subjects chosen in VCE dictated my chosen field of study and that my focus areas for higher education dictated the direction of my career and that my career would dictate the quality of life I was going to have. I thought back to how easy it would have been for me to take the “safest” route and go along with expectations, and I found myself sitting there, relieved and praising the heavens that I had dodged that bullet by not doing so.

The question on my mind a year ago was “What the hell am I passionate about?” It was tough, considering that I’d never given it any thought before and there was nothing that came to mind straightaway. I think that’s why I started the blog to be honest. It was the first thing that seemed plausible enough. I’d created many in the past, but the part I always enjoy the most is the set-up. It’s also one of the more frustrating parts about starting a blog but I get absolutely sucked into editing the front-end of it. One of the degrees I studied was I.T. but by no means did I possess sufficient technical skills to code all this from scratch. However, teaching myself basic HTML and CSS was something I began when I was 9 years old and making things look decent and pretty is probably what I could proudly say I enjoy doing most. I’m reading ‘Designing Your Life‘ by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, and one of the things I recently picked up was the concept of “flow” which is essentially something that kind of makes you zone out and lose track of time – I’d probably identify mine as this. That’s when I started attending a bunch of UX-related events and doing my research to learn more, almost starting a short course instead of going straight into full-time work.

OMG I keep digressing. So the point he was trying to make is that there are people out there that clam to have a dream and want to do this and that but never really do anything or enough about it. The example he gave was of people he had met who weren’t working because they wanted to follow their dreams and pursue music, but only ever practiced once or twice a week. Like travel, for instance. You can love travel, and you can dream about travelling for a living. But, it takes more than talking about how much you want to travel. Whether that’s working hard to save up enough to travel or finding a job that will allow you to travel as part of your work, it doesn’t really happen on it’s own.

One of the many many things I love about Humans of New York is the power it has to keep our hearts and minds open, and break stereotypes that are generally portrayed by the media. Towards the end of the event, he played two videos from HONY The Series, the first of which took the audience into the life of a man who was on the streets and struggling with a drug addiction. Something he said in the video really stood out to me – he pointed out how people are there for you when you’re at your best but as soon as you go downhill, people no longer want to stick around. He spoke about how his mother was the only one who still stayed with him and believed in him, and spoke about the disappointment he felt in himself for letting her down. It definitely triggered my emotions and it’s one that you’ve got to watch and see for yourself (though I think this one’s not out yet). There is quite a profound theme that emerges from many of the HONY stories: Just because bad things happen to you or around you does not mean you are set up to be a bad person. No one can ever compare their struggles to another’s like for like, and through HONY you can see the vast range of challenges that randomly selected people off the streets have encountered and lived with.

I am definitely going to be binge-watching Humans of New York: The Series some time this weekend. I love how diverse and unique all of the HONY stories are, yet in many ways so relatable. At the end of the day, we’re all human. 

If you have a favourite Humans of New York story or one that really resonated with you, please share and tell why as I’d love to know!

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