People are networks of desires, needs, outlooks, and experience. We all have stories of where we came from, and ideas of where we're going. Sometimes we talk about our dreams, sometimes we make plans, and sometimes we just show up.
Rob Lawless is interested in learning where people got their start, where they came from, and where they're headed next. In a world that speaks of drive, ambition, and advantage, Rob has purpose but no agenda. His personal mission is to meet 10,000 different people for one hour each to see what comes of opening doors —for no particular reason.
A native of the Philadelphia area, Rob has a degree in finance from Penn State University with a minor in engineering entrepreneurship. His most recent job was in business development at RJMetrics. The company was named after Robert J Moore, who started the company by replacing his own job, helped Fab.com raise $40 million with data, and navigated the line between relevant and spooky up to its acquisition by Magento Commerce.
That's how far Rob has come with his project. But to him, people are not just a number.
Rob is a good listener, and this project gets him well on his way to making a bigger impact given how markets are networks of people, companies, needs, and supply. At 25, with good experience, modest material needs, a positive outlook, and a desire to keep his curiosity active and his mind open, Rob is alive to possibility and present to others.
We talked a little bit about me, how I came to the U.S. to do translation, that I finished my doctorate by flying back and forth every four months to Bologna —how's that for a commute?— and how much I loved having the ability to connect people with information and a framework that could help them change heir lives. (how talk can change our lives)
I had prepared a few questions, which I weaved into the conversation about what he calls an art project. After RJMetrics was acquired by Magento Commerce, Rob was part of the layoff. He thought it provided an opening to get going. With no particular expectations, the only structure he gave himself was to meet 5 people for one hour each every day.
Stories are how we remember people
The most difficult person to set up a meeting with was Brendan Lowry. The meeting took place a couple of weeks ago from the initial contact this past May. Brendan founded Peopledelphia, which is what peaked Rob's interest.
He learned that former Philadelphia Major Michael Nutter got his start in politics from his days working as a DJ at Club Impulse.
A young woman who had gone into social work after a personal experience with gang rape at 14 was the conversation that changed him the most. Because here's someone who has gone through incredible hardship, and yet looks “normal.”
That meeting and the one with a recording music executive who met him on the rooftop of his studio in Times Square, NYC were the standouts, for different reasons. They both drove home how everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle and the importance of not making assumptions.
Suspending judgment also helps when 67 year old woman who invited him to her apartment drew the shades and lit a candle—to make him feel comfortable. Oh, the things we do that reach the exact desired effect! A young woman visiting at Penn State was the most memorable instant connection. It sounds like there will be a repeat there…
The most unlikely meeting was this man, Glen, who was the oldest of 10 siblings and did time in juvenile at 16 for dealing, then spent 3.5 years in federal prison at 23 and now owns a $60M roofing company. The introduction came via Brian, who runs a restaurant in Delaware and was the former boyfriend of a girl who dated someone Rob met. Networks at play.
People are generally not talking about their hardship, that is off the table. One gentleman he met from Sierra Leone was 8 when he finally had his first pair of shoes and was child number 63 out of 65 (different mothers). He had lives in Russia, Germany, London, and from there won the lottery to be in the U.S. where he joined the army and was sent to Germany. His story continued with the journey back to Sierra Leone where he opened a school.
“Our beginning never know our ends,” is a phrase often used in storytelling. But it's another short phrase that comes to mind when thinking about Rob's project, and that has African provenance, “I put my story down so that someone else may pick it up.”
UPDATE: I asked Rob to share which are his favorite books. Here's what he said:
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – the 10,000 hours theory is part of the inspiration behind my choosing 10,000 people for an hour each
- An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy by Robert Dallek – I've always been interested in JFK's charm and how he presented himself
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – one of my favorite fiction books from high school