I come from a fortunate background. Though I never felt like I could have everything I might have wanted, and there were always kids at school who got the newest toys that I knew my family couldn’t afford. I did grow up in a house, with two parents with full time jobs and college educations and interests in cooking healthy warm meals night after night, and well living in Palo Alto is pretty nice. What that means is while growing up, I didn’t experience real struggle as some people have. I didn’t have the fear of being kicked out of my home, or not having food to eat. I know some people live with this feeling, some people in the world have very serious problems I will probably never fully experience. The comforts I grew up with definitely made things easier, and so, though inside me somewhere was the fight to get out of my comfort zone it was never in such primitive way as it could have been.
Going hitchhiking pulled this reality out and put it on a platter in front of me. In certain situations Zuzanna and I were at gas stations in fairly remote places, and had seen hundreds of cars come and go without picking us up. As a hitchhiker, once you’ve seen that your chances have fallen below 00.03% of getting a ride, after you’ve waited for over 45 minutes or worse two hours with no luck, you start to get the drive of desperation. Graffiti from other hitchhikers on nearby signs and stones describe your spot as “death spot”, it gets to you… You become willing to approach strangers — something neither Zuzanna or I was comfortable with at first — and ask for help.
When we were tired, un-showered, hungry perhaps, over exposed to the sun, and any number of other discomforting situations, we stepped up our game, got creative if necessary, and found ways out of bad situations. I think this not so much taught me, but exposed to me the utility within myself that I need for other things in life. Doing sales for example, requires at times, some brut force of doing large volumes of cold calling, going to shops to see if they would sell my products, when this is the last thing I wanted to do, suddenly it just became a utilization of the trick I learned while hitchhiking.
If my sole job today was to approach strangers and ask them to listen for a few minutes to my spiel. I could do it, and I think I could do it in a way that was enjoyable for those strangers. Of course many people are lucky enough to not have this as a requirement in their day. But what you learn while hitchhiking is asking strangers for help is so uncommon, that some people, just a few, perhaps one in every thousand, is genuinely interested in talking, seeing what you have to show them, and sharing a little bit of their time with you. One in every thousand hasn’t spoken to anyone and they will entertain your agenda whatever it may be. One in every thousand people wants to help regardless of what you need, and one in every thousand (or three to five thousand) wants to buy what you’re selling.
The reward of finding that one in every thousand people is enough in the case of hitchhiking, to keep doing it over and over. It takes you to peoples homes, it gets you dropped off in unexpected magical places. It gives you a chance to hear someone else’s story. It get’s you a recommendation for a hidden gem restaurant you never would have found, and a personal introduction to the owner who will entertain you all night in a way no tourist could ever dream of.
Back at home in Berlin, after our hitchhiking experiences, I am no longer afraid of embarrassment, or shame, or judgement. I know that if I believe in the reward, the nine hundred and ninety nine rejections I need to face to meet the one person who wants to learn about my offer, is worth it. If with sheer numbers I learn about my method or offer and see it’s flawed I can change it and tweak it. Finding weaknesses in the proposition or initial opening lines to make what I have to offer more interesting. Sometimes, we’d change our sign, realizing no one was heading where we wanted to go. Or we’d change where we were standing to become more visible, or catch cars at a spot where they weren’t already driving too fast to stop and read out sign. Constant tweaking. Car after car, we’d learn, adjust, improve, and figure out exactly what was needed to get a ride.
Every person out there who has a job, or idea for a company, that requires weeding through a huge volume of “no’s” just to find the few “yes’s” that connect them to their reward, can benefit from going hitchhiking if they haven’t already got this spirit. Inventors know this trick. Salespeople know this trick. Researchers know it. Developers who debug problems in their software know this trick too.
For hours and hours developers patiently study their problem, looking for the solution, trying many different ways to solve it, knowing that with each attempt that ends in failure, they learn and become one step closer to finding the solution. Instead of dealing with rejection from other people, they deal with rejection from their own software, it’s less social, but still requires the same patience and belief in the reward.
When talking about problem solving now with Zuzanna I frequently use the term “the hitchhiker way” which generally refers to this methodology. This idea that there will have to be a whole lot of rejection, and on the spot improvisation, to find a solution. The great thing about the hitchhiker way is, it requires a method most people aren’t willing to try because it is too uncomfortable. No one wants to approach strangers and deal with rejection, which means the benefit is all the more special, untouched, and unique. It’s in a territory most people wouldn’t dream of going.
Everyone out there should consider their challenges, and the solution which might exist if by only approaching a thousand rejections in search of the one victory. I’m curious what other ways this scenario comes up in life besides programming, and sales, and hitchhiking. What experiences have you had that required enduring a thousand failures to find the one success?