If you’ve never heard of Humans of New York, allow me to introduce you. The premise is really simple: Brandon Stanton walks around New York taking pictures of a broad spectrum of people and hearing their stories.
Here’s a video to give you some more perspective.
What I love about this website is that it pulls back the curtains on life.
Here are some of my biggest takeaways:
1. Everyone is dealing with something
Social media gives the false illusion that everyone has a fantastic life. Through curated snapshots and updates we have the power to deliver the narrative we want others to believe about us—namely, that life is good, or even better—that life is perfect.
Through social media I can build the bionic version of myself I’ve always wanted.
By sharing choice quotes I can give the impression that I’m more intellectual than I really am.
By finding that perfect angle of my face I can come across as better looking than I really am.
By posting the picture of that beautiful location I can give the impression that life is better than it really is.
Truth, of course, is far from it, isn’t it?
Often, life is tough. There is suffering. Bad things happen. There is joy, but there is also pain. What this does in me, though, is it helps give me a greater compassion for everyone around me, even people I don’t know.
It makes me mindful of the words I speak and how I speak them.
It reminds me to be kind.
It impels me to find ways to encourage people.
Humans of New York reminds us that life is not curated. We’re able to see raw and real stories of people, and I find it incredibly refreshing.
2. Open-ended questions are powerful
Open-ended questions are ones that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.
Notice this particular interaction:
Or how about this one?
“My father’s back in the Dominican Republic, so my mother’s had to raise my brother and me on her own. She works as a cleaner. Recently it’s gotten even more difficult for her, because my grandfather passed away, and he had been helping us a little.” “Do you remember the happiest moment of your life?” “For my fifteenth birthday, she bought me a make-up set and taught me how to use it. She painted my face, and she let me paint her face.” A photo posted by Humans of New York (@humansofny) on
Here are some great questions he’s asked in the past:
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
What’s your biggest fear?
What was your greatest moment of firefighting glory?
What was your happiest moment?
The list goes on and so. So many great questions. Study them.
3. Listening well is a gift you give someone
It’s not simply about asking a good question, but also about listening well. Listening well is a tremendously selfless act. It means I’m not thinking about what I’m going to say after you take your first pause. Instead, I’m simply enjoying you and being curious about your story. Whenever I do premarital counseling, I encourage people to “walk down the road” with each other. This means that you enter the other person’s world through their story.
“So how was your day?”
“It was alright.”
“Oh yeah? What happened? How did it go?”
“Well, my boss just got me a little frustrated.”
“What did he say?”
“He cut me off before I finished my presentation.”
This is the point at which many might try to offer a solution or even change the subject because they feel uncomfortable.
Listening well and “walking down the road” with someone means that I’m going to stay right there with them. I’m not going to make the conversation about me. I’m not going to change the subject. I’m going to continue to explore their story, but also how things made them feel.
Much could be said about this principle, but let’s just say that it feels wonderful when someone has done a good job of listening to you. It’s a gift.
I suspect that Humans of New York wouldn’t be nearly as successful if Brandon Stanton wasn’t such a good listener, in addition to a good photographer.
Here’s another interaction from the site. Even though we don’t know the original question, it evidently set her at ease to share something quite profound:
“He thought he was being called. I thought he was being brainwashed. I thought he was too young to make that decision. When I thought of him as a priest, it was hard for me to think of him as my brother. I didn’t want every conversation to be about God. I didn’t want to constantly feel guilty around him. But he’s been in seminary for a couple years now, and he hasn’t changed much. If anything, he’s even wiser and more mature. Even though he’s fifteen years younger than me, he’s always giving me advice.”
So what about you? Have you seen the site? Do you have a favorite story? Link to it in the comments section. What lessons have you learned from the site?