Why you should always get to know the wallflowers.
I was recently talking about networking with a good friend of mine, Dr. Mark Goulston. Mark is a psychiatrist and consultant, and he said something that intrigued me. “People should always introduce themselves to the wallflower in the room. Nobody attends a networking event wanting to stay in a corner and be left alone. They’re in that corner because the most technically skilled people are often socially shy. You never know when you’ll meet the next Bill Gates.”
This comment really resonated with me, and it reminded me of a time a few years ago when I was at a party put on by Virgin Galactic relating to the testing of White Knight Two and SpaceShip Two. I walked outside the party and looked over in the corner by the pool where I saw a man standing by himself looking uncomfortable and very much out of his element. Then I noticed who it was. It was Burt Rutan, the founder of the aerospace company Scaled Composites and designer of the SpaceShip Two. He was by himself at a party with hundreds of people celebrating the work of the company he founded, as well as Virgin Galactic.
This was an opportunity I could not pass up. So, I went up and introduced myself to him. I asked him if he went to many of these events, and he said, “Counting this one, that would be one.” I asked him why he decided to go to this one, and he said, “Because Richard asked me to come.” By the way, that would be Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic. Although he didn’t seem very outgoing in this setting, he did seem good with having a conversation, so I pushed on.
I said to him, “It must be incredible to see this amazing, long-term vision come to fruition.” He replied, “This isn’t my long-term vision of what the company can do.”
I’m sure I was visibly surprised, so I asked him, “What’s your long-term vision?” He said, “Well, I believe the company can push forward past sub-orbital flights and expand to allow space tourists to do orbital flights around the earth.” I naively said, “That’s an amazing long-term vision.” He replied, “That’s not my long-term vision.” I was really surprised and said, “Okay, what’s your long-term vision?” He replied that he felt “the company could provide orbital flights to passengers who could then stay at a hotel in space for a short period of time.”
At this point, I’m completely blown away, and I once again said, “That’s an amazing, long-term vision,” and, yet again, he said, “That’s not my long-term vision.” At this point I’m all in, and I’m completely fascinated with this visionary, so I again asked, “What’s your long-term vision?” He replied, “I believe we can launch flights into orbit, stay at a hotel in space, and then take flights around the moon and back. That’s my long-term vision.”
Burt was probably in his late sixties when we had this conversation, and I asked him one final question, “When do you think that vision can become a reality?” And he replied, “I think it can be done in my lifetime.”
The British have a term for what I felt at that moment, “gobsmacked.” I was utterly astounded by this man’s vision, and I was incredibly honored to have had this opportunity to talk with him.
I founded the largest referral networking organization in the world, and I’ve met tens of thousands of people during my tenure in BNI. I can easily say that this was one of the most interesting conversations I ever had with someone at a party or networking event. Burt Rutan’s and, of course, Richard Branson’s, vision of what can be done through their entrepreneurial efforts has left an indelible mark on me.
The important lesson here relates to Dr. Goulston’s belief that we should always look for the “wallflowers” in the room. Not everyone of them will be a Burt Rutan, but I’ve found that most of them are interesting and well worth the conversation. Just every now and then, you might meet a Bill Gates or a Burt Rutan, and that makes the effort of finding those wallflowers worth it.