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Life Lessons I learned from HONY founder, Brandon Stanton

I received a text from one of my friends in July, asking how I would feel if I were to have been nominated for Humans of New York and if the creator, Brandon Stanton, wanted to interview me. As with any true friendship, I thought I was being pranked and ignored it. Only after documented proof (thank goodness for screenshots) did I come around to realizing this was not a joke. A group of my friends had gotten together and emailed Brandon a bio about me and why they felt I was a New Yorker whose story should be shared. That email was one of the kindest things ever written about me. Thank you, Niamh, Barry, Brian, and Danielle. As for most of us, the pandemic really took its toll on me. I was hoping 2021 would be better, but I could not seem to catch a break this year. It seemed to be one thing after another that pummeled me into the ground, until my resiliency broke and I could no longer recognize myself. It sounds overdramatic, but the emotions and the depression were very, very real. Thankfully, I had a lot of love and support from my mom and friends. I seeked appropriate help with therapy. I started giving myself a break. I took the summer off from school and The Oppy. I used running as a healthy outlet for my stress and sadness. I put my energy into work and building healthy relationships with others and myself. I was starting to feel like myself again by the time I was supposed to meet Brandon in August.

From the get-go, Brandon was very responsive and accommodating. “You’re working every day this week? No problem, I’ll come to the hospital to interview you on your lunch break. I understand if there is an emergency and you have to cancel at the last minute.” The humility of this man was astounding. I had my doubts that I would be interesting enough to be featured on Humans of New York but was thrilled at the possibility of meeting the creative genius behind it.

We met on a Saturday afternoon. His friendliness was disarming and all the anxiety I had felt surrounding talking to a complete stranger dissipated. He started by taking some photos and continued to take more intermittently during the interview – usually when I seemed to be lost in thought or caught by an emotion. How does one pose for HONY? You don’t. It’s nothing like a professional portrait one gets for work or school. It’s not about your appearance – the photo is a tool to help share your story. We spent over an hour talking about my life. We talked about everything – my dad, my childhood, my experiences, my more recent struggles, and of course, my love for running. I felt more like I was having a therapy session than being interviewed. It was very cathartic. 

We go our separate ways, but not before I ask him if I can interview him for The Oppy in September. He responded with, “Well, I can’t exactly say no when I just interviewed you.” However, he could have very easily said no. Brandon Stanton is a big deal. He does not need to agree to do an interview with a student-led newspaper, but that is the type of kind, modest man he is. 

Our interview for The Oppy was fascinating and we went in depth on real topics. Brandon struck me as an introspective person, who analyzes life’s biggest and smallest problems.

These were my biggest takeaways from the interview. I bolded some of my favorite quotes from Brandon and included them below. You can read the full interview here. 

  1. We can all find our “competitive advantage,” and it doesn’t have to involve taking the typical path. 

When Brandon dropped out of college, he decided to take responsibility for his own education, which led him to reading an entire business textbook. The first thing that popped out at him was the term, “competitive advantage,” which would end up being instrumental in the growth of Humans of New York. After Brandon left his job as a trader in Chicago in 2008 during the recession, he moved to New York to pursue photography. He soon realized that he would never be the best photographer but that he was better than most at having strangers be comfortable with telling them their life stories and struggles. 

I had this realization that I was becoming one of the best in the world at making strangers feel comfortable in my presence – not an easy thing to do, especially on the streets of New York City. And that is what my skill was, as opposed to photography. The art came out of that skill.

The trajectory of Humans of New York ever since that moment became learning more and more about people and getting as good as I could at crafting these monologues – by learning how to write and edit in a way that is going to allow these people to convey their story, their views in the most compelling way possible for short form.”

  1. Everyone has a story.

I had my own insecurities about sharing my story and if it was worth sharing, but the truth is, we all have valuable stories that have made us who we are and can be helpful to others. The main determinant is if we are willing to be open and honest enough to share them.

The variable that makes someone able to be the subject for a compelling Humans of New York story is not what they’ve been through, as much as their willingness to be honest and vulnerable about it.

People protect themselves by not going into detail.”

  1. Active listening can account for more than any amount of preparation or organization can.

As MBA students, we are constantly preparing for the next assignment, meeting, interview, etc. We are planning ahead for everything that we need to get done. I know I for one often find myself not living in the moment. In my mind, I am already a day, week, month, or even year ahead. However, there is a lot to be said for slowing down, for taking the time to be exactly where you are now, and being present in conversations. Active listening is no easy goal, hence why everyone talks about the concept all the time. Active listening is the key to rewarding conversations and making connections on a deeper level.

Something flips when I’m on the street and I’m in the presence of somebody. I think it’s the closest I get to meditation, a period where I’m not thinking about anything, not thinking about my work, or the future, or what I’m worried about, or bills, or how I look, or anything, except for the other person’s story. If you can be completely present, there’s no need for organization. The problem is when the stakes are high, it’s hard to be perfectly present.”

  1. Empathy will always win. Live a life that strives to make the world a better place. 

I like to look for the good in people. My more shrewd friends think it’s naive of me, but I’m a firm believer that people are inherently good. Their actions may be bad at times but there’s usually a reason or motivation behind them, even if they are misguided ones. This belief keeps me optimistic, but I will be the first to admit that I don’t always put my money where my mouth is. Brandon reminded me of the importance of living a life less self-focused and changing the focus on ways I can be of greater use to others. 

What will be more lasting is how you helped people – the amount of pain that you took away in the world. I would encourage everyone to examine very early on what you’re going to optimize for or you’re just going to be on a hamster wheel.”

I cannot sing Brandon’s praises enough. He has not only created the most captivating, empathy-inducing photoblog of all time, but he has also revolutionized the concept of storytelling and how stories can make humanity kinder and more compassionate. 

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