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Strangers not always a danger

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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Don't talk to strangers.

My mother told me that, as yours did. And now we go around thinking strangers are dangerous — to the detriment of our careers and lives.

Lucky for us, Alan Gregerman's 9-year-old daughter said something that made him grasp just how detrimental.

He walked her to the school bus one morning and shared the don't-talk-to-strangers caution. She looked up and said, “But Papa, if I don't talk to strangers, how will I ever make new friends? And how will I ever learn new things?”

That moment challenged him to rethink his views. He recalled “strangers” who changed his life in a meaningful way: teachers who set the tone for his love of learning, customers who took a chance on his ideas.

He writes about that perspective in his book, “The Necessity of Strangers: The Intriguing Truth About Insight, Innovation and Success.” It will reset your thinking, too, if being more compelling and innovative in your career or business matter to you.

“Most of us assume that strangers are a problem rather than a remarkable opportunity to learn, grow and reach our full potential,” he says. This translates to the belief that “the people we know best are the real keys to our success.”

But strangers are a necessity precisely because of their differences — because of “what they know that we don't know; their objectivity and ability to be open and honest with us about things that really matter; and their capacity to challenge us to think very differently about ourselves, the problems we face and the nature of what is possible.

“Finding and engaging the right strangers has the power to make all of us more complete, compelling, innovative and successful,” he says.

Hiring is one of the best ways for a business owner to meet the right strangers.

Yet when a position needs filling, “we are more likely to look for the usual suspects with the ‘right' qualifications than folks who are compellingly different,” he writes.

Instead, beyond special skills necessary for a job, today “we desperately need to hire people with open mindsets and a keen gift for making the right things happen.” Businesses can't afford to hire “typical” people, he says.

But different doesn't mean having a more diverse workforce in a very narrow sense of the word. He suggests seeking people who are different “in what they've studied and the way they've been trained, the experiences and accomplishments they've had.”

He yearns to hire people “who can't stop asking interesting questions,” people trained as artists and engineers and with no formal training, even those labeled as learning challenged.

For us and the companies we work for to stay competitive “requires us to welcome very different people, ideas and points of view.”

Overcoming a deep-rooted tendency to dismiss and fear strangers begins by understanding that inclination — plenty of researchers have looked at stereotyping and group think — and arming ourselves with a strong belief that strangers do matter, Gregerman says.

Write to Andrea Kay in care of USA TODAY/Gannett, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, VA 22108. Twitter: @AndreaKayCareer.

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