When I met my wife, Deborah, it was like love at first sight, except it wasn’t. We were both attending a mutual friend’s birthday party, and we wound up sitting next to each other. We immediately fell into a fun, harmonious conversation that to each of us signaled a kind of magnetic resonance, the unmistakable, inevitable reaction of two divinely compatible entities finally meeting for the first time. Shortly after that party, we went on an absolutely magical first date, featuring two meals and two kinds of dancing (no, that’s not a euphemism; I took her to the ballet, and then later we went to a dance club), and from then on our fate was sealed.
Shortly after our date, I was explaining to MaryAnne, another mutual friend, how great Deborah was and how amazing it felt to have made such a powerful instant connection . . . and MaryAnne mentioned with some amusement that the birthday party was not the first event Deborah and I had both attended. MaryAnne could think of two or three gatherings at her own home that we both had been invited to in the past. “Well,” I said, thinking of my new girlfriend’s arresting smile and embracing spirit, “I would have remembered meeting Deborah. Obviously we just never crossed paths.”
A few weeks later, MaryAnne brought me a photograph she had found, taken at one of those earlier parties. I remembered the party quite specifically – it was a welcome to two Japanese exchange students – but I had no recollection of having seen or met Deborah. Yet, here was a photograph, showing the two of us sitting right next to each other – not addressing each other directly, but clearly involved in the same larger conversation. Deb saw the photo, too, and like me simply did not remember us meeting at that party. Yet there it was, proof that, at some point in the past, we had somehow resisted what had seemed to us an irresistible attraction.
In fact, as our relationship developed, we realized that we had almost certainly seen each other years before. We discovered that we had gone to school in the same small town in Massachusetts, and we could name certain events – some involving only a couple of dozen people – at which we knew we were both present. Our putative “love at first sight” eventually had to be demoted to something like “strong mutual attraction at sixth sight”.
The null effect of some of our earlier meetings can be explained by circumstance. At the time of the party for the exchange students, for example, we were both in relationships with other people, so our romantic antennae were not up. But other times it was just chance – we were in the same room at the same time, two people who would eventually fit together well enough to build a life, and yet at the time we had no idea who we could be to each other.
This isn’t the only time something like this has happened to me, either; just one of the few times I’ve realized it. For example, a few years ago I developed a friendship with a fellow Jeopardy! fan (and eventual contestant) named Tova Perlmutter, whom I met on the Jeopardy! message boards. We traded messages, I met her in person when she came to DC for business — she is good people. And we figured out that, not only did we both go to Harvard at the same time, but, on account of her boyfriend at the time, she frequently visited the house I lived in there. We had mutual friends, we were in the same room at the same time, probably dozens of times, and I am sure we could have been good friends at the time; and yet we did not meet until we lived 400 miles apart.
I think of these examples and I wonder how many other friends, colleagues, and acquaintances I know now, but also unwittingly encountered some time in the past. It also makes me realize that, every day, there are an unknowable number of people around me who look like strangers but might someday be part of my life. Someone who works out at the same gym I do, or who takes the same subway route. Someone standing on the other side of the room at a professional gathering or a panel discussion.
Once you get that kind of perspective, it becomes a lot easier to get yourself out there in the world. Why wait for ten or twenty years to pass to discover that a classmate or a fellow member of a company or organization turns out to be a good buddy or a fruitful networking contact? Why hesitate to introduce yourself to someone in a room full of strangers when there is a chance that that person could end up one of the most important people in your personal or professional life — a confidante, a mentor, the person who opens the door to your dream job? Making contact with the person you need might turn out to require nothing more than opening yourself up to the room you are in.