For many people, mingling with strangers is an unnerving prospect. For Rob Lawless, however, it’s a dream — and a full-time job.
Lawless is the man behind Robs10kFriends. Every day, he sits down with about four strangers for one hour each, with the goal of eventually spending 10,000 hours with 10,000 different people.
The 29-year-old Penn State graduate didn’t always hang out with strangers for a living. However, after spending a few years in finance and sales, he realized that his true passion lay in human connection and forging new, meaningful relationships.
“I set a goal of meeting 10,000 strangers because I saw it as an opportunity to tap into my passion for meeting people while doing something entrepreneurial, all the while allowing me to set a positive example of what human connection should look like,” Lawless told In The Know. “As I’ve built my project, I’ve also strived to encourage others to treat human connection as an experience rather than a transaction.”
Lawless started Robs10kFriends back in November 2015 when he was still working full-time as a sales rep at data analytics startup RJMetrics. Back then, he said that he would email and DM random people — many of whom he found via Billy Penn’s “Who’s Next” list — and just hoped that they would respond.
“Because I had no agenda other than taking an interest in those I contacted, people responded really positively and the project grew mainly through word-of-mouth,” Lawless explained. “A lot of the people I met early on (and still) would say during our hour, ‘I know a few people who would be really interesting for you to talk to!'”
Today, nearly 4,000 strangers later, Lawless connects with people who reach out to him either via email or on social media. With more than 37,000 followers on Instagram and almost 8,000 followers on TikTok, he has plenty of interesting subjects to choose from.
Lawless’ growing social media following is also how he’s been able to turn Robs10kFriends into a full-time project. The entrepreneur said that as his account has gained media attention, he’s partnered with everyone from a small mom-and-pop pharmacy to shared workspace behemoth WeWork. He also has a Patreon where fans can contribute a monthly amount of their choosing and “engage with the community on a more intimate basis.”
Of course, Patreon donations and corporate sponsorships can’t quite match up to the salary of a sales rep, so Lawless has had to “cut a ton of expenses” (rent included). To him, though, that’s just a small price to pay to see Robs10kFriends to completion and get meaningful stories out there.
So what has Lawless learned in the five years since he started Robs10kFriends? The extrovert said that, perhaps most importantly, he’s learned to see human interaction in a different, more appreciative light.
“I have learned that treating human connection as an experience rather than a transaction is an incredible way to go through life,” the former sales rep said. “It allows you to appreciate the differences and similarities of people while also creating a sense of belonging due to the shared state of vulnerability.”
Lawless also said that through his project — and in meeting with thousands of people from all different walks of life — he’s developed a new appreciation for everything he’s been blessed with — especially after speaking with subjects like Bojana Corilic, the victim of a mass shooting in Serbia, and Chris Gellenbeck, who was in a horrific boating accident and miraculously recovered.
“Through my connections, I’ve gained a greater sense of gratitude for the gifts I have in my life (a loving family, good friends, a mission that fulfills me),” he explained. “I’ve met so many people who, for example, have lost loved ones or who haven’t had a strong support system like me.”
Eventually, Lawless knows that Robs10kFriends is going to come to an end. (It has a very finite end date, in fact!) However, he doesn’t plan on abandoning the project and his dreams altogether once he sits down with his last stranger; on the contrary, he hopes to continue inspiring people through characteristically intimate lectures and college courses.
“Professionally, I plan to spend my time teaching a university course where students sit down 1:1 and learn from each other’s backgrounds as opposed to a textbook or powerpoint slides,” Lawless said of his plans for the future. “I also plan to support myself through speaking about my project at universities and corporations.”
Lawless still has plenty of strangers to meet before he joins the world of academia, though. If you’re interested in being a part of his Robs10kFriends project, you can reach out to him either via his website or on Instagram.
If you enjoyed this story, read about the woman behind the viral TikTok “Venmo Challenge.”
More from In The Know: