Every day, Rob Lawless, 28, introduces himself to a stranger. Some days, he sits down with two new people. Most days, he meets with four. Why? Lawless, a self-described, full-blown extrovert, is on a mission to make friends. The process is one he loves so much that he’s turned it into a full-time job.
In November 2015, Lawless launched Robs10kFriends, an initiative to meet 10,000 people for an hour each. So far, he’s connected with nearly 2,800 strangers, and projects he’ll spend the next 10 years continuing to plug away at his goal.
“I’ve heard it takes 90 hours to truly feel like you know someone, so I see these hours as just opening the door with people, getting us one step of the way,” says Lawless. “Going from college, where I had a lot of really great friends, to sitting 12 hours in an office, I was driven to get back to that place of community.”
A Penn State grad, Lawless landed his first job at Deloitte Consulting, which he then left to explore the startup world, taking a sales position at a tech company. It was there, after countless cold calls and the abundance of rejections inherent to any sales job, that Lawless formed the idea for his project. He wanted to simply meet people and hang out one-on-one, disconnected from technology and with no set agenda in mind. In summer 2016, he took that idea full-time after the startup employing him was purchased.
“When I graduated, I had a girlfriend, I had the Deloitte job, things looked promising. Now, I don’t have a stable income, or a girlfriend, and I’ve moved back in with my parents. On paper, it doesn’t look great,” says Lawless, noting that his parents were constantly worried at the start. “But I’ve met so many different types of people and have been getting sponsors to keep going. It’s created validation that I’m on the right path.”
Lawless usually starts his day with an early workout and a leisurely breakfast, before driving into the city for meetings at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. While meeting locations have ranged from out on a softball field to inside a custom-crafted airplane, Lawless most often hangs out where he can do so for free. Think parks and coffee shops, although he’s certainly not guzzling four cups of coffee a day and, unless his subject offers lunch or a drink, he sticks to a $0-per-day budget. (Daily, in his blue lunch box, find peanut butter and jelly, paired with snacks like pretzels and fruit gummies.)
Every encounter is different, as Lawless doesn’t adhere to a set structure or list of questions. Generally, he starts the hour by providing insight into his background and then asks people about their own and how they picture their future.
“I imagine their life like a movie in my mind and ask questions to fill in the gaps,” says Lawless. “I don’t consider myself the driver. I let people go as deep as they want. I’m just there to listen.”
Taking mental notes, Lawless determines what he’ll draw out to share with his Instagram (@robs10kfriends) audience, which tops 22,000 followers. For every person he meets, he posts a photo and a written summary of their time together.
It’s through Instagram that Lawless, considered an “influencer,” has been able to monetize his project. Companies such as WeWork and Philly’s Center City District pay Lawless in exchange for a written shout-out at the top of certain posts. Lawless soon will make his first international trip for the project, thanks to a Toronto furniture company’s sponsorship of his trip to Canada.
His goal is to continue taking Robs10Kfriends abroad so he will gain a wider cultural perspective on life. In the meantime, he’s completed six self-funded trips across the country, stopping for months at a time in both Los Angeles and New York City.
“It’s been incredible watching him grow as a result of all this. He’s kind of like this old wiseguy now,” says TJ Bard, 28, a former Penn State roommate, now based in California, who lets Lawless crash with him when he’s in L.A. “He’s met more people at 28 than the average 80-year-old, which has given him this unique perspective about the time we have here on Earth.”
Over the years, Lawless has met with everyone from students to CEOs, homeless individuals to street artists, and even a few familiar names, like former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. He’s met friends he’ll keep for life, buddies he surfs with when he’s in L.A., and also a few girls he briefly dated. (Although, while he’s open to meeting a girlfriend through the project, he emphasizes that it’s by no means the intent.)
At this point, most people find Lawless through word of mouth, friends of friends who’ve seen him on Instagram through shared posts. As a result, Lawless says, his clientele is predominantly young professionals.
His most famous encounter, at least, as Lawless puts it, “in terms of modern social influence,” was Matt Dajer, a guy he knows most people wouldn’t recognize. Dajer runs a YouTube channel called Yes Theory, with over 3.5 million subscribers. After meeting with Lawless in L.A., Dajer reposted Lawless’ Instagram photo of the two together. Within 24 hours, Lawless received 2,000 new followers on his own Instagram account and 100 messages from all over the world.
Lawless, however, wants to take his project and profession beyond Instagram and one-on-one meetings. He hopes to start booking speaking engagements focused on the value of human connection. Later on, he plans to write a book about his experience and what he learned along the way.
“It has faced me with the finiteness of life,” says Lawless. “My biggest takeaway is to have more gratitude. Every week, I hear stories of hardship, someone whose parent recently passed away from cancer or someone who had to drop out of school to pay off student loans.”
One of the most memorable stories for Lawless was shared by a guy named Chris Gellenbeck, who fell off a boat into the Hudson River when he was 16. His legs got sucked into the boat’s engine, and doctors gave him a 15% chance of living and a 12% chance of ever walking again. Gellenbeck beat both those odds.
“He’s a hotel concierge in the city, and you’d never know it unless you took the time to get to know his back story,” says Lawless.
Lawless hopes his project inspires more people to pause and get to know the individuals around them.
“By talking to people who are different than ourselves, even if we don’t agree with their opinions, we can often empathize with them if we know where they came from,” says Lawless. “Empathy can make the world a better place.”