Are You Standing by the Side of the Road with Your Thumb Out?

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Seth Godin recently wrote about what you give up when you let someone else drive, literally and figuratively. That got me thinking of everyday wisdom — the little things you learn from life that you forget were learned at all. In particular, it reminded me of some lessons I learned from hitchhiking that seem so obvious to me now, that I all but forgot learning them.

Back in the 1980s, I hitchhiked thousands of miles to find work, go rock climbing and visit relatives. After working the fish processing plants in Alaska, dressed in worn military surplus clothing, toting a large backpack and sporting a beard, I was not optimally groomed for hitchhiking success. I spent over eight hours by the side of the road waiting for a ride on many occasions and got picked up by a variety of somewhat unstable characters, including a nice old grandfatherly man who at one point was waving a gun about complaining about all the Californians invading Oregon. I never had a really bad ride, though and was only conditionally threatened with death (“If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you”). That seemed fair (I wasn’t planning to fuck with him) and he turned out to be quite a nice guy for someone only six months out of prison.

Over time I figured out some rules for successful hitching that turn out to be some pretty good rules for life, though I think I might need to remind myself of the lesson a bit more forcefully.

  1. The slowest, most dangerous way to hitchhike is to stand by the side of the road with your thumb out hoping someone takes pity on you and stops to help.
  2. The fastest, safest, most effective way to hitchhike is to go to places where travelers are already stopped, and pitch your case.
  3. Looking dangerous puts you in danger.

If it’s not obvious why this is so and how it applies elsewhere, let me just ask this:

  • Is buying from your online store as difficult as stopping a speeding car on a road without an adequate pullout for a total stranger who looks dangerous?
  • Did you get your last job by waiting around for someone to post a position that matched your qualifications?

Some Commentary for Slow Learners

Let me explain a little more about how this works. Rather than standing by the side of the road, find a place like a gas station right off the highway. Approach someone and say “Excuse me, sorry to bother you. I’m trying to get to SomeCity. I’d be happy to help with the gas [unless you’re really, really broke] if you’d be willing to let me ride along.”

  • Take control of the decision. If you stand by the side of the road with your thumb out, you have turned over the choice of whom you’ll ride with to random psychopaths passing in cars. Don’t let the psychopaths decide. Ask for help, rather than waiting for someone to offer. Donate to a political campaign early, before the big money psychopaths have chosen someone who meets their needs. Aside from his first job out of college, my brother has convinced every company he’s worked for to create the position they hired him into. I pretty much liquated everything and took on debt because the most important thing to me was to become a historian. Within two years I was eeking out a living and getting paid to do exactly the sort of research I wanted, despite only taking one history course in college. Lately, though, I’m disappointed in myself. I feel like I’ve been doing too much standing by the side of the road and not enough going to parking lots. I signed up to give a talk way outside my field in November. We’ll see how that goes.
  • Make it easy for people to help you. I see a lot of people hitching where traffic is moving fast, there’s no decent pullout and I don’t get a long look at them. If they’re already stopped, you’ve taken away one impediment to letting you onboard. How hard is it to keep my foot on the gas compared to stopping? How hard is it to go back to Google for another search instead of trying to navigate your impossible website?
  • Make a connection.You might think, “They can’t know I’m not a psychopath just by one sentence at a gas station.” That’s true, but they can sense normalcy, they can see you up close, they can tell you’re not stinking drunk. Or just plain stinking. That’s already a huge boost over someone that they’re trying to glimpse by the side of the road at 50mph. Your one sentence is a chance to show you’re polite and respectful (“Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you”) and your chance to persuade (“I’d be happy to help with the gas” powerfully invokes the principle of reciprocity — you’ve offered to help, so they’ll want to help too). That may not be enough to overcome their resistance to letting a stranger in the car, but it’s a lot more persuasive than sticking your thumb out. This is universal. Nothing makes people feel as good as helping someone out. Studies have shown that over the long term, most people get a bigger boost in happiness by giving gifts than by receiving them. If you make a connection, people will want to help you, and that could mean giving you a ride or buying from your store. I just made an unplanned purchase for $78 in the store next to the ice cream shop, because the people in there connected to me.
  • Dress for Success or Birds of a feather flock together. If you look grungy, dirty and dangerous, you’ll get picked up by people who see that as normal. Your goal is to appear normal to your prospective ride. That doesn’t mean you necessarily want to look like your clients. You want to look like someone they can trust in this situation. People in suits and ties don’t want mechanics in suits and ties.

2 Responses to “Are You Standing by the Side of the Road with Your Thumb Out?”

  1. While most people are perfectly normal and honest, there’s really no telling who one may be dealing with when they either get into a car with, or pick up a total stranger whose motives are unknown. Sure, while the people with bad intentions, drunk or drugged-out drivers, speeders or careless drivers, or just plain crazy people who’re out there in their cars aren’t in the majority, there are enough of them out there, imo., to produce too much of a risk for hitchhiking or picking up hitchhikers, especially for girls and women.

    Moreover, most of the horrific incidents (i. e. the rapes, the assaults, the accidents, deaths and serious injuries, etc.) that happen to people while hitchhiking fail to make the evening news or the papers.

  2. Well, fair enough, though that is not really the point of the article.

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