Random Acts of Courage – Monday challenges and field report

Giggidy, let’s get this thing rolling. If you missed Friday’s post, you may want to give it a quick read so you know what this Random Acts of Courage thing is all about.

Today’s loose theme is building confidence. The goal is to confront your shyness and approach anxiety.

Here are the challenges:

  1. Get on local or national radio.
  2. Say hello to five strangers as you pass them on the street.
  3. Make eye contact with a stranger and don’t look away until they do first.
  4. Convince a stranger to have their photo taken with you.
  5. Ask someone working at a supermarket for help finding an item.
  6. Learn a simple magic trick and perform it for a stranger on the street.
  7. Ask a stranger in a restaurant or coffee shop if you can sit with them.
  8. Go to a bar on your own and strike up a conversation with another patron.
  9. Ask a stranger for his/her phone number.
  10. Strike up a conversation with a homeless person.

I intentionally made some of those quite easy and some quite difficult, so no matter your current level of confidence there should be something there that will stretch your comfort zone.

You can do as few or as many as you want. You can even combine some of the challenges or make up your own. The challenges themselves aren’t all the important. You just need to get out there and do a few things that scare you.

I spent the last few days going down through the list, trying to get everything checked off. I’ll share with you how I fared, and offer some suggestions if you’re planning to have a go yourself.

1. Get on local or national radio

Back on December 27th I noted that I wanted to get on Today FM’s Ray Foley Show and play Ah-Yeah-Okay (a game where the caller isn’t allowed to say those three words). I’d been listening in every so often but they never seemed to be playing the game when I had my ears perked and my phone ready.

On Friday I decided I’d just call them up for any old reason, and see if I could get them to play the game especially for me. And it worked!

Click here to hear the audio (you can also right click to download the mp3).

A chunk of the audio is missing in the middle. Nothing I could do about that (I ripped it from the Today FM website).

They actually had me on twice to play the game since they had to break for the news at 1pm, but they called me back about 40 minutes later to continue. I was doing well not saying the three words in the first bit, but then messed up quickly the second time.

Ah well. Mission accomplished, and I also got to plug the site 🙂

If you’re intimidated by this challenge, consider just calling your favorite station to request a song, or text in a shout out to a friend or family member. Anyway you can get your name on the radio is good.

2. Say hello to five strangers as you pass them on the street

This is pretty easy, and something I try to do regularly anyway. I must have said hello to a dozen or so strangers on the street this past weekend. All but one cool cat in Tesco’s said hello back.

3. Make eye contact with a stranger and don’t look away until they do first

Likewise, something I try to do regularly so I also found this one to be a breeze.

I figure it’s actually easier to do this in Ireland than in many other countries, because us Irish folk seem especially reluctant to acknowledge each other on the city streets. Usually people will give you only a quick glance to see if they know you, or else they stare at the ground until they pass by.

A little more challenging is to try this indoors (like in a pub), when you and the other person aren’t on the move. It took me a while to get comfortable holding the gaze of an attractive woman or a physically intimidating guy, but I can pull it off quite easily now, usually throwing in a nod or a smile so I don’t look like a complete psycho.

Speaking of bigger guys, I’ve never had anyone try to pick a fight with me for “staring them down,” but if someone ever does get confrontational I’m ready with a comeback that will hopefully diffuse the situation: “Oh, I’m sorry. You just look a lot like a friend of mine. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

4. Convince a stranger to have their photo taken with you

After spending a half hour walking around Cork on Saturday afternoon, looking various strangers in the eye and throwing out a bunch of hellos, I decided I’d better move on to a more difficult challenge. Walking up Patrick’s Street, I was on the lookout for some friendly-looking folks who might be up for a photo opportunity. I spotted two girls, both about 25 years old, laughing with each other while drinking hot chocolate outside a jewelers. Perfect.

I mustered up a playful smile, veered towards them and asked one if she could take my picture. She agreed, and as she took my camera I stepped alongside the other girl and added, “…with your friend?”

They both hesitated for a moment, then laughed a couple of WTF-is-happening laughs and went along with it. The result…

I love the expression on her face 🙂

We chatted for a few minutes after and I told them about Random Acts of Courage and the blog. I even wrote down the address for them. So if they’re reading this, thanks for being nice to the weird guy with the camera!

I should add that I had tried the same approach twice before (in Vegas last July), and it worked both times then, too. It seems like a fairly reliable way to go about getting your photo taken with a stranger, even if it is a little sneaky.

5. Ask someone working at a supermarket for help finding an item

One of the easier challenges. After the photo episode I headed to Tesco’s and asked a guy stacking shelves where the pasta was. He pointed the way without even looking at me. A minute later I got the no-reply from the aforementioned cool cat.

Not much love in Tesco’s that day.

6. Learn a simple magic trick and perform it for a stranger on the street

I had actually pulled off this challenge a few weeks back with an Italian lady I met in the library. That was my first time trying this trick I found on YouTube, except I used a coin instead of a cork. My hands were shaking and I messed up the pen-behind-the-ear bit, but the pen falling on the ground turned out to be a great distraction and I was able to pocket the coin without her noticing. When I opened my palm and she saw that it was gone, she seemed genuinely wowed.

Unfortunately, that’s been the only time the trick has worked. I’ve messed it up royally every time since. Saturday was no exception.

On the way home from Tesco’s, I started approaching groups of people on Oliver Plunkett Street, asking if I could show them the new trick I had learned. The first two groups didn’t want to know, but the third group (two guys and two girls) were up for it. Well, one of the guys (the big, intimidating one) didn’t seem very welcoming but I figured he was unlikely to punch me in the face in broad daylight and in front of his nice friends.

So I went ahead with the trick. I was terrible with the timing though and they all clearly saw me pocketing the coin. I burst out laughing at my own ineptitude and they quickly followed suit. Even the big guy cracked a smile. When we were all done with the happy faces, I thanked them for their time and attention and walked away.

There are lots more magic tricks on YouTube that you can learn in a few minutes. Browse around, find one you like, practice it a few times on friends and then perform it for a stranger. Try not to suck as much as I did.

7. Ask a stranger in a restaurant or coffee shop if you can sit with them

After performing the worst magic trick Cork city had ever seen, I stopped in at Quay Co-op (legendary veggie restaurant) for a quick bite to eat, and to try check this challenge off the list. I grabbed myself a vegan cupcake, scouted out both dining floors, then took a deep breath and approached the only person sitting alone. I told her I’d rather not eat by myself and asked if she’d mind me joining her. She had her mouth full, but motioned toward the opposite seat. Success!

We chatted for a few minutes. Her name was Sinead, probably mid-30’s, dressed all in black with a bunch of silver rings on her fingers. She was having the lentil burger. I asked if she was an artist and she said no, but she does paint every now and then as a hobby. The last thing she painted was a copy of a self-portrait done by her teenage niece.

When she was done with the burger she excused herself and left. She hadn’t touched her side of veggies. I got the impression she wasn’t much of a people person and my presence had made her a little uncomfortable.

That was the first time I had ever asked to join a stranger at a restaurant or coffee shop, and it didn’t go particularly well, so I can’t offer much advice to anyone else who wants to try it. If I was to do it again, I’d probably approach an older person. They seem to throw me back the most smiles and hellos on the street, so maybe they’d be open to sharing a meal with a stranger, too.

8. Go to a bar on your own and strike up a conversation with another patron

After grabbing some dinner and a nap at home I headed back out Saturday eve to complete my final three tasks. It was a little after 7pm when I went into the first bar. It was dead, so I left right away. Same deal in the next bar. The third was busier but I didn’t spot any decent opportunity to strike up a conversation, so I headed for the door again.

Fourth bar, and I decided I had to get something (anything!) going. Luckily, there was a woman about my age alone between a few couples at the bar, so I ordered a drink beside her and quickly tried to think of an opener. Noticing some scratches on her hand, I thought it would be a good idea to ask what had happened. Regrettable. She said they came from gardening but was very nervous and unsure of herself. I guess that’s to be expected when the first thing a guy comments on is your skin lacerations.

After a couple of awkward minutes trying to talk about other things (like rugby, for some reason), she left without a goodbye. I tried to look cool as I sipped on my orange juice, then left to go hit up my fifth bar in twenty minutes.

I had more success there. Immediately after walking in, I spotted three girls chatting to each other near the bar and marched up to them. My opener: “I need a female opinion on this: Who are better dancers, men or women?”

Only one of the girls seemed interested in talking to me (the hottest one, conveniently enough). The other two soon got bored of my spiel and sat down at a nearby table. Their friend turned out to be from France. We chatted and I made her laugh a few times. We debated about the friendliness of Irish people (I argued that her perception was skewed since she was an attractive French girl and everyone in Ireland wants a friend like that) and I showed her how to tell if someone is lying by watching their eye movements.

After ten minutes I said I had to be going, but not before attempting to cross another challenge off my list…

9. Ask a stranger for his/her phone number

I asked, and Hot French Girl obliged. I said goodbye and skipped out the door.

As a recommendation for any guys who want to get better at striking up conversations with women, read The Game by Neil Strauss. Yes, it is a book about pick-up artistry, but nice guys can put a lot of the tips in there to good use. Just be sure to keep in mind the words of Spiderman’s uncle: With great power, comes great responsibility 😉

Oh, and if you’re in a relationship, I obviously don’t expect you to go chatting up an attractive stranger at the bar and asking for his/her phone number. But you can push yourself to strike up platonic conversations with random people. It doesn’t have to be at a bar; could be anywhere. And you can ask for someone’s number without hitting on them. You might feel a little uncomfortable doing so, but that’s the whole point.

10. Strike up a conversation with a homeless person

After leaving the last bar I walked around the city centre looking for a homeless person. Before too long I found a guy in his mid-twenties seated on the ground outside Centra on Oliver Plunkett Street, a blanket around his legs and a cup out in front of him. I hunkered down alongside and said hey.

His response: “Are you one of those Jesus freaks? I’ve had to listen to three of ye already tonight!”

I assured him that I wasn’t.

I found out that his name was Eric. Growing up, his mother had a string of live-in boyfriends. Most of them used to beat the shit out of Eric. At the age of 15, he had had enough with his mother’s latest squeeze and gave her an ultimatum: “It’s either him or me.” She chose the boyfriend, and Eric moved out.

He started sleeping in a nearby field. Friends would drop by to keep him company in the evenings. They never talked about what had happened at home, and would bring along a few cans of cider to keep him warm and help him sleep. Inevitably, he became an alcoholic. But drink made him lose his temper quite often, so a friend suggested he switch to a more chill drug, like heroin.

Fast forward a decade or so, and there’s Eric sitting where I met him, fending off the Jesus freaks and waiting for his next hit. He’d been locked up for a few hours earlier that day after he was caught trying to steal a mobile phone.

Rough life.

His friend Dave came along after a few minutes, and I wished them both well and headed off. I was glad for our time together.

Be smart

And here’s where I want to clear something up about this whole Random Acts of Courage thing, a bit of a disclaimer if you will. I’m not encouraging you to make other people feel uncomfortable or put yourself in any danger. Be smart about who you approach and what you say.

If you keep putting yourself out there, you may well end up making some people feel uncomfortable or angry, but recognize the signs and step away respectfully before anything gets out of hand.

Be selective, but don’t be paranoid. You can’t connect with everyone, but you can connect with more people than you think.

Next up

After I left Homeless Eric on Saturday night I headed home, but decided to stop in at a pub a few doors down from the house I’m staying at to see what was happening. It was fairly empty inside, but I did recognize one person. His name is Seamus, and he belts out opera tunes a cappella in the city centre every now and then, busking it. I introduced myself to him some evening earlier in the week during a break in his performance on Patrick’s Street.

At the pub, I told him I’d be having a go singing in public myself soon. He seemed genuinely impressed and wished me luck.

So yes, that’s on my next list of ten challenges. Check back tomorrow for a full report, and perhaps some video 😉

[UPDATE] Tuesday’s Random Acts of Courage: A visit to the sex shop, public singing and napping in a department store

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    1. I’m in for a little early reporting Niall.

      Today I had a go with one of the challenges, making eye contact and not breaking it. I took up the challenge while I was at work today, so I had a good pool of strangers to work with.

      Maintaining eye contact is something I’ve been working on, and today felt like a good day to continue the exercise. I already usually maintain eye contact longer than the typical <glance, I don't know you, look away but I have a tendency to look away when I can tell the other person is getting uncomfortable.

      Today I didn’t look away and had great results. I could feel when a few people were starting to get uncertain, but that was when I made sure to smile instead of looking away from them. This helped tremendously and overall I felt a better connection with most of the people I maintained contact with.

      Being at work probably helped, as an employee of the establishment it gave the people a framework within which to understand me, though there typically isn’t this intense a level of eye contact.

      All in all it was a great exercise and it really helped raise my sense of confidence and my sense of connection with people.

      I’ll see what other challenges I can take up tomorrow!

      • Ah, love it!

        Thanks for sharing that, Spyros. More confidence, better connections. And all it takes is looking people in the eye for a few seconds. Crazy how something so small can make such a difference.

    2. Hi Niall,

      not sure if you remember me, I couchsurfed with you in New Orleans last fall.

      I have been following your blog every so often but not on a regular basis. I somehow ended up on your blog again last Friday and I am quite looking forward to your challenges. I guess I`ll join you on a couple of them over the coming week, but there is no way I see myself singing in a public place so far 😀

      I was acutally quite surprised when I saw your list for today for I think I have actually “compleated” quite a few already..

      I love saying hello to people on the street as it is not really common over here and I love the way people react (they usually try to remember why they should greet you and get quite confused if they can`t figure out why you said hello to them).

      Last year on my trip I regularly sat down at a table with strangers and I usually enjoyed it, but for this one time when I sat next to this woman in china who had a very different idea of how to eat her food and ended up spreading her food all over the table.. 😉

      Same goes for chatting up strangers in a pub, even though i am usually more reluctant to chat up german people in Germany then say irish people in Ireland…

      My favourite challenge was “chatting up a homeless person” as that is one of the things I kept doing while I was on my trip and I always got something interesting out of it even though it feels quite weird at first.. I actually sat down with two homeless guys for a couple of hours once and asked for money with them which was extremely! weird at first, fun after a while and extremely frustrating in the end.. I found that often chatting up homeless people is an interesting way to really understand and get to know a foreign country.

      I will try the “make eye contact with a stranger” challenge tomorrow and see how far I get.. I somehow cant get myself to call the local radio and I guess I will have to build up my courage to show magic tricks on the street.. (I have actually done that before with a friend, but that was while traveling wich makes it so! much easier as there is no chance you`ll meet those people ever again 😀 )

      So far (this ended up to be way longer then intended..), I am looking forward to tomorows challenges..


      • Hi Anna! I remember hosting you. You were a great guest, no trouble at all 🙂

        You’re absolutely right about it being easier to do these challenges while traveling. I have an advantage here in Cork since I just moved here a few weeks ago. As such, I don’t really have to worry about my parents friends or neighbors seeing me doing some crazy stuff.

        But again, the point is for people to find the edge of their own comfort zone and stretch it a little. The challenges themselves don’t matter much.

        Thanks for the comment, and I look forward to hearing more about your experiences 🙂

    3. Hmmm…I’m up for giving myself some challenges, Niall…but the ones you have here, well, you know me, they’re still in my comfort zone. Can you suggest some that you think might take me out of said comfort zone?



    4. F!ing brilliant!

      I think these are great things to do and it’s excellent how you’ve described them in such detail. I was especially moved by your discussion with Eric the homeless person, and how he wound up in his current life situation.

      • Thanks, Jack. Yeah, the discussion with Eric moved me, too. He kept asking my what my agenda was; he couldn’t believe anyone just wanted to chat with him. (I guess I did have an agenda though, since I was trying to check the final item off my list.)

    5. Hi Niall,

      I just wanted to pop in and say hi. Love the blog and the random acts of courage. Good stuff! Keep up the good work.

      When you talked about singing in public, you reminded me of something. I am a singer in a band so singing in public is no big deal to me (or so I thought). One night at a gig, the power went out before we even had a chance to play one note. People were still hanging around hoping it would come back on. The bar owner suggested a sing along. Even though I am a singer, I froze. I realized that I was petrified of that. As long as I was “safe” behind the mic and the rest of the band, I was fine. So, I sucked it up and just started belting out a tune all by myself. Lo and behold, everyone joined in. It was kind of cool. Eventually, the power did come back on and we had a great night.

      • Thanks, Julie. Great story. It’s amazing how even the smallest little change in routine can cause discomfort. Glad you were able to suck it up and have a great night that time.

    6. Hi Niall

      You not only planned the post but applied it before posting, took pictures. Wow wonderful example.

      How did you feel all about that? I will say it is s good plan for the youngsters who are shy to show their colors. Will build great confidence, and they will overcome the emotional set back that is keeping them behind.

      A great job well done. From get on to radio to talking to a homeless stranger, it is a great post. You can create a good report to give away. More people will get to know you.

      Fran A

      • Thanks, Fran. I’m four days deep in the challenge now and I’m feeling amazingly empowered and much more confident than I was even a week ago. It’s remarkable what can happen when we step outside our comfort zones.

    7. So there I was in the hairdressers, when I heard Ray D’Arcy say that he was about to speak to someone who owned 57 items. I guessed straight away who that had to be, and laughed so much that I ended up having to explain your project to the hairdresser. She looked at me blankly for a minute, then said, “So you’re mad for the computers, are ya?” I don’t think I convinced her to give out free hugs or wave at strangers any time soon.

      I’m delighted you accomplished another challenge, even if it does mean that I’ll be getting funny looks every time I get my hair done for evermore.

    8. hahaha Man you are totally crazy!, but it was really fun read your stories!!!

      Im not shure to complete all the Random Acts of Courage!!

      Any way thanks for sharing!