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I Learned to Make Friends inside an Industrial Dumpster
You can, too -- because charisma depends, not on inborn ability, but on presence, purpose, and goodwill.
Charisma — the ability to be liked by, and to influence, the people around you — is a crucial attribute for advocates of all sorts. Most people see charisma as an inborn trait. You either have it, or you don’t. That, however, is false. What I’ve come to believe — and what’s shown by scientific research — is that charisma can be developed through practice. And the crucial lessons about charisma have relatively little to do with traditional beliefs about leadership. Oratorical ability, physical attractiveness, and charm have relatively little to do with it, for example. Instead, the most powerfully charismatic people rely on three simple skills: the ability to be present with the people around them; the ability to find shared purpose; and the ability to show goodwill.
I learned these lessons the hard way. I’ve written and spoken about how disconnected I was when I was growing up. I was desperate for human connection — but always found myself alone. All the way through grad school, and into my mid 20s, I had virtually no social circle, no close friends, and had never even been on a date. Then remarkably, everything changed. I started having incredible success in meeting and connecting with new people. And, in many ways, it all began in an industrial dumpster in Wood Dale, IL.
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The dumpster in question was no ordinary dumpster. It was an urban legend, a place where a poor vegan’s dreams could be fulfilled. I had just left my job at Northwestern Law, after failing to become a tenure track professor. I had taken on a mortgage that I could no longer afford; had no income (or desire to seek one); and needed to reduce my expenses. I came across a remarkable New York Times article about the concept of freeganism and so-called “dumpster diving” — i.e., scavenging for resources and food from garbage bins. It turns out, given that 40% of the food in this nation is thrown away, one can survive on society’s trash.
I was immediately sold.
But where to begin? I started by poking around in grocery stores but found that most of the garbage in Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, was rotten or otherwise inedible. I moved on to bagel stores and had more luck. Every now and then, I’d find an enormous bag of slightly stale bagels in the dumpster of an Einstein Bagels store; I’d freeze them and devour them for weeks. My first big score, however, was the Frito Lay factory in the Western suburbs of Chicago, where there was a huge 7 foot tall dumpster — about the length and width of two full length cars — where one could find a near infinite supply of potato chips.
I went on to find abundant sources of everything from Coca Cola to Clif Bars, and learned an enormous amount about sneaking into industrial facilities in the middle of the night. (Company employees would shoo you off if you tried to dig in their dumpster in the daytime.) But it was not until I discovered the greatest dumpster of them all— the Odwalla dumpster in Wood Dale, IL— that my education in making friendships began.
Back in the early to mid 2000s, prepared fruit smoothies were new and exploding across the country. The two dominant brands were Naked Juice and Odwalla. They were beloved especially by the vegan community, which finally had a consumer good that was rising in the mainstream, and that we could call our own. There was just one problem: they were extraordinarily expensive, costing over $10 (in 2022 dollars) for a single serving bottle!
I was not, to be honest, the biggest fan of fruits and vegetables at that point in my life. I survived on a steady diet of bagels and potato chips, and used to say, “If it’s not brown, I won’t eat it.” But while searching for more junk food to scavenge in the Western suburbs, I noticed something interesting on the map: a massive Odwalla distribution center in Wood Dale, IL. And when I arrived, and drove to the back of the facility on a cold winter evening, I found a massive dumpster with hundreds of bottles of unopened Odwalla smoothies, many of them still in their original boxing, where they were sorted about 20 bottles per box. There were also endless Odwalla protein bars, scattered all over the bottom of the dumpster. I jumped into the dumpster and was literally swimming in bottles of fruit smoothies and protein bars. I took home as many bottles as I could, until my arms and legs were too tired from jumping back and forth from the dumpster, carrying huge boxes of juice. Then I made the one-hour drive home and realized something important:
There was nowhere for me to store such an ungodly amount of juice!
Thankfully, I was, by this point in my life, already going to animal rights protests. I told people at a demonstration what I had found, and that I could offer them free smoothies. At first, they didn’t believe me. Then I showed them my car, which was overflowing to the tops of the windows with Odwalla bottles, freely flowing throughout my car like one of those bizarre colorful ball pits that kids jump into at Chuck E Cheese. And I remember one of the other activists literally jumping in the air and screaming.
“OH MY GOD!”
The vegans descended on my car like a wolf pack closing in on a kill. And my Odwalla oversupply problem was solved.
There was, however, another problem that the Odwalla dumpster had an even bigger impact on: my social isolation. You see, when I explained to people where I had found this motherlode of vegan goodness, people wanted to come along and see it for themselves. At first, it was just a few hardcore vegans and anti-capitalists who came along. But after we started giving out hundreds of bottles of Odwalla for free, over many months, and people saw that we were not getting in any trouble (and that the supply of Odwalla was not decreasing), more people decided to come. I felt the dumpster expeditions finally became normalized when a 40-something physics instructor at the University of Chicago came along for one of our dives. And through it all, I was the guide. I had become the dumpster-diving master.
I also became, however, many people’s friend. Almost accidentally, the dumpstering trips had a huge impact on my ability to connect with others. I was bringing all sorts of random people on long road trips, where we would spend hours together. While the diving was relatively safe, moreover, there were a few dangerous incidents, especially when I pushed the envelope in searching for new sources of food. There was the time we went into the Frito-Lay factory when a security truck was driving around the facility; the security guard came at us with a metal pipe in his hand, until we explained we were just there for the garbage. There was another occasion when a bewildered Coca-Cola employee screamed at us from the other side of the fence.
“You realize there’s a reason that stuff is in the garbage,” he yelled. “It’s dangerous.”
One of the people in my diving crew opened a bottle of Mountain Dew and started drinking it.
“We’ll be ok,” I replied.
But the scariest moment came when we arrived at a Trader Joe’s on Lincoln Avenue that was one of the few grocery stores in Chicago that regularly had recoverable food and produce. Trader Joe’s, you see, packages almost everything it sells, and so when it throws its product away in the dumpster, it’s easy to scavenge. But the largest Trader Joe’s in Chicago — and the only one with an accessible dumpster — one day put up, not just one, but two massive 12-foot fences to block us from accessing it. We later learned from someone who worked at the store that management had grown frustrated with the number of people digging through their trash.
“We should probably just leave,” my friend Heather said. “The workers will hear us if we try to get over the fence.” There was an employee entrance to the back of the store, in the alley between the fences.
I looked through the fences at the dumpster and could just barely make out what seemed like dozens of flowers, apparently thrown away from Valentine’s Day, on the other side.
“Nah, I bet I can get over,” I replied. “Look, there are flowers.”
It was unclear what I planned to do with them, given that I had no Valentine.
I climbed and jumped over both fences, grabbed a few bundles of flowers from the top of the dumpster, and began trying to climb back. But, as Heather predicted, the employees heard the clanging of my climbing. And about half a dozen burly men — apparently, the Trader Joe’s shipping and moving crew — rushed out the door, and saw me holding a few dozen flowers in the back of their store in the middle of the night.
“Hi , I just pulled these from the trash.” I tried to explain.
“Get the FUCK out of here!” one shouted.
“All right, I’ll be on my way.”
I dropped the flowers and decided that it would be better to try to squeeze through the bottom of the fence rather than jump over the top. It seemed a little less sketchy to me. But the hole in the bottom of the fence was very small. I couldn’t quite fit, and pushed myself through to the point that I was a little bit stuck. The employees on the other side, still stunned and angry at what they were seeing, started kicking me in the head.
My fellow dumpster divers, sitting in my car on the other side of both fences, began screaming and honking the horn. A much-less burly man ran out of the store due to the commotion. He looked like a manager.
“What are you all doing?” he screamed at the Trader Joe’s employees. “Stop this right now!”
The men stopped kicking me, and I had enough time to pull myself out, quickly climb both fences and run full speed to my car, with the men chasing me from behind.
“We’re going to call the police!” one man yelled.
“So they can arrest you for assault?” I yelled back.
I got to the car, and we drove off, with one of my friends Minku, sticking his entire torso out the window, on a cold winter day, screaming, “Fuck you, motherfuckers!” He raised both middle fingers in the air.
But, even though I was beaten and bruised — and didn’t even have any flowers for all my work — it was one of the best days of my life. Heather, Minku, and I cried, then laughed, then hugged each other uncontrollably after having made a narrow escape. After what we had gone through, how could we possibly not be friends?
The incident at the Trader Joe’s, however, was just one of many instances where dumpster diving brought me closer to people I hardly knew. And there were three things about the freegan incursions that taught me how to connect with others.
The first was that the long drives, and the long hard work of dumpster scavenging, forced me to be fully present with others. Social interactions, up to that point in my life, had been incredibly difficult because I was too busy with my own anxieties to truly be present for the people around me. But the tension and authenticity of a dumpster diving expedition caused this anxiety to lift away like a morning mist. We had no time to think about what others thought of us because we had a task at hand, and threats that could frustrate our goal. We weren’t dressed to impress; we were dressed to dig around in the garbage. And that turned off each of our internal dialogues — that nagging voice in our heads that distracts us from being fully present for the people around us — and helped us build true connection.
Research on charisma shows that this is true of the most charismatic people. They can turn off the noise in their head and fully focus on the people around them. We have all been in conversations where that is not the case. Where it’s apparent from a person’s body language, or their failure to remember the words we say, that the person we are talking to isn’t really there. It’s hard to feel connected to someone when they are acting like that. In contrast, when we remember our best connections and conversations, we probably remember a deep feeling of being heard. This is presence, and there was something about those dumpster diving trips that helped all of us develop that skill.
The second lesson from those dumpster diving trips, however, was the power of shared purpose to bring people together, even when we faced tremendous obstacles. All of us wanted free stuff, from the Odwalla factory and other places, but we also wanted a world where animals and human beings were free. We had a common purpose. The combination of presence, and shared purpose, was powerful in bringing us all together.
This, again, is key to charismatic interactions. We tend to like people who are similar to us, especially in the things that matter most, like our values. Social scientists call it “homophily” — the idea that “like attracts like.” And you’ve probably experienced it in your own life. Maybe it’s having a shared passion for a particular musician or movie. Maybe it’s a shared educational passion or experience. Maybe it’s even just sharing a favorite food — e.g., Odwalla juice. Regardless, the key is that if we are hoping to connect with others, we need to find values we share. That was crucial to our expeditions at the Odwalla factory and other dumpsters. It’s crucial for anyone trying to build connections — or make change.
The third and perhaps most important lesson is the importance of goodwill, i.e., being generous and kind to others. This is not normally thought of, as an important attribute of charisma, but from the very beginnings of my dumpster diving career — when I offered my fellow animal activists an unlimited supply of Odwalla — it was crucial to my development as a leader. Later on, when I started organizing large animal rights protests and writing iconoclastic thoughts on animal rights strategy, some of my biggest supporters and defenders were people who I’d given Odwalla to.
But goodwill does not just come in physical generosity. Generosity of the spirit is important, too. And one of the most important things I learned on those dumpster diving expeditions was to be kind and supportive of the people around you, in both word and tone. It’s surprising to me to see how infrequently we offer praise or support for one another, given its importance to building connections. And the culture of America, in the present moment and especially on the Left, is lacking in this regard; we are more likely to call someone out than lift someone up. But that just makes it even more important to engage in words and acts of authentic goodwill whenever we can. Goodwill of this sort feels unique in a world that is filled with coldness and animosity.
The dumpster diving expeditions eventually ended. The Odwalla factory got fed up with the nightly visits, and locked the legendary dumpster with an industrial-strength padlock. Personally, I eventually ran out of money entirely and was forced to get a corporate law job. (It was hard to organize night time excursions to factories when I was often working 100-hour weeks at the firm.) But I still remember the lessons from the dumpster very well, and the lessons it taught. I still have dear friends in Chicago who joined me on many of those trips, including two who I had dinner with just a couple months ago. Nearly 15 years after we first met, it felt exactly like old times.
Not everyone is going to find a dumpster that brings people together, and gives you a chance to exercise your charismatic behaviors: presence, purpose, and goodwill. But we can all find opportunities in other contexts to exercise those spiritual muscles. And if we want to build connections, create change, or even just live good and meaningful lives, I think it would behoove us all to do that.
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