As a digital nomad I get to work in public places a lot, especially coffee shops. Every once in a while I run into some mild problems, but, usually, nothing really serious. Until the other day. Sit down, relax, and make sure you don’t read this in a coffee shop too 😉
So, here I am, on a nice Monday morning, unpacking my laptop over a nice small table at my favorite Starbucks, arranging my cup of tea and plugging in the cable. Around, a few people at their own tables, most of them with their own laptops, tapping silently. Soft music, nice light, a perfect atmosphere for working.
I’m at the first floor (this Starbucks has two floors, and the top one is less crowded) and, at this exact moment, a young fellow, with a hoodie on, jumps over the stairs, looks at the toilet door (which was closed) and then turns at me. He smiles and waves, almost greeting me. A microsecond of browsing through my (I admit, quite large) database of persons that I know and a definitive result: I don’t know this guy. I politely look over him, while he came forward and take a sit on a bench just in front of me. 2-3 meters maximum. He must wait for the toilet, I presume.
Confusions happens, I tell to myself, then I start working. After a few minutes, a gentle sensation over my forehead interrupts me. I get this sometimes, when people are looking at me. I take my eyes out from the computer and, surprise, the young fellow is still there, staring at me. The toilet door was open, so he must’ve already been there, I think. I browse through my internal database again, only to get the same result: I definitely don’t know this guy. And yet there he is, smiling and looking at me. The hoodie is off, it’s getting warm.
I get back to my computer and continue to work. But not for long. My forehead sensation was still there. I take my eyes off from the laptop and this time I make eye contact. The same second he slips his look over me, avoiding eye contact. Hmm… I gently look around, take a tea sip and there it is again, with the corner of my eye I see him staring at me again. I try eye contact again and then he avoids it again.
Around, business as usual. Nobody seemed to perceive nothing strange. They either thought this guy is with me (somehow), or his behavior looked quite normal.
At this point, I started to identify the whole situation with some sort of a problem. I can’t really work when somebody is staring at me. So, I started to evaluate the possible reasons for this. After a few seconds, I identified 3 possible causes.
1. He’s probably gay. And really, really lonely.
Not much to do about this, I’m straight so I may just tell him that.
2. I’m on candid camera.
I’m turning around looking for places where they could hide a camera. Trying to figure out which of the people at the tables were accomplices. After a few minutes of gazing, I had to admit I wasn’t on candid camera. Nobody looked like a candid camera crew (I worked for a while in television, so I kinda sense this stuff). Also, on candid camera, at some point they come at you and tell: “Hey, man, you’re on candid camera!”. This guy didn’t. He just continued to look at me.
2. He must be on ecstasy.
As far as I could tell, his eyes were ok, didn’t notice any shaking or other strange movements, so he didn’t seem like he was on drugs. I’m not too experienced at this, though, so I didn’t rule it out completely.
As I was still trying to find out the number 4 reason, all of a sudden he gets out, turns on his heels and down he goes, over the stairs. He just left. I confess I had a huge relief breathe and gently came back to my work. Incidentally, it was one of those days when I had a full plate, so to speak, so there was a lot to be done.
After a few minutes, the foreground sensation again. Ok, somebody is looking at me again, I’m saying to myself. Who could it be? In front of me, the bench was empty. Another short relief breathe and then I turn to the right. And there he was again, the hoodie fellow, with a cup of tea and a sandwich, on the bench next to me. Not more than one meter between us now.
I felt a bit of an emptiness in my stomach and then instinctively looked to my screen, not understanding one thing of what I was looking at, but desperately trying to understand what was going on.
It must have been more than a half an hour since I was at that Starbucks, so I decided to tackle this somehow. I suddenly turn to the right, and this time he can’t avoid eye contact anymore.
“Can I help you?” I ask upfront. Trying not to be angry, just polite.
“Oh, no, not at all.” he shivers, looking surprised that I actually opened up a conversation with him. Like he didn’t expected this to happen. The he continues to stare at me.
“Are you sure?” I ask again, this time a little bit angry.
“Oh, yes! I’m absolutely sure.” he answers, somehow realizing that he must’ve been on some sort of a faux pax. And then he looks the other way. I stay turned for around 10 seconds and I make sure he won’t stare at me anymore. And, apparently, it worked.
I get back to my work, but only with half of my focus now. I still sense this guy, no more than one meter away from me, watching his cup of tea, eating his sandwich and staring randomly around. Every once in a while at me, too, but this time he looked a bit more controlled.
At this point, one of my partners in WPSumo came in (we had to finish something together) and, being already cautious, I invite him to sit down on my bench, between me and that guy. Of course, my partner has no idea about what’s going on and I decide not to tell.
We start working, but, after ten minutes or so, I suddenly see my partner’s eyes growing bigger and bigger behind his glasses. He elbows me pointing to that bench: “Have you seen this guy? He’s sleeping”. I lean forward and there he is, the hoodie guy, on his left side, one hand under his head, knees almost to the chest, in the embryo position. He didn’t look completely asleep, but hey, he was still lying down on a Starbucks bench.
The next second he rolls over his back, face up and then his hands are starting a strange dance in the air. Very, very slowly, he was picking objects and then rearranging them in other places. Invisible objects, of course. Think Tom Cruise in Minority Report, only sitting on his back. The other people on the room started to notice this. Some of theme were smiling, some of theme were pointing their fingers to the head: “he must be screwed up there”. But that didn’t seem to stop that slow, almost hypnotic dance.
At this point, a waitress came in, starting to clean up tables. As I know her (I do spend a lot of time there, so we kinda have small conversations every once in a while), I ask her upfront:
“What’s up with this guy?”
“Oh, I guess nothing”, she replies. After that, she leans forward to see the slow Minority Report dance and adds, just a bit worried: “Well, I hope nothing. It’s just… how he is. Does he bothers you?”
I decided to answer “no” to this question. We went on with our work, finished what we had to do like in 20 minutes and split. I could’ve stay longer, but, somehow, the staring guy, as inoffensive as he was, made me not to.
The Hoodie Guy And The Goals
As I was heading home, I tried to understand what was that bothered me so much about this encounter. After all, like the waitress pointed out, he was harmless. He was just staring at me. A simple presence, just a look, a harmless surveillance.
And the moment I found the word “surveillance”, it hit me: it was the pressure of the expectations. I didn’t know exactly what this guy was asking from me. But, somehow, I was afraid I couldn’t deliver. As simple as it was, that was the exact thing that made me feel so uncomfortable. If I wouldn’t feel that I had to do something in a certain way, I wouldn’t be bothered at all. I might’ve even look back at him for hours too. Or stare at the walls.
Almost frightened, as I was walking back home, I realized how many times I did this, not outside, with other people, but inside, in my own mind. How many times I created an observer, a person who was expecting me to act in a certain way, only to get completely stuck when he was staring at me too much.
How many times I created bold goals, literally creating dozens of hoodie guys, bringing them into my own room, and making them stare at me, until I was delivering. And celebrating big time after that.
There is a certain weight in establishing bold goals. There is a certain (unnecessary) pressure in creating bigger and bigger standards. The bigger the standard, the longer the gaze of the hoodie guy. At some point, you kinda get fed out with all that staring and just walk away.
Sometimes, we just need a balanced interaction between our goals and our resources. Too many hoodie guys in the room will make you feel uncomfortable. The pressure will be too big. And, at some point, you’ll give up.
It’s way better to negotiate your goals every once in a while. Like in telling the hoodie guy to just give you a break. And then secretly watch him arrange invisible objects with his hands while you get on with other stuff.
Now, quit staring at this blog post. It’s embarrassing 🙂