Imran Nuri: Levenslessen en foto’s van 1000 vreemdelingen uit 48 staten van de VS

door Marco Derksen op 18 maart 2024

Met veel plezier heb ik de afgelopen week weer de groepsblog van Erwin Blom c.s. gelezen over South by Southwest (SXSW), het jaarlijkse evenement in Austin, Texas, dat zich richt op het snijvlak van film, interactieve media en muziek. Het geeft mij ieder jaar weer het gevoel dat ik er een beetje bij ben daar in Austin.

Hoewel ik van alle blogs heb genoten die ik heb gelezen, was het de reflectie van Kitty Leering die mij de hele zondagavond heeft beziggehouden. Kitty schreef een blog over wat zij een van de meest inspirerende presentaties vond op SXSW. Het betrof de presentatie van Imran Nuri die, op zoek naar de betekenis van het leven, besloot om 1.000 vreemdelingen te vragen wat zij hun jongere zelf als levensadvies zouden willen meegeven. Hij trok met zijn auto (en tevens slaapplek) en een 50 jaar oude camera door 48 staten in de VS en ging in gesprek.

De reden waarom het mij speciaal raakte, was dat ik toevallig begin dit jaar aan mijn 25-jarige zelf een aantal levenslessen heb gestuurd die ik tevens heb gedeeld met mijn twee dochters die nu respectievelijk 21 en 26 jaar zijn.

Omdat ik zelf niet in Austin bij de presentatie van Imran Nuri ben geweest, heb ik de audio-opnames van zijn lezing beluisterd en op internet gezocht naar zijn verhalen, zijn interviews en vooral zijn foto’s die zijn terug te vinden het boek Advice from America. Wat een geweldig verhaal en wat een mooie levenslessen. Dank Imran voor je verhalen en foto’s, en dank Kitty voor het delen van deze parel.

Voor geïnteresseerden heb ik hieronder het verhaal van Imran Nuri zo goed als mogelijk uitgewerkt.

Hieronder het script van de audio-opname (video). Het is een lange tekst, maar zeker de moeite waard. Geen tijd om alles te lezen, ga dan direct naar de belangrijkste levenslessen en de interviews in de media.

Het script van zijn lezing:

My name is Imran Nuri, and I lived in my Toyota Camry for 84 days to drive 15,298 miles across all the lower 48 U.S. states to ask 1,000 complete strangers about what they now know that they wish they had known earlier—in other words, life advice. We’ll get to the stories of how I got a matching tattoo with a man who was dying of cancer. We’ll get to the story of an RV tipping over due to the wind on the highway in front of me, blocking all lanes of the highway for two hours while I was stuck there. We’ll get to the story of being handed a military-grade M4 rifle in rural Mississippi. But, first we have to understand what might compel a person to travel the entire country looking for the meaning of life from complete strangers.

So, let’s start with the most traumatic period of my life: spring 2019. This will be the only trauma I’ll share with you, I promise. Spring 2019 was very, very, very tough for me for a couple of reasons. Number one, I was a junior at The Ohio State University. Go Bucs. Anybody, any other Buckeyes here? Yes? What? Two Buckeyes. Go Bucs. I was studying business in an honors program that was extremely rigorous. It was like doing an MBA as an undergrad student on top of all your other class loads, except you don’t get the MBA degree at the end of it, which I’m definitely not salty about. And on top of that, I was the president of an organization called Buckeye Thon, a dance marathon program that raises money for childhood cancer research, and that was a 30 to 40 hour a week volunteer role on top of my classwork and everything else. And as if that wasn’t enough to stress me out, life said, “I’ll give you one more thing to worry about.” After spring break, my first serious relationship ended when my girlfriend broke up with me, dumped me out of nowhere. And one more piece of trauma: my parents were going through a divorce. I say all of this not to make you feel bad for me but because all of that led me into therapy for the first time.

In therapy, the biggest thing I learned was that I was deteriorating my own friendships because I was trying to prevent my friends from making their own mistakes. If my friends said they were going to do something that I thought was risky or dangerous, but not life-threatening, I’d try to prevent them from bumping their own heads. And of course, nobody wants the parent friend. That’s so annoying. I was so annoying in that way. And my therapist said, “You know, underlying all of that, it’s nice that you care about your friends and want to make sure they don’t get hurt. But in reality, everybody has to bump their own head. Everybody has to learn from their own experiences. Why rob your friends of the chance to learn from their own experiences?” And I said, “Well, what should I do? How do I help my friends?” She said, “Share your experiences, not your advice.” Anybody here who’s an EO knows to share experiences, not advice. So I say that because we’ll get back to that.

Also, in spring of 2019, as a business student, some of you might know, you’re supposed to get an internship after your junior year, crush it, work your butt off that summer, get a full-time offer, and then just kind of chill out for your senior year and then go do the predictable nine-to-five. And as a high-achieving business student, nothing about that was appealing to me. That’s too easy. I was like, “I know that me and all my friends can get these amazing internships. I know we can get high pay. I know we can get jobs. This is what we are supposed to do. And I feel like I’m supposed to be in a period of my life where I’m supposed to be learning as much as I possibly can.” So in a seminar in my honors program, I said to my peers, “I don’t know what I would learn more from: doing what you’re doing, Fortune 500 company internship, getting paid a lot, going to a cool city, or pushing myself radically out of my comfort zone and doing something crazy like hopping in my car to drive across the country and talk to strangers, collect their stories. Believe it or not, even then, I could go on stage and crush it, but I could not muster up the courage to walk up to somebody in a grocery store and just say, ‘I like your shoes.’ I really wanted to be able to say, ‘I like your shoes’ to a stranger. It sounds so simple. Just the fear of talking to strangers. And instead, I did neither of those two things.

And I started a nonprofit startup that summer. And this could be a whole other talk, so I’m going to summarize it really fast. The 52 Million Project, which I started as a senior at Ohio State, had a mission to democratize philanthropy by having a million people donate one dollar for every week of the year. Every week, it would go to a different nonprofit fighting poverty. And after experiencing Buckeye, I thought, “In my year, we raised 1.7 million dollars. I learned a lot about how nonprofits operate. And I thought, ‘What if instead of 1.7, I could raise 52 million and make a huge impact, democratize philanthropy, bring people together, and show that just by giving up a dollar a week, we can make such a huge impact?” And it didn’t work. The long story short, I worked on it full-time as a senior and for a full year and a half after graduating, and it never scaled again. That’s a talk for another time. But who here has ever shut down a business, something you’ve built from nothing? Has anybody here done that? Yeah. Devastating. It is emotionally and physically devastating to build something for thousands of hours and then shut it down.

So I moved to Chicago at the end of 2021 after shutting this down and pretty quickly got a job working from home. This is my cat, CK. I pretty quickly got a job doing marketing for a startup. And the role was essentially the CMO of that startup, which should have been awesome. I was 24 and overseeing marketing for a startup. It sucked; there’s no other way around it. It should have been awesome. It was so bad. The CEO, whom I love as a person, was a horrible leader. I had no vision for the company. And as a marketer for a startup, if I don’t know where the company is going, what am I supposed to communicate to anybody about our company and where we’re going? So, I really disliked it. All of that to say, going through the traumatic spring of 2019, building a startup nonprofit and shutting it down, and then going into a job nine to five that just sucked, pushed me into a quarter-life crisis. To answer my quarter-life crisis or to push myself past it, to try to figure out what I wanted out of life, I asked myself one very big question. And I’ll give you a dramatic pause for you to think about it for yourself afterward. But that big question was: If I only had one year left to live, how would I live it? Cue the dramatic pause.

I knew exactly what I would do with my final year. I would figure out the meaning of life. A bold task. I grew up in a very religious Muslim household. And of course, when you’re religious, especially in those three major monotheistic religions, your purpose is to be good in this life to get into the afterlife. And as I started to reject that religion, that purpose went away. I was like, “I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore.” So, I would travel the country in my final year. I would ask a thousand strangers for life advice or what they believe to be true about life. And then I would photograph every single one of them to create the largest art series I had ever created in my life. I’ve always been an artist. And I would immortalize the fact that we had met, me and all these strangers. I would travel the country, see the United States, talk to strangers, and then I would spend time with people I love and care about. That’s what I would do with my final year. And I took that very seriously.

So, in the beginning of 2022, I started practicing. I was living in Chicago. And again, talking to strangers scared me to death. I started walking around Chicago, just talking to people. I tried a couple of different questions to see what I might get. The first question naturally that I asked was, “What would you do with your final year if you knew you had a year left to live?” And it turns out most people would travel and spend time with their loved ones. And I didn’t really want to hear that a thousand times. So, I tried some new questions. And the one I landed on was, “What do you know now that you wish you had known earlier?” And I got the most fascinating answers. This guy, for example, who I met near Edgewater in Chicago, about eight miles north of downtown, I walked up to him and I asked him my big question. And he said, “You know, I really messed up my credit in my 20s and I’m still paying for it in my 30s. I really wish I had been more responsible with my credit, or I wish somebody had taught me about credit. Alas, here I am in my 30s, still facing the repercussions of my poor decisions in my 20s.” And that’s not something I was going to get from somebody who was trying to decide what to do with their final year. Honestly, your credit doesn’t matter if you have a year left to live, right? You’re going to blow that thing through the roof. But it was fascinating. This guy said that, and others said, “I wish I would have spent more time with my mom instead of going out so much with my friends. There were so many nights that I just said I’d rather go out with my friends. And I did, and I had fun. But looking back, I’ll never have the chance to spend time with my mom again.” I still get goosebumps thinking about that. This was just testing it. And so I’m like, “Oh, my God, this is it. This is the question. This is the one that’s going to get me some really fascinating keys to life.” And so I started planning. I started budgeting. I didn’t have enough money. So I took out a personal loan. I decided I was going to quit my job to live off of for at least a few months, up to 100 days, to travel the country. I started a Patreon where people could support me and get behind-the-scenes updates along the way. And I gave my boss a six-week notice because I knew two weeks would wreck them.

At the end of April, I went back to Columbus, Ohio, and I gathered my things. I tinted my windows because, in that limited budget of about ten thousand dollars, once again, paid for by Patreon and a personal loan, not my own money, as an investment in myself and learning about life, I was going to have to live in my car. I couldn’t afford hotels; it would double the budget. So I was going to have to sleep in the front seat of my Toyota Camry at rest areas. And I was up for that challenge. I was up for pushing myself out of my comfort zone and growing in that way. So, I tinted my windows. You could see they were dark. Even in daylight, you couldn’t see through them, let alone at night. You can see all my stuff. And if you can, I spy with my little eye my cat, another cat right there in the middle. That’s Prince. He and CK stayed with my dad for those three months. And on May, I was able to go to a place where I could be. And on May 10th, I left.

I went into downtown areas and parks, anywhere people might be, and I would approach typically those who were alone. When I tested this series on a much smaller scale in Chicago, I found that I received much better answers from individuals one-on-one than if they were with their partner or a friend. Because think about it: If I approach you in my yellow Crocs and say, “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” and then give you my spiel—I’m traveling across the country, talking to a thousand strangers, asking them for life advice—I’d love to take two minutes of your time to ask you a question. What do you know now that you wish you knew earlier? If you’re with a friend or a partner, the first thing you do is turn to them and say, “I don’t know. What do you think?” And I don’t care what your friend thinks about you. Everyone, to some degree, puts on some kind of act in front of different people. We change depending on who we’re around, I think. I didn’t want to know what your friends thought about you. I wanted to hear your answer, one-on-one, about what you wish you knew earlier. I don’t know anything about your past, your friends, or if you’re lying to me, but I hope you’re telling the truth because there’s no reason to lie to a stranger, truly.

So, I’d approach them, give them my spiel. About 99% of people said yes to the initial question, “Can I ask you a question real quick?” I was always holding my camera too, just like this—I’ll give you the visual: yellow Crocs, a 50-year-old camera. Imagine me approaching you, saying, “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” Real quick. And of course, 99% of people said yes because who’s this brown man in yellow Crocs with a 50-year-old camera asking me a question? What could it possibly be? I would then give them my spiel, and about 80% of people said, “Sure, I’d love to spend two minutes with you.” Sometimes that was actually two minutes; sometimes it was 10; sometimes it was an hour. I would hand them a microphone. I was always wearing one and had it recording directly into my phone so I could transcribe it later in their own words. I didn’t want to misrepresent their words later. And they gave me the most remarkable answers.

So, I’d like to share a few of my favorites. And of course, you’re here to learn the meaning of life. And I promise you, we’re going to get to that right at the end. So stick around. There are some major themes to this. But I think you’ll enjoy some of these stories first.

So, this is stranger number one, who I met in Rising Sun, Ohio. My hometown is Columbus, Ohio, and my map was to go clockwise around the country. As clockwise as it gets for states, I went clockwise. And I thought I would get Columbus last. I wanted to have the perspective of the entire country behind me before I approached my hometown. So, I drove up towards Toledo. At some point, I’m in the middle of nowhere, Ohio, on some back highway, and I see a flower farm. And I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, this is the perfect first stranger. I’m going to meet this sweet old lady who’s growing flowers in the middle of Ohio, living her best life.” And instead, I pull into a dirt parking lot and see this guy, just like. I have to give you the visual because I pull into the parking lot, see one of those translucent flower tents—I think it’s called a nursery—and this guy hobbles over to me. He looks up top me, looks away, and then just disappears out of sight. And I’m thinking, “Oh, God, this is it. I picked the one who’s going to kill me on my first attempt. Just my luck. I decide to do something crazy and figure out the meaning of life, and I won’t even get to talk to one stranger.” So, I get out of my car, feeling like an idiot, and approach this guy. I say, “Hey, how’s it going? Nice flower farm,” trying to make small talk. And then, without even saying hi or smiling, he points to my camera and asks, “What’s that?” I explain, “Oh, it’s a camera. I’m actually driving across the country talking to a thousand strangers, asking them for life advice. I’d love to ask you a question.” He says nothing and walks away out of sight again. Middle of nowhere, Ohio. I’m thinking, “I need to get out of here right now.” But for some reason—probably male privilege, to be honest—I went into the flower farm and looked at his flowers. He comes back, and I give him my spiel again. “I’d love to ask you a big life question and take your photo if you’re up for it.”

He thinks he’s like, “Let me think about it.” He again leaves and comes back with his life advice. Uh, and I’ll be honest, I was going to use my book to, to like, do a not-so-subtle product placement and read the other person’s advice straight from there. But I made the mistake of making my book seven pounds and 700 pages, which is not so conducive to holding a mic and at the same time. So I’ve got it on my phone. Uh, at first, the stranger said, after I asked him my question, “What do you know now that you wish you knew earlier?” He says, “Visit your parents more often.” And I followed it up with, “Tell me more.” “Well, I spent plenty of time with them growing up before I moved out of the house, but not as much after that. They’re not around anymore. And at 24 years old, for me, hearing that my both parents are still alive, I was like, ‘Oh, spend more time with your parents. That’s actually, it’s really hard. Like, your parents aren’t going to be around forever. Cherish the time you have with them.’ And here’s this scary guy, like, and I got this beautiful advice out of him. But on top of that, what’s not included in my book or anywhere else is that after that, he told me how he had built the house behind us with his bare hands. I was like, ‘Oh, cool. You build houses.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, well, I did. But then I got into, uh, me and my brother were hunting one day and my hunting jacket caught on fire and the plastic zipper melted shut and he had to tamp me down, but not before I lost a few fingers and my entire body got scarred.’ He literally lifts up his shirt. ‘Not before my entire body got scarred. So I can’t really build houses anymore. So I decided to start growing flowers.’ Imagine if I hadn’t given this guy the chance to just talk and think, and maybe he would have been dangerous. Was it stupid for me to take the weird risk with all these signs of like, ‘This guy’s kind of weird probably,’ but I’m glad I did. I got these amazing stories out of it.

So a lot of people have asked me, as I’ve done this series in 2022, a lot of people asked me, ‘Did you just seek out older folks for their advice?’ I said, “Well, I don’t think wisdom is guaranteed with age. I think wisdom comes with experience. And it’s entirely possible that younger people have had a lot of intense or real experiences. And if nothing else, they are alive. They have survived to this point. And everyone learns as part of the process of getting older.” So, I didn’t discriminate. Any age, any gender, any race, it didn’t matter. I wanted to talk to everyone.

And so, this person, obviously younger, in her twenties, I met in Alexandria, Virginia, stranger number 304. She said, “Nobody thinks about you as much as you think about yourself. So don’t take yourself too seriously.” How many of you can relate to that? Don’t take yourself too seriously. Nobody really does. Yeah, exactly. Nobody actually thinks about you as much as you think about yourself. When I put on the yellow Crocs this morning, and yes, I do wear them, I think, “Who’s staring at me right now? I bet everybody’s looking at this weird guy in yellow Crocs walking around Sixth Street or whatever.” And the truth is, I’d be willing to bet nobody cares. Or if they noticed, it was like in one ear and out the other, you know? So, that was a beautiful piece of advice.

Stranger number 413. This is one of my favorites—I shouldn’t have favorites, but I do. This is because, as some of you can tell, I am a person of color. I am the first-generation American, born and raised in Ohio, the son of two Indian immigrants. I grew up in Columbus, spent all my life in the Midwest, and never really traveled in the deep South. All you really hear when you’re a person of color living in the Midwest is that the deep South is scary for people of color. I was very nervous about this, but of course, I had to visit all the lower 48 U.S. states, which would include rural areas in the deep South.

So, at some point, I’m at a rest area. Every Sunday, I would spend about six hours in a coffee shop, editing a weekly vlog to update my Patreon subscribers on what had happened that previous week. I needed to edit that video that week. So I go up into Brookhaven, Mississippi, a town of 10,000 people, find a beautiful coffee shop, sit down, and I’m ready to grind and make this video. To my surprise, this guy comes up to me first and asks, “Are you a photographer?” And I’m like, “I sure am.” He goes, “Me too. Actually, my name’s Daniel.” “I’m Imran.” And he says, “I’ve got a production company here in Brookhaven. I make ads, take photos for people, for clients, for products, all of that. I just saw that you had Lightroom open on your laptop.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah. Let me tell you about this crazy thing I’m doing right now.” And of course, I tell him, and his jaw drops because why would I be in a town of 10,000 people traveling the entire country? Like, what are the odds?

We start connecting really fast, talking about our specific camera models, things we love. I tell him about how I’m shooting on film and not doing a digital backup. He’s like, “That’s crazy, man. Why wouldn’t you do a digital backup? It’s 2022. You could even just take a picture on your phone.” And I’m like, “No, but I trust the process. I trust that if the photos come out, they come out, and if they don’t, they don’t. And that’s the beauty of life—sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t.” And he’s like, “You’re freaking awesome.” Ten minutes into our conversation, this guy, who’s younger than me, says, “You know, me and my wife and kids have an extra room in our house. How about instead of sleeping at a rest area tonight, you stay with us?” Again, me and my preconceived notions about the deep South, I’m like, “I’m going to get converted to Christianity. Oh, God, I’m on this trip because I rejected religion. And here I am, about to get, you know, deep South, whatever.” Again, that’s entirely my own biases.

But I was like, he and I talked about so many specific camera models that I was willing to risk it with this guy. Worst case scenario, I thought, well, the worst-worst case could be crazy, but in my head, the worst case was that I would go there in the evening, it would be weird or too religious for me, and then I would just leave instead of spending the night. So I go up to Jackson, come back down, and that evening I show up. His wife, Caroline, cooks us a lovely Cajun dinner. Their kids are adorable. They’ve got this big dog, a cute home. And Daniel, at the end of our dinner, says, “No pressure, but I have two motorcycles and I’d love to teach you how to ride.” And I’m thinking, “At the beginning of my trip, I manifested this. I hoped a stranger would teach me how to ride a motorcycle. I could not have planned this if I tried.”

He teaches me how to ride a motorcycle. We come back, eat some chocolate cake, edit our photos together. We took a bunch of photos of each other on our motorcycles, and it was so much fun. A dream come true. And then, of course, he’s like, “Listen, no pressure, but I’ve got this custom M4 rifle. You’ve never held a gun, have you? Would you like to?” I’m thinking, “First, I thought I was going to join Christianity. Now, I think I’m joining the NRA. What’s happening?” So, I’m like, “Yeah, of course, I want to hold a gun. I’m in the deep South, in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Of course, I’m going to hold your gun. Just show me it’s unloaded first, please.” And his kids were asleep, of course, so I felt safer about it. He shows me his fully custom M4 rifle, unloaded right in front of me. And here I am, thinking, “There’s no reason I should be holding this right now.” And he’s like, “We could go shoot it in the backyard, and nobody would bat an eye. Nobody would call the police. Nothing.” And I’m like, “Dude, I live in Chicago. If I hear a gunshot, I’d be scared.” He says, “Yeah, nobody would care here, but we didn’t shoot it.” But that was Daniel Williams.

He showed me that, despite my ideas of what it would be like in the deep South as a brown man, I experienced extraordinary kindness from everyone I met in Mississippi. Daniel’s advice for his younger self was, “Everyone has their own experiences, and you can’t judge them based on the ones you’ve had. People want to judge on the surface, but you can’t really know someone until you’ve known them for a bit.” Pretty good advice from a guy in his early twenties. That was Daniel Williams.

That summer, 2022, was a rough one for mass shootings in America. The two that stood out were the Tops supermarket shooting in Buffalo and the Uvalde shooting. So, of course, gun control was a really touchy subject that summer. We had a productive conversation about gun control in America, which gave me a lot of hope for the future, for the next generation of leaders, even those who have grown up with guns, who are part of the NRA, but have a different perspective on gun ownership. That gave me a bit of hope. So, that was very interesting. And here’s a picture we took together—so cute.

I shot on film with a Yashica mat 124G, which shoots on 6×6 black and white film. I chose to shoot in black and white on 120 film for anybody interested in the details. About halfway through, I decided to be responsible and make sure a roll was okay. I’m like in Jacksonville, Florida, and I’m going, uh, you know, west. And so I’m calling all these camera shops along the way saying, please, I’m doing this. This crazy thing. I need you to develop a role for me. And all of them are like, sorry, we can’t like, it takes two weeks to develop black and white because film developing shops can develop color in 30 minutes, but they can’t do black and white in a machine. They have to do it by hand. So, in Oklahoma City, I find a camera shop where a guy agrees to develop a roll for me by hand in his bathroom that night. He sends me photos, and sure enough, that roll turned out perfectly. So, I knew at least my first half of my photos would be great. My camera is an extension of me, and I trusted the process. I know the sounds, I know the feeling of it. I know when it’s working, but still, things can go wrong. It was such a relief to know that it went right. I was trusting that it would work for the rest of the trip.

We talked a lot about our backgrounds as first-generation Americans. He’s the son of two Vietnamese immigrants, and I’m the son of two Indian immigrants. And I loved his advice. Once again, he’s a young guy. His advice was, “Don’t compromise on the things you don’t want to compromise on. Stick with your gut, stick with what you know and believe in, and don’t settle for less.” Now, if that applies to you, that’s fine. If it doesn’t, remember, he’s sharing his experience for himself. He’s not telling you what to do; he’s telling his younger self what to do. And so, for all these pieces of advice, it’s tempting to want to think about it for ourselves first. But in reality, it should be the other way around. Think about it for this person first. What might have led this person to this conclusion? And does that apply to me? If yes, cool. Great. You’re seen. There’s another human being who sees the world the way you do. If not, that’s okay. No problem. So, that was Scott. If you ever need film developed in Oklahoma City, that’s the way to go. But also, totally by chance, he invited me to a film photographer’s meetup that evening at a brewery. And I met a bunch of friends in Oklahoma City, and coincidentally, my brother and his now fiancée moved to Oklahoma City about a year later. So now, I had my own network there, in addition to the reason to visit my brother and fiancée, which was like a beautiful connection moment.

So, I told you we were going to get to the story of an RV tipping over and a matching tattoo with a man who was dying of cancer. So, on this day, I can’t remember the exact day, but I’m driving from the Southern border of Colorado up to Broomfield. I hadn’t showered in three days. I was nasty, like, really gross. I needed a shower so bad. Usually, I’d shower at Planet Fitnesses around the country, but for whatever reason, I guess I just didn’t find one. So, I’m like, “Okay, I’ll stop in Colorado Springs for an hour, talk to whoever I can there, and then I’ll keep going up to Broomfield, where I have budgeted for like six or seven hotel stays. And I was ready for a hotel stay. I wanted to sleep in a bed, take a nice hot shower, and not have to worry about hearing all the noise in the gym, you know?”

So, I’m in Colorado Springs. I talk to a stranger, and they’re like, “This is so weird. You’re the second guy to come up to me today saying he’s talking to strangers.” And in my head, I’m picturing a literal twin of me. I’m like, “Who is doing this? Am I actually a government experiment, and we’ve been activated to go across the country, and we’re just sitting in Colorado Springs at the same time?” I don’t know. And I was like, “Oh my God, this person said they met him an hour prior.” And I’m thinking, if I hadn’t gotten stuck on the highway earlier, when an RV trailer tipped over on the highway because of the wind and blocked us on the highway for two hours, I would have met this legend. And spoiler alert, I met him. But in my head, I’m thinking, this is like destiny, you know? Things work out sometimes, and sometimes they don’t.

And so, I keep going on. I’m on the last photo of my roll, and I’m talking to a cashier at a gift shop, and she is giving me her answer. I didn’t have any extra roll of film with me; it was in my car somewhere else. And some guy scoots past me. I pay no attention to him. I finish up with the cashier and start to walk out, and I hear a guy say, “Excuse me, are you doing a documentary?” I turn around, and it’s this tall, white man with a big beard and hundreds of tattoos, Don Caskey. And of course, he tells me his story. He got diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer in 2019. He will die soon. He looks healthy; he was healthy when I met him, but he’s like, “You never know. I’m getting treated right now, but I am dying, and I’m using the remaining time that I have to get matching tattoos with complete strangers.”

Now, I told you I went on this journey to figure out the meaning of life, and in a lot of ways, I found it in him because here’s a guy who’s staring death in the face, who has a totally unique perspective in that way. We’re all dying technically, but for someone with stage four cancer, he is probably confronting death sooner than most of us. And his advice stuck with me the most. He said, “I wish I wouldn’t have worked as hard and as many hours. I missed out on a lot of things. When I got sick, I lost everything, but having nothing is when I got more than I ever had in my life. I swear to God, I’m homeless, I have no car, but I never sleep in the street, and I always have a couple of dollars for beer every day. Having less is more, I’m telling you. The biggest thing in the world you can have is human connection. Without someone else to live with, nobody wants to be here.”

It was a really beautiful sentiment to see a guy who’s facing death and using his remaining time just to connect with people. And of course, after we talk, I was like, “Don, I’ve never even wanted a tattoo. I’m an artist myself. I’ve never wanted art, and it’s funny because you can probably see I have a bunch of tattoos now, but I think this is a sign that I need to get my first tattoo.” So, sure enough, two days later, I come back down, and we went to an artist named Richie Billion in Colorado Springs and got a tattoo of a roll of film, a 120 roll, got mine on my forearm right there, and he got his on his knee. And for those of you who have shot film before, you know there’s sensitivity. It’s usually 100, 400, or 800, usually. And I found out while we were getting tattooed that I was the 435th person to get a matching tattoo with him. So we made it say 435 instead.

Now, Don, unfortunately, passed away this past February, last year. And it was sad, but it was also like a beautiful thing because we really only knew each other for like two or three days, and we kept in touch on Instagram after, but we had really only connected in person for a few hours total. But the connection was so deep; it didn’t have to be a lifetime to feel like this person is so important to me, and we have a permanent connection. Until death. A beautiful moment.

This is a stranger I met in the middle of nowhere, Red Rock Canyon National Park, Arizona. It was me, her, and I think her daughter, and no one else as far as the eye could see. It was super windy, super hot, and some people had their advice immediately, some of them right off the bat, what they wish they knew earlier, and other people had to think, and she had to think. But when she said her advice, oh my God, it was so fire. I had to polish up all the strangers’ advice to get rid of filler words, but I wanted to make sure it sounded like their voices, you know? Everybody has a unique way of talking, and it’s challenging to get that in writing, but I needed to make sure it was true. I did not have to polish hers. This is what she said, “Y’all are going to go right after this: When our expectations of others aren’t met, we should look not to them, but to ourselves because it’s most likely our own fault.” So good. “If our expectations of others aren’t met, we should look not to them, but to ourselves because it’s most likely our own fault.” Again, that’s not advice for you; it’s advice for her younger self. It might apply to you; it might not, and that’s okay. But I’m glad I gave her the chance to think, no rush.

And one more stranger whose advice I’ll share in detail. This is a little bit of a longer one. But my question was, “What do you know now that you wish you knew earlier?” Sometimes I phrase that as, “If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you tell them?” And sometimes I phrase it as, “What did you have to learn the hard way?”

And this stranger 668, who I met in Newport, Oregon, called out that question in the most polite, beautiful way he possibly could. I’m going to read this; it’s about 300 words, but I promise it’s so beautiful. Again, this is one I did not have to polish. It was unbelievable. This might be God speaking:

“If you commit to the idea that you could have done something differently earlier, you’re committing to the idea that you somehow went astray, but maybe you never did. We’re living in a reality that we think of as a balance of chaos and order, but that’s not true. Chaos is fundamental to order. We wish that our tiny little decisions would work out how we want them to, and we can barely live with the idea that a random encounter is worth more than all of our planning and efforts. You could bend over to pick up a quarter and then bump into the person you’re going to marry and hang out with for the rest of your life. We desperately go through life grasping for a script to understand, so we continue to say to ourselves, ‘Gosh, if only I hadn’t veered from this point to this point, or if only I hadn’t made the wrong decision or wrong turn here or there.’ But because we don’t actually know what’s good for us in the long run, we’re kind of just going through it. So, in a certain sense, there’s nothing that I would have done differently. There’s nothing that I would have changed. Because then I don’t know what would have followed afterward. And maybe I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am right now. We’re on a perfect beach, the sun setting, the sand butter-soft, and I’m buried in it. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Perfectly called out. So, I think that’s the absurdity of my question. The truth is, we can never change the past; it’s only in our power to change our futures. And in a lot of ways, the advice from stranger number 668 is the only one that matters for the question that I asked.

All in all, it took me 84 days living in my Toyota Camry, occasionally hosted by friends along the way, and I drove 15,298 miles to all the lower 48 U.S. states to ask a thousand strangers for life advice. I got back to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, developed all the film in my childhood home kitchen, hung them up to dry in my childhood home bathroom, and digitized them in my childhood bedroom, all before moving back to Chicago to go there.

And, of course, at the end of it, I realized I had learned so much from this. I did this for me. I didn’t do it for TikTok, I didn’t do it for Instagram, I didn’t do it for content. I did it for me. I could have thrown the whole series away, and I would have still learned everything I did. But I knew I needed to share it because, and I’ll tell you at the end, there’s such a big learning. I knew I had to share it in a freeway, a paid way, and an artistic credibility way. The freeway was, of course, social media. The paid way, I turned it into a book called “Advice from America.” And for artistic credibility, eventually, I’d like to exhibit this in galleries and maybe one day museums, who knows.

So, I’d like to share some of the themes. I’ll be completely honest with you, the initial thought for this talk was to analyze the data, the qualitative data, to categorize each of them for themes, and then present the actual numbers of how many people said this and that. And I thought I was going to use ChatGPT to make my life easier. And as it turns out, in 2024, ChatGPT hallucinates a lot. So, I gave it a list of 219 themes about life, and every time I prompted it, I said, “Don’t forget, don’t stray from those 219.” And after about 10 or 11 times, every single time, it would start using categories that weren’t on the list.

So, I will give you anecdotally the themes that I noticed the most. Eventually, I will make a video, probably on my TikTok or Instagram, about the actual data, but I’m realizing I’m going to need a human whom I’m going to hire to help me do this. So, number one, this is going to be no surprise to anybody: Love. So many people talked about love, and they talked about every aspect of it. Some people said, “I wish I would have gotten married sooner.” Some said, “Don’t be afraid to bring a husband home from spring break.” I took photos of all the strangers individually, but for her, it was her and her husband. I had to because, and I specified in the book, the advice is from the stranger on the left.

But other people talked about divorce and breakups, relationships getting messy, and this and that. Everybody talked about love. It was so fascinating. Because I’ll tell you what, I posted a piece of advice from one of the strangers I met in Buffalo, New York, on Instagram, and that one got like, I think, hundreds of thousands of views. And her advice was three words: “Don’t get married.” And the comments were a wild mix. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a fascinating experience to post that and have it kind of get a lot of views because half of the comments were, “This is the worst advice I’ve ever heard,” and I say that in that voice because it was mostly men saying that. And the other half were, “This is spot-on. I wish I would have never gotten married.” But you have to remember, her advice of “Don’t get married” is not for you; it’s not for me. It was for her, and it’s probably pretty good advice for her.

Love, again, no surprise, a lot of people talked about money. And I knew this one. I knew I was going to get a lot about money. We live in a capitalistic society. We are at the edge of capitalism right now. Of course, people are going to talk about money. Most of the time, it was “save more money, invest earlier,” which I think is good advice. But I always wanted to know more because, at the root of that, it’s wanting to have more money right now. And so I always followed up with, “What would you do if you had more money right now?” And to my surprise, I thought people were going to say, “I’d buy a bigger house, I’d buy a Mercedes, I’d buy this and that.” Instead, all but one of them said, “I would just be a little bit more comfortable, a little bit less stressed. I could work fewer hours so I could spend more time with people I love and care about,” which is beautiful. I couldn’t believe that. Of course, if the reality was that I handed somebody a half a million dollars who said that, I’m sure they would buy a nice new car, and that’s okay. But at the end of the day, the sentiment of wanting more money was about connecting with others, about living life. And I thought that was pretty interesting.

So many strangers talked about being yourself, so many, and this was from all ages, all genders, everything. Being yourself because so many people, if they were older, talked about how it took them 30, 40 years after their 20s to really be who they knew they wanted to be all along. And for somebody who’s younger, it was just a tumultuous time through high school and college before they could finally just stop worrying about what other people think. There was a girl I met in Indianapolis who was wearing elf ears; she was at a board game convention. And she was like, “You know, in high school, I was so nervous about people thinking I was a nerd. And here I am, and I am a nerd, full-on. I love it. I have embraced this lifestyle. I have made the best friendships of my life because I am who I am now. I am who I wanted to be all along, and I wish I had the confidence to do that when I was in high school.” So, that was a beautiful sentiment, again, I heard this everywhere, all over the place, from people of every background.

And one more major thing I noticed was that “it’ll be okay,” which, I think, overall, is a somewhat privileged statement to say “it’ll be okay” because that’s not always a guarantee. That’s not always a guarantee, and there’s probably a survivorship bias there to say “it’ll be okay.” But the sentiment from anybody, again, whether they were in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, was that in the moment when you’re experiencing something that is challenging and sends you into a cycle of grief, it feels like the world is over. When I lost my pet bird, I had to put my pet bird down many years ago, it threw me into the craziest cycle of grief. When I got broken up with for the first time, it threw me into a crazy cycle of grief, and I thought the world was over. I was like, “I do not know how I’m going to function this evening, let alone tomorrow.” And that is grief; it’s real; it’s a sign that you’ve cared a lot, and you’re experiencing a major change. But everybody who said this said, “Now that I’m here, it just feels like a little blip. It’ll be okay; you’ll get through it one day at a time, one hour at a time, whatever it takes.”

So, I told you I went on this journey to figure out the meaning of life and to push myself radically out of my comfort zone, and I believe that I found a purpose and meaning to life that feels right to me, that I think applies, no matter what religion you are. And I also found one other major discovery, and that first major discovery was that I heard the same things over and over again across the entire country, every race, every gender, every age, every region. At first, it was annoying. I thought, maybe naively, I might get a thousand unique pieces of advice. But then I realized it’s an amazing sign that I’m hearing the same thing over again from people of all backgrounds and all regions. The truth is we have so much more in common with one another than the things that tear us apart. And I think this proves it. That, I think, is such an especially timely message. It’s something I truly believe in, and it’s something that I think gets reinforced every time I meet a new person, especially when they’re from a different background. We have so much more in common with one another than the things that tear us apart. That changed everything for me. I have a whole new way of seeing the strangers and people around me. Most of you in this room, I don’t recognize. And I just know that there’s something that each and every one of us can deeply connect over, even if we have major differences in opinions about politics and the future and whatever. At the end of the day, we’re all going through a very similar human experience.

But the meaning of life, what I believe to be true about the purpose of life, is that the only way to make the most of your life is to experience everything fully—the good, the bad, and the in-between.

I think there’s this idea, especially in America, that once you have enough money, once you have a big enough house, when your partner is amazing, when your family is amazing, then life will be perfect all the time. And I know I’m only 26, but I now know that’s not true. Life will never be perfect. You can have everything, and life will always have its ups and its downs. And I think that’s the only way to make the most of it. A lot of the in-between, but if you can experience everything fully—if you can be happy when you’re happy, sad when you’re sad, and angry when you’re angry—if you can feel your feelings fully, it won’t matter whether you get to live 30 years or 100 because you will have made the most of it regardless.

So, my challenge for you, for the duration of your time at South by Southwest 2024, for the duration of this Tuesday, is to talk to as many people as you possibly can. It’s so easy here, specifically because we’re all wearing a South by Southwest badge. We are all here for the exact same conference but probably for different reasons. It is so easy to stand in a line or sit next to somebody and say, “Hi, what’s your name? I’m Imran. Nice to meet you. What brought you to South by?” So easy. It should also be so easy at a grocery store. Have a great day. That’s my challenge for you.

So, at the end of the day, I have to give a shameless plug. I did turn this into a 672-page, seven-pound coffee table photo book. This thing is a beast. I self-published it, got it funded through Kickstarter last year. It’s available on Amazon right now. And more than anything, what I want to leave you with is a reminder that the past is unchangeable, but the future is up to us to create. And I believe that creating the future we want to live in, that the next generation wants to live in, starts by connecting with one another. Thank you.

Thank you so much. Thank you for coming to my session. This is beautiful.

We do have time for questions. I wanted to make sure that was, I am an open book. Feel free to leave, get some water, go to the bathroom, but please come up to the mic and ask me anything. Truly.

Two questions. One, I’d love to hear more about your Kickstarter story. And then two, what do you do when your social battery is just gone? How do you stay genuinely connected?

Yeah. Oh my God, great questions. The Kickstarter, in a nutshell, had a goal of raising $25,000. It ended up raising $68,000. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten really good at social media in a way that I believe isn’t controversial but actually brings people together. So, I was lucky that my social media really boosted the campaign. I had a lot of close friends and family who wanted to see this project come to life. It’s a pretty non-controversial book, honestly, just a thousand strangers sharing their life advice. A lot of people wanted to see it made.

As for when my social battery is drained, I experience that a lot. Despite being able to show up on stage and perform well, I often need to recharge. Just yesterday, I had to take a nap in the middle of the day because I needed it. I don’t think that’s the best time to connect with people because you have to take care of yourself first. That’s my opinion. Sometimes, it might be great to connect with someone when you’re not at your best, but I wouldn’t encourage anyone to stress themselves out further when they’re already feeling low. However, if you’re at a low social point and can push yourself to engage in conversation with someone, for me, that can instantly boost my battery from here to here. That’s just my perspective.

Hello, this project is amazing. Go Bucs! I’m from Mansfield. What’s the worst advice you got?

Okay, so this is going to be a little bit off the record. The cameras are rolling, but I’m not going to include this afterward. Great question. So this one actually didn’t get included in the book. The person’s advice was twofold, and I ended up including the latter half. I approached this guy, I can’t remember where, somewhere early in my trip, and I asked him—he’s smoking a cigar, walking around as if he owns the place—and I’m thinking, who is this character? So, I asked him, “What do you know now that you wish you knew earlier?” And I kid you not, he said, and this is going to be bad, word for word, and I just need to clarify this is not my words, he said, “I wish all the ladies were like pies on a shelf, and I’d be the baker to eat them all myself.” I was appalled. But my goal was also never to change someone’s opinion or make them feel bad about what they said, even though that guy 100% deserved to be called out on what he said. And I said, “Come on, man, give me something real.” And he said, “Well, I own two or three businesses, and the only thing I know is that you’ve got to work yourself to death, and that’s the only way to live,” which I still think is terrible advice. But it was his. And I did not include the first part of that. I really didn’t want to include him at all. But I also knew that his photo was good, and the second half was interesting, and I just thought, I have to include it. But yeah. Thank you. Go ahead.

Are you working on another book?

Am I working on another book? Not yet. Although I do have an idea. Because I drove, I could only visit the lower 48 U.S. states. I obviously missed Hawaii and Alaska. I’d love to find a way to get out to Hawaii and Alaska and make a second, smaller edition of “Advice from Hawaii and Alaska” just to complete the 50 U.S. states. But I don’t know. I’m not sure yet. A lot of people have said, like, “Wouldn’t this be amazing if you took this globally, advice from every country in the world?” And I said, “That would be amazing.” But something, not everything, has to be scaled. You know, not everything has to be like that. And I got what I wanted to get out of that period of my life and what I was searching for during that period out of this series. Sure, I could commercialize it. Should I? Or do I have to? No. No. It’s art. The beauty of art is that you don’t have to commercialize it. You can just create and move on. So maybe, maybe one day. I thought, honest to God, like, this is getting a little bit deep, too, a bit of trauma. But like, my dad was an author, a self-published author growing up. But he hustled like crazy. And so, while he was physically present, he wasn’t a very good father to me. And so, I held a lot of resentment over publishing books because he was always writing. I swore as a kid that I would never write a book. Here we are. Generational trauma. But this is something I’m very proud of, of course.

This was an amazing project to learn about. I’m wondering what piece of advice you would give to your younger self.

Yeah, great question. Thank you. After completing this trip, I went from being this person to a completely different person. And I think the biggest thing that I would tell my younger self, especially when I was 18, is that I would totally go back and talk to my 18-year-old self. I would tell him to be less judgmental about the people around him, to try everything once, and to just live hard. Like, I was in college and I barely partied. Not that college has to be about partying, but there was a realization now at 26, a few years out of undergrad, that my friendships would have been so much stronger if I had gone out and partied hard and tried weed, which I didn’t try until after. And I’m like, man, weed is awesome. But I really wish I had just let loose more. To put it very crudely, I feel like I had a stick way up my ass. And doing this trip, the stick’s gone. Does that answer it?

Considering what’s happening in our country now, as far as communication and, you know, dialogue with people around the country, can you share some of your advice, maybe, for considering what you’ve done as to how we can cross borders now and talk to people who believe in conspiracy theories and a million other crazy things?

Sure. Yeah, I love that question. It’s a timely question, 2024. This year is going to be crazy. It’s going to be a really wild year. And of course, AI is the hot topic at South by Southwest right now. AI is going to be terrifying for the election, guaranteed. Um, and I’m not an expert on that, but it’s almost inevitable. And so it’s going to be an interesting year. And of course, people just continue to get more and more divided. I’m essentially a social media expert now. I do social media consulting, and I manage my own. And I know how the algorithms work. They just push people into their silos, no matter what they believe. And that is very dangerous, I think. I don’t know what the solution is except for having conversations in real life because it’s so easy to be angry and hateful on social media, and it is not that easy to do that in real life. I think people who show up on the internet and are angry all the time and want to see the world burn, I don’t think they’re like that in person. I have no doubt that some of these people would be the kind of people to post that I’m a race baiter because I talked about being brown on social media, which is something that happened. And so I think the solution is so much easier said than done. And it’s truly just to have in-person conversations. Social media is designed to make statements, not designed, or at least the current state is not designed, to have conversations. And so that’s what we’re lacking, just completely lacking that. A really good example of this is my friend Ben over here. He’s wearing a gigantic sticker to indicate that he’s technically one of my cameramen. I had to take out a million-dollar insurance policy in case he or Nick did something crazy here. I’m not kidding. They made me buy a $1 million insurance policy for $120. But Ben is a mushroom farmer for a company called Sporadic in Bozeman, Montana. Ben and I met through a program called Future Founders, which Scott, the CEO, is right here. It brings together young entrepreneurs from all over the country to just foster our entrepreneurship skills and personal leadership skills. And Ben and I come from very different backgrounds, but we’re best friends now. And we often have conversations, I think, and we did earlier this week, that challenge one another probably to our limits. But we always end it with a hug. And you do this. This is such a beautiful example of a human being right here who can have a challenging conversation with anybody and at the end of it say, I love you. You’re a human being just like me. We are in this human experience together. We can have our differences and still love one another. That’s my belief. Thank you, Ben.


De reis, die 84 dagen duurde, leverde een prachtig boek op met levensadviezen en foto’s van de ontmoetingen. De belangrijkste levenslessen die Nuri verzamelde:

  • Bezoek je ouders vaker.
  • Geniet van het leven en maak plezier.
  • Werk niet te hard; menselijke connecties zijn waardevoller dan materieel bezit.
  • Wees open-minded en oordeel niet te snel over anderen.
  • Iedereen heeft unieke ervaringen; deel deze en leer van elkaar.
  • Leef het leven voluit, omarm nieuwe ervaringen en wees niet bang om fouten te maken.

Het avontuur van Imran Nuri benadrukt het belang van van relaties boven materiele dingen. Een les die we eigenlijk allemaal al lang weten, maar waar we niet altijd naar leven.

De levensles die mij het meest aansprak is over het terugkijken en wensen dat we dingen anders hadden gedaan. We kunnen immers niet echt weten wat op lange termijn het beste voor ons is en toeval zou wel eens een grotere rol in ons leven kunnen spelen dan we willen toegeven. En als we het toen anders hadden gedaan, zou je nu niet zijn waar je bent. Een om over na te denken!

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