TEDxUCLA 2019: Time

Why I started walking people


About Chuck

Chuck McCarthy


Three years ago, I started jokingly saying that I was going to start walking people for money. (Laughter) Yeah.

But the more I made that joke, the more reasons I came up with that someone would actually want to or need to hire someone else to walk with them. I came up with too many reasons for the joke to be a joke anymore. I ruined my own joke. (Laughter)

I started a business walking people. There was almost no overhead or capital investment involved, beyond some flyers, a T-shirt, fabric markers, maybe having to buy shoes more often and my time. The last thing on my list was my time because I thought I had plenty of it, which looking back at it now seems ridiculous since I was literally offering people my time.

But at the time, I had everything I needed. I put up flyers, I made a shirt, I made a web page and started forcing my friends to go on walks with me. (Laughter)

Not only did people respond with interest, but news and media outlets around the world went crazy for the idea. I’ve done dozens and dozens of interviews with almost every news outlet you can imagine. I was on TV in Germany. Yeah, I’m basically the David Hasselhoff of walking at this point. (Laughter) It’s true.

This response was totally unexpected. Why did people around the world care about me walking people? I believed in my idea, but I didn’t think this many people would be interested, not just in LA, not just in the United States, but around the world. Something so simple — walking people — struck this deep chord that resonated on a global scale.

I asked myself why, but most people’s questions were more direct and pragmatic. When you start walking people, one of the questions you get asked over and over again besides, “Do you use a leash?” and, “Will you pick up my poop?” (Laughter) is, “Why? Why would someone pay to walk?”

Well, the first two questions are an easy no and no — (Laughter) but as to why, it depends. It could be for the main reasons that I thought people would use the service, the reasons that ruined my joke: motivation and safety.

Most of us need motivation and accountability to exercise or do almost anything, and accountability is at the heart of almost every fitness success.

Safety is pretty obvious: it’s safer to walk with someone else. Most people don’t know this, but the U.S. Army actually invented the “buddy system,” not your kindergarten teacher — (Laughter) sorry, Mrs. Beardsley. If it’s safer for trained soldiers to walk around together, then it’s safer for you and me.

Some people walk to learn about a new place or because they just want someone to chat with while walking. People who work from home or are unemployed don’t have that water cooler gossip. People walk just to meet someone new because that could be fun and exciting.

There are many other reasons, and to be honest, I don’t think I even know them all, because I didn’t come up with them all. I know at least one woman used my service as leverage to get her husband to walk with her. “Oh, you don’t want to walk with me? That’s fine, that’s fine, stay sitting down. I’ll just hire this guy.” (Laughter) Of course, her husband said, “Oh no, you don’t. I’m going to walk with you. I just have to find my shoes.”

So, what have I learned walking a few hundred strangers a couple of thousand miles? The first thing I learned is that strangers don’t stay strangers long on a walk, because a walk, long or short, is a shared experience, and shared experiences bring people together.

Just walking out in the world triggers some hardwired instinct in us to look for and evaluate danger so that when we’re walking with someone, they become part of our family, pack or tribe on some level deep in our animal brains. This may or may not be the instinctual experience, but every walk is definitely a shared experience.

On a walk with someone, you’re seeing the same: funny dog, cool car, scary house. I’ve seen funny dogs, cool cars, scary houses. I’ve seen rattlesnakes, deer, horses. I found wounded birds. I’ve almost been hit by cars. I’ve seen houses being torn down and buildings being built. I have literally stopped to smell the roses.

And I’ve shared these experiences with the people I was walking, giving us something in common the same way you might have something in common with someone you went to school with or worked with, played on a sports team with or just went to a concert with. Were you at Woodstock, man? No, no, no! Were you at Coachella, man? No? Oh, I got it! Were you at Burning Man, man? (Laughter) (Whispers) I know you. (Laughter)

Another thing I learned is that name tags really do help break the ice. Whenever I’m wearing my company shirt, people constantly stop me and say stuff like, “Hey, you’re that guy,” or, “Hey, are you that guy?” (Laughter) Yeah. And I say, “Yes.” (Laughter)

This might sound like inane chatter or small talk, but is small talk really small and unimportant, or is it much more important than most people think? Most of us look down on small talk, and of course, if everything was small talk, we’d go crazy.

But what I realized from walking and talking with so many people is that small talk serves an important purpose. It’s almost like a calibration. When you make small talk with someone you’re just meeting, you’re basically establishing a shared reality. “Man, is it hot today!” “Oh yeah, tell me about it. I’ve had my AC cranked up all day.” “Was traffic as bad for you getting here?” “Terrible! I think there was some construction.” There’s always construction. (Laughter) It’s true, yeah.

So yes, these interactions can feel inane, but they establish a shared reality. If it’s cold outside, you’re shivering and you say, “Brrr, it’s cold. Winter is coming,” (Laughter) and the other person says, “No, not really. Mnh-hnhmmm,” (Laughter) you’d probably be thrown off.

These interactions are important for building the foundations of deeper conversations and deeper relationships. You can’t build a pyramid from the top down, and nothing ever started off big. You have to start with the small talk to get to the big talk.

Speaking of small talk, here’s a cliche I hope you have heard before because otherwise, it’s not much of a cliche, right? No pain, no gain. (Laughter) Just because something rhymes doesn’t make it true. (Laughter) It doesn’t, no. Here’s an example: the Earth’s flat, and that’s that. (Laughter) It must be true, it rhymed.

No pain no — the Earth’s not flat — (Laughter) “no pain no gain” isn’t true either. There are plenty of activities that you can do to get healthy and stay healthy without putting yourself in terrible pain. Walking and talking is one of them. In fact, walking and talking can be so enjoyable you might forget about your pain. I’ve seen this over and over again walking people.

Early on in my journey, a woman was very excited about my walking service. She really wanted to walk with me. (Laughter) She paid me up front. But when I showed up for our walk, she said that she had a bum leg, she didn’t know if she could walk, it might not be worth it, she could only go a mile or so maybe. I told her that was fine. I told her we’d take it easy, we’d just walk and see.

We got to walking and talking. And how far do you think we went? It was more than a mile, yeah. Good guess, good guess. We walked five miles. (Audience) Whoop, whoop! Yeah. (Applause) I can’t tell you what we talked about, but I can tell you what we didn’t talk about: her pain. I saw her the next day. She didn’t say anything about being in terrible pain from our walk. All she wanted to talk about was how far we had gone.

Of course, walking isn’t some sort of magic cure-all. Even though Hippocrates did say, “Walking is the best medicine,” he said that over 2,000 years ago, and we know that it can’t fix everything. But when you’re out walking and talking and in the moment, it is much harder to focus on stress and pain or whatever is bothering you, the same way you can if you’re just sitting around. Is this because we’re not the amazing multitaskers we want to think we are?

Hippocrates has another great quote about walking: “If you’re in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you’re still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” It’s pretty good. (Laughter) Two thousand years ago. We know from studies that physical exercise can change human brain chemistry, that the very act of walking can change your mood.

But is it just this chemical change that’s making us feel better, or is it also that walking out in the world gets us out of our houses and away from physical reminders of stress and pain: that pile of dirty laundry, that pile of dirty dishes, that pile of bills? And piles are bad news. (Laughter) Really.

Besides getting us away from piles — (Laughter) this walking also makes us feel better because walking and talking takes up all of our attention and forces us to be present and mindful.

“Mindfulness” is a word that people have thrown at me and attached to my walking. And after going on all the walks I’ve been on, I can tell you that walking and talking does push people to be more present and mindful, and paying for the experience almost guarantees it. That’s true, that’s true. (Laughter)

When you think about the future or consequences or results, it takes you out of the moment, it kills mindfulness. But walking is a physical manifestation of moving forward. Every step is a step into the future, and talking engages us in the now.

So, you’re here and now and stepping into the future, seeing what’s next, where you’re going, which is important because what most people fear most about the future is the unknown, the uncertain, the unexpected. (Laughter)

When I say paying for the experience almost guarantees mindfulness, you might imagine someone handing me a lot of cash and me handing over a three-pound bag of mindfulness. (Laughter) But it’s actually more like going to a museum.

When I first started walking people, some people thought I was doing this as a performance art piece, and although I wasn’t, the more people I’ve walked, the more I realized that there is something like art about it because when we pay to go to a museum, we really focus on the art and give it more attention and really consider it in a way that we might not if the art wasn’t in a museum.

Even art in a gallery gets more of our attention because it has a value attached to it. We ponder a red canvas with a yellow square because it’s framed — (Laughter) it’s on a wall, and it has a price tag.

Paying to walk assigns a value to the walk, and that value not only pushes people to focus on the conversation, to be present and to be mindful, it also stops people from thinking about other things. Very rarely do people I’m walking take out their cell phones, because that would take time away from our walk.

The most important thing I’ve learned over the past three years is that my time should not have been the last thing I considered when I started walking people because I’ve learned that time really is money and not in the way I thought about it before, as translating to billable hours or an hourly wage.

Time is literally money: a currency, a commodity. Time was the biggest investment I had to make when I started walking people, and that’s the biggest investment I continue to make.

Why did people care so much about my idea to walk people for money? Why did so many people care around the world? I wasn’t charging that much. I wasn’t trying to exploit anyone. I didn’t start walking people because I thought it would make me rich, and it hasn’t. (Laughter) Yeah. It’s true. (Laughter)

But charging for the walk attached a value to the walk, attached a value to my time, the same way that people paying for that draws attention to their lives, to the present, it makes them more mindful.

To sum it up, your mom didn’t put a swear jar on top of the TV to become a billionaire. (Laughter) She did it to make you think about what you’re saying, to be mindful. Did my idea impact so many people around the world because I had inadvertently assigned value to human time in a way that made them think about their own time?

Something else happened when I started walking people, and it had a huge impact on me. When I started walking people, other people wanted to walk people. I got asked over and over how I got started. People wanted to work for me, people wanted to walk for me, and these people, they were amazing people from around the world, people with educations and experiences that far surpassed mine.

Helping people get out and walk is what kept me moving forward with this idea. But seeing these amazing people that really wanted and needed to help other people, to feel like they were doing something positive — these amazing people that were undervalued, underemployed or unemployed, that just wanted a job that would let them connect, let them share their knowledge and experience, value them as humans — that’s what made it impossible for me to stop trying to move forward with this idea.

Looking at these people, it made me ask, “Are there other jobs like walking people? Can we create other jobs, other human jobs, that value human time over productivity? Are there other ways humanly possible for us to be of service to each other and help us value each other’s time? If we don’t value human time, who will?”

This might sound like a daunting task, making up jobs. But basically every job in existence was made up. Why stop now? (Laughter) Really. What’s stopping us from inventing, discovering, creating, making up more human jobs for humans to do, jobs that do connect us and do value our human time?

You know a lot about cars, but you’re not a mechanic? You could teach people about their cars so that mechanics can’t take advantage of them. Are you always asking interesting and thought-provoking questions? Well, maybe you could be a professional thought provoker. (Laughter) Or could you? Hmmmm. (Laughter) How many more people might take the bus if there was some sort of bus Sherpa to show first-time riders the bus routes?

Do these seem like silly ideas, small ideas? Well, just like small talk, nothing starts off big. We’re surrounded by jobs that just a few years ago would have been scoffed at: personal stylist, life coach, dog walker, manicurist, cuddler, professional video gamer, blogger, vlogger, influencer. (Laughter) The list goes on and on.

What’s stopping us from adding to it, adding human jobs? Human. Human time, human jobs, human, human, human. This might sound like some sort of rallying cry against technology, but it’s not. Technology is what makes so many of these new human jobs possible.

But if you decide to create a human job, to do a human job, something that involves connecting and spending your time on another person, it doesn’t have to start off as an app or some new technology or a big company. You don’t even need a garage like all the tech companies when they were getting started. (Laughter) It can just be you offering your time the way it was me offering my time and a skill I had mastered by the age of five. (Laughter)

When I took my first steps — (Laughter) I didn’t know where they would lead — (Laughter) I didn’t know what it would grow into or where it will go. You’ll never know where your idea can take you until you take the first steps. Go take a walk, and find out. (Applause) (Cheers)