I switched lives with my friend Neo for a day.

Well, we really just took part in two activities that neither one of us had experienced before (I taught Neo how to climb and he made me a traditional Chinese dinner) and we reflected upon them.

“Right hand up more — match your feet there. Now reach, reach, reach!” I said.

Neo grabbed the painted number 35 on the rock wall, then jumped down.

“I can’t believe I just did that. My fingers are going to be so sore tomorrow.”

“I feel like a proud mom right now.”

There are few sensations like teaching in the world, and even fewer like the one of teaching someone how to climb. Everyone should take the opportunity to teach someone something at least once. Much like general retail jobs, teaching addresses several life skills: kindness, diligence, empathy for others. Teaching is a privilege.

To mix that act with climbing, one the purest and three-dimensional forms of exercise in existence, is an experience unlike anything else. Watching Neo become more confident and laugh as he completed routes was really cool. I hope he enjoyed it, because climbing is one of my absolute favorite physical activities. I love how it’s a continuously fluctuating series of movements that drives the human body to learn muscle coordination and spatial orientation. And, it’s super duper fun.

After we finished up, I walked with Neo back to the coffee shop to grab my bike and headed to my friend Walter’s housewarming get-together. He told me to let him know when I was coming back and he would make me dinner. (I was trying to save myself, but definitely snuck in a couple bites of Walter’s habichuelas con plátanos fritos. Sometimes ya just gotta live a little.)

At 9:14 PM, Neo greeted me at the door. I brought my bike up the stairs and he asked me to take my shoes off, something I don’t normally do in my own house. I hate feet as a general concept.

Neo welcomed me into the kitchen and started explaining the three dishes he had prepared for me. He had stir-fried cannellini beans, cowpeas with star anise, and a mung bean and egg concoction.

“I don’t know why I made these. I just kind of stir fry things together. It’s nothing special.”

Neo is a liar.

The meal itself was impressive in its playful colors, textures, and tastes. It had enough spice to make it dynamic, but not overpowering, and each side created an intriguing and rewarding mouthful. Eating this dish inspired me to want to eat more intentionally and cook more experimentally. And, more importantly, it made me want to cook for others.

We talked a lot about Beijing and Richmond and their respective food cultures. Neo said he wanted to move to New York after graduation. He said he couldn’t imagine himself anywhere else, and I agree. With the quality of the work I’ve seen him create, I know he wouldn’t be challenged anywhere else. Neo is humble beyond words. If you met him on the street, you’d never know you were talking at one of the most talented and driven designers I’ve ever met.

I was exhausted and didn’t want to talk much, so I asked a lot of questions. I found my thoughts drifting, sort of dangling in the air. Sometimes I feel bad when I ask so many questions. It’s a weird conversational crutch for me — I ask questions when I don’t know what to say, or when someone isn’t giving me a conversational opening but seems to want to keep talking.

This situation made me aware of the frequency in which I think about conversation and conversational dynamics, and my hypersensitivity to the way in which we as humans speak. I love to analyze social interactions — for as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve considered myself a listener over a talker. Engaging deeply in the minutiae of a stranger’s life is one of my most compelling and fulfilling hobbies. It can be a toxic empathy, however. Not only do I sometimes get lost in other people’s lives and forget my own emotions, but also there is an amusing and disappointing predicament that I used to experience with great frequency in which I will have a friend whose life story I could retell in its entirety, but that same friend would not even know my favorite food.

Sharing a meal in an acquaintance’s home is a powerful and intimate experience. It is easy to eat alone or quickly in order to get more work done, but I believe it is a psychological necessity to eat with others. We slow down to talk and chew, and we use the time to reflect and process our days, which strengthens our relationships. Neo and I talked about relationships, art, and our current frustrations. I hadn’t really had the chance to talk to Neo for an extended period of time, so it was fun to hear learn more about him and his personal life. I also really appreciated the effort he had made to fix my food and welcome me into his house, and definitely felt like we had made a deeper connection from the interaction’s proximity.

I knew we both had a bit of work to do, and I didn’t want to overstay, so I thanked him, and we hugged goodbye after playing with his cat, Belly.

I was tired but restless. So, I biked all the way downtown. I reached the Pipeline overlook and watched the lights reflect against the loud and churning river. Neo had inspired me in several ways. Firstly and most obviously, he inspired me to change up my meal prep. But, he also made me think more about my design practice. As he talked about New York, I could see this yearning, a sort of ache within him to return — an ache for change and travel and newness and all things I had not yet experienced as someone who had lived in Richmond her entire life. It made me aware of my own stagnancy. I was so scared of change and leaving the comfort of Richmond and my family.

But as I slammed my legs against the bike pedals, racing through the empty streets, I realized that maybe I wasn’t so afraid after all.

writing about the intersection of design, business, and technology // addiejohnson.com