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May 2024
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500 Lunches With Strangers

How one Toastmaster’s personal growth project changed his life.

By Laura Mishkind

Man and woman posing at table with food
Nick Bendel meets Jemi Jeng for his 358th lunch on his quest to 500.

In 2019, Nick Bendel, a Toastmaster since 2016, set a goal to have lunch with 500 strangers in five years. He was inspired by Kaley Chu’s book 100 Lunches With Strangers. “Kaley’s book made me realize that meeting a large number of strangers would help me improve my social skills, strengthen my mindset, build an incredible network, and attract more opportunity into my life,” explains Bendel. So he got to work on what he calls a “personal growth project.”

His first lunch was with the author herself. However, Bendel lives in Sydney, Australia, while Chu lives in Melbourne, about 440 miles (710 km) away, so his first lunch involved a plane ride. She encouraged him to follow through on his plan and said it would change his life. According to Bendel, this has proven true.

As of April 1, 2024, Bendel, a member of Dynamic North Shore TM Club, has had 376 lunches. He says, “I’ve become more proactive and open-minded. I’ve improved my leadership skills and social skills. I’ve also realized how much we can achieve if we aim high and take charge of our life.”

In this Toastmasters Podcast episode, Nick Bendel takes you on his journey of having 500 lunches with strangers.

So why lunch? He chose lunch as the activity because coffee would be too short, breakfast too rushed, and as he says, “inviting strangers to dinner would have seemed too forward.” Bendel typically has two lunches a week—sometimes more. The most he’s scheduled in a week is six.

“I’ve learned that if we want to lead happy, successful, and fulfilled lives, we need to be the driver rather than the passenger.”

–Nick Bendel

He primarily uses LinkedIn to connect with the strangers he’d like to meet, explaining, “Sometimes, I’ll actively search for someone from a particular background; at other times, I’ll stumble upon someone who has something interesting or unusual about them.” Occasionally, he cold-calls people and has been introduced to others through mutual friends. Now his lunches are becoming well-known in Sydney, and people contact him via LinkedIn.

In 2020, the pandemic prevented Bendel from in-person lunches, but he took the opportunity to have virtual lunches with those abroad. He met people from Canada, England, New Zealand, and Singapore. In 2023, he visited Singapore and had lunch in person with someone who was introduced via a mutual friend—this was his only face-to-face lunch outside of Australia.

The Toastmasters Connection

Bendel has had lunch with a few Toastmasters, though it was a coincidence. “I didn’t know about the Toastmasters connection until discovering it during lunch,” he says.

He has given a few club speeches about his project and spoke about it at a District conference, but Toastmasters really comes into play in how he is perceived by those he dines with. “During my seven years in Toastmasters, I’ve become a much better communicator, which has helped me have quality conversations with my lunch dates,” Bendel explains. “I often get complimented on how well-spoken I am, which has a lot to do with my Toastmasters training. And I often get complimented on my listening skills as well, which I’ve honed through years of giving evaluations and answering Table Topics questions.”

Life-Changing Lunches

After every lunch, Bendel publishes an article about it on LinkedIn and his website and keeps in touch with many of his lunch invitees—though it’s become harder as the number of people has grown. “I look for opportunities to keep the relationship warm, which can involve something minor such as liking a person’s post on social media, texting them or emailing them, or something more involved such as calling them or meeting with them again,” he explains. He even organizes a meet-up every three months and shares what time and day he’ll be at a local café if people want to stop by.

“I’ve learned that if we want to lead happy, successful, and fulfilled lives, we need to be the driver rather than the passenger. That means taking charge of our lives by being proactive, asking for things, and striving for things.”

Bendel says these lunches have forever changed his life and made him a better person. But it doesn’t have to be lunches that change your life. Bendel says, “If any of my fellow Toastmasters want the same benefits for themselves, my suggestion is to set a goal that is meaningful for you—whether that’s 50 coffees with inspiring women or 200 lunches with people in your industry—and follow through. By the time you get to the end, your life will have been transformed.”


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