For the past few days, students may have noticed a sign-wielding man outside of Foco and on the Green asking passerbys an unusual query: “Working on eye contact, please stare at me.” The man with the sign, otherwise known as Ryan Alu, is a masters student in computer science at the College. Alu took a gap year and worked as a math teacher before starting his stint at Dartmouth last fall. Since then, he has been on a quest to better himself — and the Hanover community has taken note. The Dartmouth sat down with Alu to discuss the man behind the sign and his personal development journey.
Tell me a little bit about the sign you’ve been holding out on the Green for the past couple of days.
RA: So, the sign I was holding said “Working on eye contact, please stare at me.” And I wanted to do that for five days. I was out there on the Green from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. every weekday. I did that because I felt like last year, I was very nihilistic, so I couldn’t really find much of a purpose in doing anything and it was a really sad position. I didn’t really like how I was living. I didn’t really like myself. So I made a conscious decision during the summer that I needed to change something.
I wrote a list of the characteristics that I wanted to be like, and kind of asked myself: “Who do I want to be like? What do I want to do? What does someone that I admire do? I’m gonna become that person.” So I made that list, and on the list was that I struggle with eye contact. The person that I want to be is confident enough to look at anybody, even in passing or if they lock eyes across the restaurant. I want to be able to look at people and I felt like this was one of the easier items on the list to start with. So that's what I did.
How did nihilism creep into your life?
RA: I graduated when I was 21 and was excited for the future, excited to go to Dartmouth because I got into Dartmouth, and then I took a gap year because of COVID. So I decided in the meantime, I'm gonna get a taste of the real world and try to get a job. But, this job working as a math teacher — I’m sure this is a very common feeling that a lot of people will experience — was just gut-wrenching. I kept feeling that I was not designed to be there. It was like fight-or-flight. I needed to get out of there and hated every second. So that feeling of being at that job was tough. And I was really trying to analyze things like, “Oh, maybe it's just the job that I didn't like, maybe another job would be better.”
So I started Dartmouth with the mindset that if I get a different job, maybe I’ll be more fulfilled. I won’t be nihilistic. But then, as I studied computer science and applied to places like Amazon and Google, I found myself getting rejected over and over. I went home for Christmas break and I was looking at the study material, these books and all on how to pass coding exams. I could not get myself to do it. There was something wrong. It was like, I don’t even want to do this. So once that fell apart, the things I was studying I didn’t really enjoy, nor did I want to continue with it, and my real world experience was terrible. My whole base kind of fell apart and was swept right under my feet. I had to start from scratch. So it was at that point where I was like, I really can’t find a purpose in anything. I can’t find a purpose in studying computer science. I can’t find a purpose in trying to go a different route because then I'll find myself in the same spot as I was when I was teaching. It was like every route I thought of trying to pursue something new, I logicked out that there was no point to that because it wasn’t going to lead to happiness. It was a dark place.
But what pulled me out was that I noticed the more I believed that things didn’t have a purpose, the sadder I got. There must be some inherent human feeling that if you feel like you have no purpose, you’re just immediately depressed. The more I felt I had no purpose, the more and more depressed I got. So once I analyzed that, I was like: “Okay, we have to do something, my logic is not correct. I have to change something.” And that’s when I said “Well, what’s the type of person that I want to be like?” And that kind of pulled me out of the hole, because, maybe the purpose of life is to find a purpose. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but it’s definitely impacted me a lot. And I’m really excited about life now to see where this route of self-improvement takes me.
What did you base your list of self-improvement steps on?
RA: When I asked myself “What’s the type of person I want to be?” the first thing I came up with was literally a hero from a fairy tale. I love Disney movies and fantasy. I realized that if I admired this non-real person so much, I could become something like that. So I kind of thought about what a fantasy hero looks like. That’s someone who's really confident, someone who’s always questioning what the morally right thing to do is and thinks on that line. Then I thought to myself, “Well, how do I become confident? What am I not confident in?” I had the vision of somebody heroic, I defined their traits and then I defined where I fell short of those characteristics.
I found really specific things like eye contact. This week was about eye contact, but next week is going to be about practicing rejection. In my opinion, a hero is someone that does the right thing, no matter what, even if he faces rejection. And then I thought, well, am I confident enough to do that? And the answer’s no. I get anxious when I try to ask for something that I want. I get anxious when I fear somebody’s gonna reject me. So that's next week’s project and hopefully by the end of this term, or another term, or when I’ve gone through all the things that I want to practice, I’ll be a better person and closer to my ideal, which is to be the hero.
You’re taking big steps to actualize self-improvement. How did you come to that decision?
RA: When I made that list and designed who I want to be, I gave myself too much credit, in a sense where I would think: “I needed to work on eye contact. That’s something I desire and I’m good enough to just be able to do that. I’ll develop it naturally.” Then a week would go by, and I would be doing the same thing. And then another week would go by, and I still wouldn’t have shown any development. It became clear that it wasn’t enough just to identify what I needed to be good at. I needed it to be locked into my schedule, so I did that. I put it into a schedule, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.
And I started to do it, but I treat the schedule like it’s the only thing that’s keeping me away from being nihilistic. I value the schedule so highly, to the point where when I wake up — I have other things that I’m working on, obviously — and I look at my schedule in the morning, the only way to be happy and proud of myself is if I follow the schedule. The schedule transformed from something that I am obliged to do, to something like a life-or-death circumstance. I will not be happy unless I fulfill this schedule, so that definitely pushes me to actually do it. There’s more on the line. So that’s how it got to a drastic point where I put everything on the line and put my happiness on the line. It just had to be bold. It had to be big. It had to be all-in or nothing.
What experiences have you had out on the Green? How have people reacted to the sign?
RA: I’ve had some really intriguing interactions. The first day I did it, there was a guy trying to sell me on Scientology, which was very strange. I didn’t know where that guy came from. He kept coming back up to me. Most people will read my sign and they’ll laugh, be a little bit uncomfortable. Obviously, that’s the point, right, to overcome that feeling. And they’ll keep walking. But a lot of people will stare at me, they’ll help me out and then I’ll thank them. They understand it, and I feel like I’m connecting with them. That's always a good experience. And then two people so far have told me that what I was doing has inspired them to go for something that they desire. So one girl came up to me, and said I inspired her to try out for an a cappella club, which is awesome to me. I was just thinking about myself when I started this. I didn’t really know if it would affect other people. A different girl wrote me a note and said she was also working on bettering herself and developing herself and she admired my courage to go out there and go through this process. So this process is having a bigger impact than what I intended.
Has the experience helped improve your eye contact skills?
RA: Yeah. Even after just five days of practicing eye contact, I noticed that when I pass people on the street, I no longer look down or look at my shoes or pull up my phone because I feel uncomfortable. I still have these thoughts that I should look away still, because maybe there’s some human nature part of that, but I can overcome it. I can look at people and I'm okay with it. And if five days went by and I still wasn’t okay, I would have taken more time to practice.
Do you have any advice for people that want to better themselves but are having trouble making their goals a reality?
RA: A big fear for me when I first started on Monday was that I was going to bother people. I don’t know why, but I think our generation in general is really concerned with being rude or bothering people. It’s like the opposite of having a world of too many rude people; we’re on the other side of the spectrum and we’re so afraid to be rude that we don’t do anything. So if you’re somebody out there who is trying, and wants to practice bettering themselves but fears that by putting themselves out there that they might affect the world negatively somehow, it’s just not true. The proof was me standing on the Green for five days. I never had a single person being upset or angry with me. They all laughed and they all smiled at what I was doing. People want other people to succeed. There’s just something about the human spirit that wants other humans to do better.