Coffee With A Stranger Cup 102 John Langford

Cup 102: John Langford – Photographer, author and world adventurer.

Coffee With A Stranger Cup 102 John LangfordThe Place: Monkey Nest

The Cup: A cup of coffee for me, and John enjoyed a drink he promised would rock my world. I had a taste and he was right! If you get the chance, order the Green Friend from Monkey Nest. It’s the right blend of yummy and healthy — assuming my philosophy is correct, that everything bright green MUST be good for you.

The Background: Cup 96, Jefre Outlaw invited me to a book signing/photo exhibit a friend of his was hosting and once I heard the title of the book, I knew I would need to not only pay a visit, but also see about getting an introduction to the author. The Rompin’ Stompin’ Circus of Love Extended World Tour – Tales From Three Years On The Road is John’s latest book and when Jefre explained that John was a pretty busy guy, I decided to send him a note directly and see if he’d be up for coffee with a stranger. He was.

The Rompin' Stompin' Circus of Love Extended World TourCan you imagine selling all your belongings, packing a backpack full of necessities and setting off for a three-year trip around the world? Most people can, and spend hours daydreaming about it. Very, very few people move the dial from “imagine” to “execute”. John is one of the rare few and lucky for all of us, he chronicled the journey in the book mentioned above, and also in a photo book he created called One Thousand Days. He’s a brilliant photographer and manages to capture light, color and emotion exquisitely, leaving one feeling as though they are the one behind the lens.

Before we get into John’s incredible story, let’s cover a few:

Common Grounds:

  1. What’s your guilty pleasure? Watching the television series Spartacus. Swords and gladiators lopping each others heads off — based on history. Loosely. You can never have too many gladiators, come on!
  2. What’s the last thing you fixed? I’m not really a fix-it guy. If it’s broken I thump it. And if it doesn’t start working, I thump it again. And if that percussive maintenance doesn’t fix it, then I buy a new one or take it to someone who knows how to fix it.
  3. What is the best place to eat in Austin? Fonda San Miguel. I always take out-of-town guests there. It never fails to feel like a special place.
  4. What is the best way to unwind? A run around Town Lake, followed by a frosty Lone Star beer at Dry Creek Saloon.
  5. What is a food you can’t live without? It’s a toss-up between the Vaquero taco at Taco Deli, and Pad Puk with Shrimp at Titaya’s on Lamar.
  6. How did you make your first buck? Cleaning ceiling fans in Hong Kong. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for expat kids to work in Hong Kong. Every room in every building in Hong Kong has a ceiling fan. There was not a lot of air conditioning at the time. I was always very entrepreneurial. At the age of 10 I got a ladder and a bucket and a rag and called my friends’  parents and my parents’ friends, and walked to all the houses in the neighborhood. I charged $1 Hong Kong per ceiling fan, which was about $0.12 US. I had to clean a lot of fans to make any money.
  7. What’s the best gift you’ve ever gotten? My youngest sister is the best gift-giver I know. She always gives very thoughtful gifts. For my 40th birthday she planned a surprise party for me — and it was a true surprise. Just last week I had my 56th birthday and she put together a video of pictures of me from about age 1 to the present, which she posted on YouTube. I had no idea she was doing it and I wasn’t even aware of most of the pictures. It was a great gift!
  8. What is a book you found significant or impactful? Awareness by Anthony De Mello. De Mello, who is no longer living,  was a Jesuit priest in India. It’s a no-holds-barred look at being awake and aware. It’s written in a funny way, but if you’re not ready to take a look at yourself, don’t read the book. His main premise in the book is that people say they want to be awake, but what they really want is consolation. They want to be comforted. But if you really want to be awake and aware, it’s hard work and it’s never ending.
  9. If you had a year to get really good at something, what would you try? It’s a toss-up. One of my goals for this year is to play a James Taylor song, like James Taylor – which means you have to have 11 fingers. To me music is a gateway into a universe that there’s no other access to other than by way of music. People who can open that door…to me, it’s nothing short of magical. The other one would be to speak Spanish fluently. I speak enough to embarrass myself, but I’d like to actually become fluent.

Exotic Beginnings

John has his parents to thank for his giant sense of adventure and the fearlessness that makes world travel possible.

Born in New Orleans, John’s family moved to Hong Kong when he was just 4 years old, where his father spent the next 25 years as a medical missionary. John returned to the United States for college at Baylor University, where he got a degree in communication. His first job was working as a television news reporter in Waco, TX, but after a visit back to Hong Kong turned into a five-year stay, he found himself doing all sorts of interesting work.

The highlights of his work history include dubbing Chinese kung fu movies into English, teaching English as a second language, being an extra in a Jackie Chan movie, and as the marketing manager for a travel and leisure magazine. The last job paid him to travel around Southeast Asia as he sold advertising. But eventually John had a moment many of us can relate to. A moment where the questions of “Is this all there is?” and “Is this enough?” ring out loudly during moments of quiet. Knowing the answers, John walked into his boss’s office and quit his high paying corporate job to go back to his first love — photography.

Due to some geopolitical issues going on within Hong Kong at the time of his career move, John eventually made the choice to move to Austin, TX to begin his life as a freelance photographer. And with the exception of the three years he spent on his epic, circus of love adventure, John has been in Austin since 1988.


The most significant thing that’s happened in John’s life in the last 30 days, he tells me, was his book signing and photo exhibit. He says, “I didn’t do that for anyone other than me. It’s gratifying if other people appreciate it, but the beauty of doing something you enjoy is that you feel compelled, impelled really, to do it, just for yourself. It felt fulfilling to have that project come to fruition and have people turn out to acknowledge it, support it, and to know they found enough value there to want to pay for it.”

If happiness were the national currency, I want to know how John would make a living and he tells me, “I feel like I already deal in that currency. I feel like it’s part of my raison d’être to try to spread love and to be as loving as I possibly can — in every encounter, no matter who it’s with. Photography is a way of being of service that isn’t delivering Meals on Wheels, but I think we can all be of service, no matter what our profession is. How can I be of service? — is always going to be a successful business model.”

Celebrate Commonality

Upon hefting the heavy question of what he considers to be the biggest issue facing society today, John’s first response is, “Holy smoke!” After a moment to collect his thoughts, he adds, “Since the beginning of time, there’s been this us-versus-them mentality. Whether it’s your basketball team or your country. I think if human beings could somehow get rid of that mentality, or that my family versus your family, my tribe against yours, my religion against your religion, and sit down and have a meal together we’d discover we’re much more alike than we are different. And we’ve set up these arbitrary rules of sexual orientation, or religion, or nationality or political affiliation and instead of trying to find common ground, we camp out on the differences. And the solution, I believe, is celebrating the commonality and celebrating the differences. That’s why there’s chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. And hummus.” {Mmm!}

Tacos, Naps and Friends

What does John’s perfect day look like? He laughs when I ask him and makes it clear this is not how most of his days go. But he indulges me nonetheless, offering, “I’d get up at 6am, meditate for 20 minutes, go for a run around Town Lake then eat 2 Vaquero tacos from Taco Deli. Do some writing. Do a photo project just for me, for fun. Play guitar for an hour. Study spanish for an hour. Have a late lunch with a dear friend. Take a nap. Go to happy hour with a good friend, sitting outside somewhere. Dinner at Fonda San Miguel. Meditation and in bed by midnight.” Well, doesn’t that sounds like a wonderful way to spend a day?

If John had it to do all over again, I wonder what he’d change. It doesn’t really surprise me when his answer is nothing. He says, “I don’t know there’s much use in ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’. I think everything is grist for the mill. Hopefully mistakes cause us to examine ourselves and learn and do things differently. Assuming I could not have lived my life without making mistakes, hopefully I’ve learned from them. I’ve had a really wonderful life. I’ve had more fun than 10 people deserve to have and I’ve packed a ton of adventure into 56 years. Short of meeting Sofia Vergara, I’ve lived a pretty full life.” I tell him there’s still plenty of time for that last one and we both laugh and agree it’s important to have goals.

The thing John is most grateful for in his life, are his friendships. He tells me, “If there’s one thing I have no shortage of, it’s dear friends. I’m fortunate in that regard. Maintaining 4-5 intimate friendships is about all the average person can handle. I feel like I have three times that number, and then lots of really, really good friends.”


I ask John about a daily habit he feels contributes to his overall success, and he ends up also answering the question of worst character trait. John tells me, “I’m not proud of this, but my default setting is to tend to look at things negatively. In actuality, I am a glass-half-empty kind of person. But I have trained myself and continue to train myself to reframe things in a positive way. I often go to absurd lengths to make up a story that’s going to help me, instead of making up a story that’s going to hurt me. I sometimes assume the worst about people. So it’s a daily practice to reframe and to invent creative stories to paint things in a positive light. And to not make assumptions. I have had far too many experiences where I have assumed the worst, but because I trained myself to not go down that path, I’ve kept my mouth shut and I try to phrase things as a question, rather than a proclamation, and so many times I’ve been proven wrong.”

John says his best character trait is his humor, telling me, “I’m funny and that helps me. That’s one of the things I like best about myself. A lot of it is self-deprecating humor. You gotta be able to laugh at yourself. I need frequent reminders not to take myself too seriously.”

Good Company

Something people might be surprised to learn about John is that for as talkative and outgoing as he may seem, he’s actually an introvert. John adds, “An introvert who has learned to be an extrovert as a coping mechanism. I’m an introvert posing as an extrovert. I need a lot of alone time. Clearly as someone who’s traveled around the world alone for three years – I’m pretty content with my own company.”


How does one decide to take a three year trip traveling the world? John tells me it’s something he’s been planning to do his entire life. He says, “From a young age I can remember leafing through pages of National Geographic, thinking I wanted to see these places someday. My parents really encouraged a curiosity about the world. Back then we didn’t have the internet, so we had to go look up everything in a World Book encyclopedia, then we had to give a report on it at dinner time. That curiosity carried on when I became a news reporter and then when I was in commercial photography where often times the assignment was ‘a day in the life of a particular company.'”

Of the actual plan, John says, “When  I was 40, I was in Tahiti with a college buddy. We were both single and we agreed that when reached 50, we’d sell everything, buy a catamaran, and circumnavigate the globe. Never mind that neither one of us knew anything about sailing. Meanwhile, he got married and had a couple of kids. I turned 50 and decided I would keep the pact — on my own, without the catamaran. But, poetically, the trip began on a catamaran and near the end of the trip, I was on a catamaran. So it began and ended on a catamaran.

When I turned 50 I took a trip to Honduras for a month — just sort of taking stock. And when I came back, I put my house on the market, let it be known that my business and my equipment were for sale, and everything just magically vanished. It all just took care of itself, naturally, smoothly, organically. There wasn’t a lot of planning.”

Worth It

I must ask the question that everyone asks me about our Costa Rica adventure. Was it everything he hoped it would be? John says, “It’s kind of like a love relationship. With the passage of time, you forget the bad parts and you romanticize the good parts. There was a fair amount of discomfort and a lot of loneliness and I had to forego notions of what previously constituted comfort. There was plenty of, ‘I don’t really like this that much.’ But you stretch and grow and you learn what things you can let go of and you learn to push yourself.

So there were no big surprises, but I would say over three years I definitely got more comfortable with things that were very uncomfortable in the beginning. No real epiphanies. Certainly some sweet, sweet moments of connection with people that were magical. Mostly it just confirmed what I already knew. People are all naturally kind — certainly to strangers. You get what you give. What you put out is what tends to come back to you. In three years, I never had one bad thing happen to me.

There’s a certain magic that comes from being a solo traveller. You’re more open and looking outward, instead of looking at the other person you’re traveling with. And to other people, you’re more approachable when they see that you’re alone. You’re on a more even footing. People respond to you taking a risk. It’s a different dynamic. My best experiences happened with other people, because I was alone.”

If John had 30 seconds to make a speech to the world, his message is this:

“We’re all clamoring to be heard. Try to put yourself in another person’s shoes, hear them out, have empathy, and compassion. Don’t insist on what you want. I’m not talking about being a pushover, or a doormat, or always giving in. Being loving includes being loving to one’s self as well, and sometimes if a relationship doesn’t serve us, we’ve got to terminate — walk away. Nobody is always right. Try to reach some sort of common ground — which comes back to love, and which just seems like the right thing to do.”


One of John’s beliefs is one I share completely and one that has been reinforced by my weekly coffee with a stranger. We really are much more alike than we are different. John’s point about not camping out on our differences is perfect. In many ways, it’s not our fault that the differences cause us fear. But it’s antiquated. It’s in our DNA to be cautious of strangers and to recognize them as a threat by their differences. But in today’s modern world, meeting someone from another “tribe” is not cause for alarm — it’s cause for celebration. Who is this person? What is their story? What do we share? And what can I learn?

Recently I was exchanging emails with a dear friend and we got on the topic of happiness and really living your life which was spurred by a quote I’d read that said, “Are you really happy? Or just really comfortable?” My friend suggested you could be both. And though I didn’t disagree, I could see we were looking at it differently.

What I shared was that all of us are living the stories of our lives and at some point, we will all get to that moment where the pages stacked behind us are just slightly higher than the stack before us. In that moment I want to feel satisfaction. I want to say, “I’m living my life! The story already written is so incredible that if it were to end, right at this moment, it would be worth a read.” For me, by that definition, really happy and really comfortable are not the same thing.

John is an absolutely perfect example of the reward for living a life outside the comfort zone. His story proves that our life story is ours to write. John has truly seen the world. He’s stretched, he grown, he’s shared and he’s learned. His passports contain a dizzying array of stamps from all over the globe. And yet, when he talks of what he’s most grateful for in his life, it’s the people. He tells us he’s had more fun than 10 people deserve to have and that he has more deeply intimate friendships than most people can handle.

The truth is, the characters in our story matter more than the setting. Travel the world, if that’s what sets your soul aflame. Or if you prefer, stay home. To each his own. But spend time every day adding dialogue between the characters. Add new characters to your story. Know when the time has come to let a character move along. And in the quiet moments of solitude, find comfort and joy in the most intimate and sacred relationship of all. The one within.

To learn more about John – his books, his photography business and his best travel tips (and there are a TON!), check out his website.

If you enjoyed this interview, “Like” the Coffee With A Stranger Project Facebook page or subscribe (up in the top right corner of this page) and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming interviews with new strangers and other fun stuff. If there’s someone in Austin you think I need to have coffee with, let me know and I’ll do my best to sweet talk them into having coffee with a stranger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *