It’s 12:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. Outside of the Weisman Art Museum, hundreds of University of Minnesota students are wandering between classes, heads down, just trying to get through the week.
Meanwhile, a tall, thin man in metallic-blue pants, a mustard-colored sweater, and a necktie around his head is holding a sign that reads, “Bad Advice.”
“Hey, do you want some bad advice?” he says to one passerby. She looks confused but intrigued. Skeptically, she agrees.
“Okay, first thing: Throw your backpack off the bridge. Then, call your parents and tell them you’re quitting school,” he says.
She laughs. He laughs. Then he holds up a sign that says, “Free Hugs.” She gives him a hug without a second thought before hustling toward her next destination.
Meet Misha Estrin. He wants to be your friend.
A comedian, model, speed-friender, and all-around unique individual, Estrin can be easily spotted at events all over the Twin Cities, often sporting a full-body tiger costume and armed with a plethora of eye-catching, head-scratching signs saying anything from “Free Shrugs” to “Ignore Me.”
But who is he, really?
“My dad thinks I’m a genius who is going nowhere in life,” says Estrin.
And his opinion?
“Do you know that person in your life who is always happy, connected, and weirding people out?” he asks. “Every moment, I do something to create connection in the universe between people. My purpose on this planet is to make people feel good about themselves.”
While that sounds like hyperbole, Estrin is very committed to his cause, thanks to his own personal journey.
“I used to be very introverted and depressed. I had no friends until I was 20,” he says. “I was worthless in every social situation, and the only sense of importance I had was from a video game I’d play with people who I knew I’d never meet in real life.”
With no real direction or feeling of acceptance, it took some self-reflection and a lot of discomfort to change his outlook.
“I fell in love with a girl, and everything changed,” Estrin explains. “I felt like I couldn’t connect with this person because I wasn’t good enough and had nothing to offer. So I started reading self-help books. I watched videos about how to go on a date. I studied up on body language. I pushed myself to be in social situations. I would go to a coffee shop and make myself talk to 20 people for five minutes and take notes. I hated it, but it made me a better person.”
Yes, he life-hacked how to make friends. And it worked.
One of the friends he’s made over the past few years is Margarita Lyadova, a student at the U of M.
“When I first met him, I had no idea what was up with this guy,” she laughs. “And I thought there was no way he was for real. But he’s always really nice to be around and super funny. Although when he’s wearing more normal clothes and not out doing crazy stuff it’s easier to get to know him better.”
Always self-aware, Estrin agrees with his friend’s observation.
“Sometimes when I’m out with someone in just a one-on-one situation, I’ll get distracted because I want to engage other people and create moments,” he says. “But then they’re just sitting there like, ‘Okay, now I’m just watching you do a thing.’ So I’m working on being more present and engaged with people in those types of situations.”
After Estrin became more comfortable in his own skin, he decided to try standup comedy. A few years ago, he was preparing for a show on Valentine’s Day when a friend suggested he hold a speed-dating event beforehand as a way to draw more people.
“I did no marketing at all,” Estrin says. “Hundreds of people RSVP’d and showed up. That’s when I realized that this is what people want. They want to connect with each other, and I can help give that to them.”
Instead of hosting more traditional speed-dating events, he decided to switch things up, organizing speed-friending happenings all over the Twin Cities.
“Every event is beautiful,” he says. “You see people talking and hanging out afterwards. They’re making plans to get together later. They’re creating connections. I believe that is my purpose in life: to help make those connections.”
He has helped put together dozens of speed-friending events with different themes, including speed-friending for women, geeks, hipsters, cosplayers, and those in the LGBTQ community. (You can find upcoming speed-friending events on Estrin’s website, speedfriendingmn.com.)
Estrin has also continued to evolve and work on his own ability to connect with people. That includes his ever-changing wardrobe of scarves, jackets, and eye-catching accessories.
“I think the way I dress helps me to create more of a connection,” he says. “When you’re dressed up in something different or unique, it gives people an excuse to approach you and start a conversation when they might not have otherwise.”
From festivals to random nights out, Estrin says that he has found a way to engage strangers, make new connections, and create friendships that only a few years ago would have seemed out of reach.
“I’ve had people approach me because of the outfits I’m wearing, and invite me to bars or parties to hang out with them,” he says excitedly. “It’s so incredible, and it makes me want to empower other people to do the same thing. I want to help connect the world.”
Back on the U of M campus, Estrin stops a couple chatting on the sidewalk.
“Would you like some dating advice from a dating expert?” he asks. The girl and her friend both laugh, not sure if he’s being serious. “Wait, let’s do this instead,” he says, handing each of them a sign that reads, “Dating Expert.” Next, he stops other people, asking if they’d like some advice from one of the newly christened dating experts. Surprisingly, people agree to listen, and suddenly he has become a mere supporting player in this weird, funny, fantastic interaction.
“Make sure you listen to what your girlfriend is saying and why she’s feeling that way,” the girl offers to her newfound friend and relationship advisee. They both laugh, but the level of honesty and thoughtfulness in the moment doesn’t appear to be lost on either of them. Meanwhile, Estrin stands off to the side, beaming.
“I love being able to create small moments that change people’s days,” Estrin says. “When I first started doing this, I would have never let someone else touch my signs, because I wanted to have control and have it be my thing. Now I want to help other people do what I do. I don’t need it to be about me.”
But is this all real? At times, Estrin is hard to crack. One second it’s like there’s a big joke going on in his mind and no one else gets it. The next, he’s speaking from the most vulnerable part of his soul, articulating things usually left unsaid. And the next he’s eating peanut butter straight from a jar on a street corner.
Regardless of whether you know him intimately or have simply passed him on the sidewalk, Estrin is something of a mascot of life. He’s an example of how people should strive to be with each other. And he’s a reminder that everyone has something weird, funny, caring, and beautiful inside of them.
“People forget that they’re special,” he says without a hint of irony. “Part of making connections is helping people appreciate themselves.”