Zen and the Art of Online Dating

Online dating tends to make us very goal-oriented. We fill out a free member profile and outline our perfect man or woman. He should be a tall non-smoker who knows how to cry. She should be a slim social drinker who appreciates jazz.

Other members' profiles seduce us as we read them. Blond hair -- check. Interesting, artsy job -- check. Loves R&B -- check.

But what's this? His favorite movie is The Cable Guy?

Next! After all, there's always another profile, another chance to find that fair-haired beauty who not only will appreciate your CDs but also is willing to read a subtitle.

Stay open to the possibilities.
As any veteran blind-dater knows, this kind of paint-by-numbers dating can backfire, and the person who looks great on paper can leave a lot to be desired in 3-D. Often, though, it works the other way -- the guy who likes slasher movies or the chick who lives in an unfashionable neighborhood can turn out to be fabulous.

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't have standards; you're choosing a romantic partner, not a sofa. A bit of pickiness is in order. But dating online also presents an excellent opportunity to experiment and let go of your preconceived ideas about what a good mate is.

Instead of focusing on the vital stats, pay attention the tone of the profile.

  • Does he sound modest or egotistical? Funny or stuffy?
  • What does she seem most proud of? Her job? Where she went to school? The fact that she used to be a model?
  • Is he consistently negative, only describing what he doesn't like or what he won't accept?

Just for fun, try dating someone who's not your type. If you're a guitarist who only dates other musicians, drop a line to that software engineer whose profile made you chuckle. If you're a die-hard city boy, consider commuting to the burbs to meet that girl who runs her own silk-screening shop. You may be pleasantly surprised.

It's your chance to grow.
Or you may not. As many of us know, you get a lot of misses. And oftentimes your first instincts -- She's an accountant from Snoozeville, so she must be really dull -- turn out to be right on the money.

It's during these lackluster dates that we really can expand ourselves and, paradoxically, improve at the art of loving. No matter how boring or childish or rude the person sitting across the restaurant table turns out to be, he is, like you, another soul who is out there trying to connect. He is someone who has read your profile and seen something he liked in it. And he is putting himself on the line, risking his self-worth and dignity, in order to meet you.

So even if you know in the first ten minutes that there's no spark between you, resist the part of you that wants to slam down your chardonnay and hurry home. Instead, find something wonderful about your date -- her spirited beliefs, his nighttime-DJ voice -- and focus on it. While I certainly hope you find that 28-year-old civil rights attorney who likes French films and snowboarding, you'll have more success if you surrender your need for an immediate result.

If finding a romantic partner was the same as finding a great job or getting into a prestigious school, then the most hard-working and ambitious would prevail. Fortunately, love doesn't work that way. Love is maddeningly illogical; you can work with great industry at the act of finding love -- showing up for bad blind dates, logging countless hours surfing through quick search results -- only to meet your soulmate while you're waiting for the bus.

So if love is so elusive, why bother pursuing it? If online dating is a shot in the dark, why devote any time to them at all? Because it lowers the stakes.

If you are always dating and always meeting people, then you eliminate your need to have each evening turn into a fairy tale. You learn how to treat your date with kindness, even if the evening is disappointing; you learn to maintain your self-worth when someone fails to appreciate you. Most importantly, you learn to see beauty and worth in surprising places.

Love cannot be captured with merit badges and resume stock paper, but it can be cultivated. Reaching out to a stranger and saying, "Hi. I liked your profile," is a great way to start.

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