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It's Better Together

We’re on the hunt for colleges, my daughter and I, driving from beautiful campus to beautiful campus, asking all the right questions about the art studios, and travel abroad, and what the dorms are like. My daughter asks specific questions about studio time, what students do for fun, where they like to eat.

But I know that there’s another set of questions, sometimes said out loud, sometimes quietly, internally: Will I find my people here? Can I be myself, show myself, in this place? Will I have community here?

As an adult, I know I’m looking for the same things: the people who see me, appreciate me, and love me the way I am, who push me and support me, celebrate with me, laugh with me and hold me up when I am tired.

Communities – the people I choose to surround myself with – have shaped how I work, how I parent, how I live as an adult, and I’m not shy about saying that without them, I’d be having a far harder time, with a lot fewer laughs.

At work, we are often encouraged to “network,” to form helpful relationships that will help us uncover and choose among options. Networks matter a ton, and...

A community is more than that - more personal, built on shared experiences, and engaging of our whole selves. Our communities are the people we allow to come in to our spaces, emotional as well as physical and intellectual. We let them see us. Our communities let us get beneath the veneer of having it all sorted out. Rather, we work it out with them.

We need community, and the research on loneliness tells us we can – and must – do better. This month, I’m thinking about why we need community and how to build it where we can.

Why community is so important:

There are so many reasons communities matter in our work and lives. In addition to getting us through the tough times, communities help us make the most of the good times; they help us understand and grow into stronger and more supported versions of ourselves.

Communities help us learn

We’re designed to learn from one another. Social learning theory reminds us that we grow through observing, modeling, and practicing what we see others around us doing: that colleague who has great boundaries, that friend who took a professional leap you admire, that family member who bounced back from disappointment. We need those people – and access to their experiences – to deepen our own insights.

Our communities also help us learn more about ourselves. We discover things we may have overlooked by witnessing ourselves through the eyes of others. When I’m supporting someone with a professional or leadership plan, I’ll often suggest they get insights from people they’ve worked with, their friends, their family. “Let yourself be seen and appreciated,” I’ll say.

The voices in our own heads can be so loud, we need to be reminded of how we’re experienced by other people. Having someone say to us, “I always admired how you handled it when…” or “I always think of you when I need help with this…” or simply “Can I get your take on something?” is one of the pleasures that comes through a strong, stewarded community.

Communities help us navigate

Being in community busts through the myth that the work of building a better career and life for ourselves is a solo journey. One of the things that keeps us stuck when we’re ready for something new is that we are trying to generate momentum on our own. That’s a lonely place to be. Opening up about what is really going on to communities can help us get going, with real engagement and accountability.

A client recently started talking to a group of women leaders in her organization about her career frustrations and worries, and received encouragement and perspective from two colleagues who said: I wish you'd told us sooner! We were wondering what was next for you!! Have you thought of this...?

A community can bring us fresh ideas, feedback, and can help generate momentum when we need it.

Communities help us cope

One of the greatest things I heard at the start of the pandemic is that we aren’t just doing work together, we are doing life together. The personal comfort brought by being in community with others is something many of us, immersed in work and separated by distance or time constraints, don’t get enough of. Work can be hard, life can be hard... and knowing there are people to hold us up is the great gift of connection. The great Parker Palmer offers a line I come back to time and time again: “Inner work is personal, but it doesn’t have to be private.”

My daughter will soon have a ready-made community of other first-year students, and the life of a college campus around her. For adults, used to the sometimes lonely world of careers and adult responsibility, building a community can take effort. Here’s how I think about doing that:

How to build and steward your own communities

Start something where you are

Most of us spend some time around some people we aren’t truly connecting with. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t connect. Try to see the people around you with new eyes, and open yourself to the possibility that people you are already sharing space with might be people you could share connection with, too.

Some of my favorite work right now is building communities of managers in organizations. We gather 5-8 managers, I teach some content and best practices, but mostly they just connect. They share what works, challenges they’re facing, successful or failed experiments. They accompany each other in the responsibility of leading other people, and the learning and support are remarkable. This is the kind of thing they say in their evaluations: “I’ve worked alongside these people for years, but we’d never really talked about what it's like to be in this role, to share what makes it hard or rewarding, and I might never have opened up if it weren’t for this structured community.” (If this sounds like something your organization needs, let me know!)

You don’t have to start with anything formal. Community can be as simple as creating time to talk or enjoy something together: a conversation about your professional dreams over breakfast with some colleagues, lunch with other specialists in your area, a lunchtime walking squad (virtual or IRL) or book club with colleagues. You can also join a community online. We’re even hosting one through the Inside Job Podcast!

Small, repeatable actions

A best practice I have for keeping community strong is the same habit I lean on for taking care of my physical and mental health: small, repeatable actions.

Two of the strongest communities in my life right now are two small groups of women who I connect with nearly every day. I virtually co-work with a group of women business owners during the week. Sometimes we work quietly “side-by-side,” sometimes we schedule drop-in chats to troubleshoot something or get a pep talk, or we hang out when the day is done and dinner is in the oven. We’ve been together for 18 months, and even if we don’t speak during the day, seeing their faces online grounds me and encourages me.

I also chat nearly every day with four friends from college via text message, where we talk about everything from parenting to health to who’s watching what on Netflix. We’ve known and loved each other for 25+ years, through every up and down imaginable. While we live all over the country, our daily check-ins keep us close, connected, and able to support each other when we need it.

A friend of mine hikes every Tuesday and Thursday morning with the same neighbor. A client takes her coffee break on the phone every Monday with her sister, who lives a time zone away.

What do these have in common? They are routines, a cornerstone of keeping a community healthy.

Reach back out

If it’s been a while since you’ve engaged with your existing communities, holidays can be an excellent reason to be back in touch. If you’ve skipped out on virtual events, or let yourself be a little more solitary than you intended to, it’s perfectly fine to reach back out. I don’t know a single person who’s said: “Hey it’s been a while, and I’d love to reconnect,” who’s been rejected.

Most of all, it is neither too early nor too late to begin building community, with the people around you, the people you’ve lost touch with, and the people you are about to meet. We crave this, and we need this in order to be our full, human selves.

Look around you and find the other people you can connect with. Take one action. Let me know how it goes.


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