Dec. 2, 2017

Why do communities need boundaries?

stone fence

Many people are afraid to erect boundaries around their community. They worry that boundaries can exclude, humiliate, and alienate others.

There’s no question that boundaries can be used that way, and, all too often, are. But that doesn't mean that all boundaries are bad.

In my work, I consider communities to be bound by shared values — values about something. They can be about bicycling, about living on your block, or about a commitment to ending genocide. Valuing the relationships in your family is a shared value.

Not everyone in the world is going to share the values that bind your community together. That is to say, there's a difference between people who are or should be in your community and at least some other people on the planet. For example, someone who doesn't value the relationships in your family probably shouldn't be in your family community. At least not now.

It is common to confuse the idea of self-selection, where prospective members can take steps to join your community and an "everyone belongs inside” ethos. These two ideas are not the same. 

The latter ethos can come from a very generous place. It may be a reaction to elitist or discriminatory communities that kept ridiculously tight boundaries that seemed hurtful or silly to outsiders. But rarely does everyone in the world belong inside any given community.

This penchant toward generous welcome can seem almost instinctual. My friend Gabriel runs an international fellowship. When I asked him who belongs within the Fellowship community, there was a long pause. And then he laughed out loud. He told me that his first reaction was to say, "Everyone belongs inside." He laughed because the Fellowship accepts a very small minority of applicants who are themselves nominated by faculty from the top universities in the world. His fellowship has created an elaborate structure to reject most people and yet, as a leader, he wants to say that everyone belongs inside.

If you believe that, in fact, everyone in the world does belong in your community, you are going to confront the “everything-nothing” conundrum. For example, if we declare that everything in the universe is good, and nothing in the universe is not good, then good is no longer a distinction. Everything being good means nothing is. Similarly, if everyone is inside your community, then your community cannot be distinguished from no community.

Acknowledging the boundary between your community and the outside world helps you create something as opposed to nothing.

But visitors must perceive the boundary to be porous.  If they have no line to cross (formally or informally), they will not perceive a community worthy of their participation.

Nov. 20, 2017

Community & Accountability

This month, I worked with someone who works for an elected official in a major US city. In the most noble way, she wants to make a real difference, not only in her city, but, if possible, in the whole world. She's always convinced she's not doing enough.

There’s nothing wrong with this. 

But the problem is she's constantly worried that she is “behind.” Maybe she is. Whether it’s true or not, it’s emotionally exhausting which is not an ideal state to be in when taking on real challenges.

The journey toward achieving really big accomplishments almost always looks like a series of terribly mundane actions. When hiking the Inca Trail, it looks like putting one boot in front of the other for hours . . . and hours and hours. For her, results that may someday be considered great will come from what look like just another conversation, another phone call, another note, and another email chain. Simplicity and banality does not mean that the actions are unimportant. In fact, many of the most important actions seem banal. Alone we exhaust ourselves swimming in the sea of doubt and rumination.

Community can remind us of our commitments and the value of our work, keeping us from burning out.

These friends can remind us why we sit down and write apparently useless words for hours at a time. They care if we keep making the phone calls. They acknowledge us when we complete another round of long meetings.

My friend Jason is my accountability partner.  He’s a lot smarter than I am. We talk every week at an appointed time about what I've done, not done, and still need to do as I work toward my goals. His job is not to judge me or to solve my problems. He is there to listen for what matters - what I'm doing and what I'm not doing. Most importantly, he reminds me that there is a bigger plan that I’m fulfilling, no matter how slowly I seem to progress. Jason cares deeply about my eventual success. He is a part of my community as I try to create something new in the world.

Funny things happen when I talk to Jason. The first is that when I list out loud all the things that I’ve done, I notice them too. I'm often surprised by how much I have accomplished in the previous week. Without talking to him, I would overlook some of my own success. The second thing is that he points out macro changes that I don’t notice because I'm often stuck in the weeds.

A few months ago, some old friends approached me at a church rector installation event. One told me that she had pre-ordered my new book on Amazon. Minutes later, another friend told me that she wanted to share the book widely in her field so that all of the parish leaders in her diocese could learn more about what I'm teaching. 

As I was telling Jason about this, he stopped me. He pointed out that this was a big shift for me: I learned that my work was being shared even when I wasn't present. After investing years in writing and publishing, the book had, in a small way, gone viral.

His insight gave me chills. I had missed overlooked that milestone. Jason gave me an opportunity to acknowledge that I was progressing. I often tell my own clients that

no one outcome matters so much as the pattern. 

Jason helped me recognize this in my own work.

For those of us working on something that will take a long time to bear fruit it’s critically important to develop accountability through our community to get us through the slow, hard, boring, and totally mundane years it will take to get to those results. I hope you have other people holding you up, as your boots keep taking one step forward at a time. If you don’t, may this note inspire you to invest in an accountability partner.  My guess is that someone in your community will be thrilled that you asked.

Nov. 5, 2017

Creating a Culture of Belonging: Invitations & Growth

also featured on Psychology Today

A few years ago, co-founder Kevin Lin and I had lunch at a taqueria in downtown San Francisco. I didn’t know this at the time, but later that year Amazon would buy Twitch for just under a billion dollars. Kevin told me that 50 million users came to Twitch every month to share and watch videos of online game play, talk about games and create connections around the world. He knew the number oaf online gamers in the world, and knew that Twitch could connect millions more. (Today, Twitch serves more than 100 million users a month.) 

In addition to growing user numbers, Kevin wanted to build a stronger community among its current users. He knew that many users felt disconnected to the people physically near them and stigmatized for their gaming enthusiasm. Twitch was creating a community and culture unprecedented in kind and size in history. He wondered how to build a feeling of belonging among his users.

Listening to Kevin, my head almost burst with possibilities. In that moment, I saw that while he had spent years building a billion dollar tech company and I had spent years studying spiritual communities that have remained connected for over a thousand years, we both understood the importance of creating belonging. Now there was an opportunity to connect the pieces.

At home I began writing down core principles that spiritual groups have used throughout history to create connection, community and belonging. I hoped that  Kevin could use them in serving tens of millions. When I had learned more about disconnection and loneliness in our generation, about how tech companies like Twitch are bringing people together in unprecedented ways, and about the unfulfilled longing to belong professionally, spiritually, politically (and in many other ways) in this age, the writing became a book.

The Art of Community: 7 Principles for Belonging (Berrett-Koehler) supports leaders like Kevin as they strive to create cultures of belonging in their organization, field or movement.

Americans are Lonely

We may be living in the most lonely time in American history. Massachusetts General Hospital Doctor Dhruv Khullar wrote in a recent New York Times article that “Social isolation is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.”The American Sociological Review states that the number of people who say that they have no one to talk about difficult subjects has tripled in the last few decades. and the size of the average person’s social network decreased by one-third in the last generation.There are a number of factors that may have gotten us here. Famously, Robert Putnam has written about the dissolution of social clubs that served previous generations. We know that Americans are leaving their religious institutions at unprecedented rates. Access to social media has allowed many of us to avoid speaking in person. But still, Americans are desperate to connect and belong.

As Americans leave spiritual institutions, they may leave behind ideologies and theologies that no longer fit them, but they have also lost the communities that have centuries of experience connecting people with shared values so they feel connected. My work includes helping leaders create a culture of belonging so that members and future members know that they belong and feel the connection in their relationships.

In my work, I define a “culture of belonging” or “community” as a group of people who perceive  mutual concern for one another. Many managers and leaders simply declare their group to be a community, but this doesn’t make it so. There are principles that leaders can use so members can see that others care about them, and they can make known their own concern for others. 


Explicit invitations are important. While this sounds obvious, it is shocking how many opportunities for invitation are ignored. I recently spoke with some student religious leaders at Harvard, and a Catholic student leader explained to me that he knew how many Catholics were in the school. While many of them attended mass, very few showed up for non-mass events. He wondered how Catholic leaders could boost involvement and connection among Catholic students. I asked, “In any year, how many phone calls would a Catholic student receive inviting them to a hosted event?”  The answer was, zero. There was no planned in-person outreach either. All the Catholic students were on a blasted email list. Mass emails are not very welcoming, and are never a strong way to invite. Personal invitations give future members concrete proof that they belong. Receiving nothing more than an email blast tells them you don’t really care.

How much easier it would be if we could “mail merge” belonging!  A few keystrokes and people would connect with us and become our friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, this doesn’t exist. Anything valuable and durable takes time and investment, and belonging is no different. Members and future members want to understand that someone cares if they participate and contribute. If we want to build powerful and effective belonging, then we have to invest in powerful, clear, and often-repeated invitations even if most are rejected or ignored. Like casting a fishing line, we never know when we will catch something, we simply know that casting is the only way to success.

If you are working to create belonging in your organization or movement, when are you making specific invitations and are you allowing for repetition until success?

Growing Externally & Internal

The most powerful cultures help members grow into who they want to be. Part of the growth may include discovering how they want to grow. There are at least two kinds of growth: external and internal. 

External growth is usually easier, simpler to identify and includes skills, personal connections, and acquiring relevant knowledge. When I was a young New York City documentary filmmaker, several organizations helped me meet successful filmmakers, understand media law, and complete funding applications. These were all really important in my formation as a filmmaker and were all part of my external growth. 

The internal growth is far more crucial to connecting members and creating belonging, and cannot be learned from books, videos, or panel discussions. This growth can be described as a form of being:  being aware,  discerning, committed. To grow as a filmmaker, for example, meant learning to be brave enough to ask for money, patient enough with the slow birth of a film, and focused enough to complete the tasks ahead. We may simply grow internally in relationships with other members or in the experiences other members encourage us to consider and then support us to complete. Whatever the case, it takes time to build that growth  with other members who share their stories and their commitment to our success is imperative.

This past fall I was invited to join an authors’ group. For many years,  a number of new and young authors had declined to participate, which wasn’t promising for the future of the group. Several current members asked me to help them understand how to make the group more attractive to new authors. In my first weekend with the group, I saw that the existing members preferred to hang out with old friends and drink wine. There was no apparent interest in supporting the new authors, to help them develop stronger voices, reach new audiences, or manage new opportunities. Given the attitude of the older members, it wasn’t surprising that new authors passed up this membership, failing to see any potential for internal growth.

Next Steps

There’s much more to developing your own strengths in creating belonging than making lots of invitations and offering members a way to grow, however, these principles are important first steps. If you are struggling with creating a belonging culture or you are starting out from scratch, consider clarifying (in your own mind at least) who is getting a clear invitation so they know you actually care, and how are you inviting them to grow in ways they’d like to. 

You can find complimentary resources and take a Creating Belonging Leadership Quiz at

July 26, 2017

Kubu And Belonging

If you haven’t seen the film, “Kubu and the 2 Strings”, this post contains a lot of spoilers.

If you haven't seen the film, go see it. It moved me to tears, and I’m confident it will affect you similarly. I've been teaching emotionally resonant storytelling to leaders for seven years now, and I recognize the time-tested growth journey that the main hero, Kubu, experiences.

“Kubu and the 2 Strings” is a stop-motion animation film that tells the story of a boy who goes on a classic hero's journey in mythical Japan.

The film reminded me that in many of our favorite epic stories, the heroes begin by wondering about where they belong. Their epic journeys test them physically, mentally, and spiritually. A great many lessons are learned through these challenges.

After overcoming many challenges, they discover that they belong at home where they started. But they newly understand the place, the relationships there, and the way they can serve that community in a new way.

In the first act of “Kubu and the 2 Strings”, our hero doesn't think he fits into his home village. He must get home before sundown each evening and cannot participate in the ritual festivities that go on in the night. Villagers love his performance art stories in the town square, but he can never deliver story endings. They berate him for it.

Sure enough, the first time that he is out after sunset to participate in the lantern ceremony, he discovers he is being hunted by mythical beings. These beings destroy the village and harm the villagers in their pursuit of Kubu. He escapes only through the intervention of his mother and her previously hidden magic. We learn that clearly, Kubu isn't like the rest of the village.

When he wakes up after the ordeal, he discovers a magical monkey (elder) who serves as his protector and instructs him to seek out the magical armor (tokens) he needs to protect himself. On the journey, he also teams up with a man who has been cursed into the form of a giant beetle. The three characters overcome deadly traps in order to collect the armor. Along the way, the monkey and the beetle are both killed, but only after Kubu learns that they were his real parents in a new magical form. He discovers he was in fact already with his family, and neither he nor we knew it.

Kubu alone is left to face the moon king who hunts him. Their final showdown is in the village that Kubu left in the first act. He struggles to win the battle with the gold armor, but after a moment of insight, he puts the armor away and picks up the magical instrument his mother bequeathed to him. He understands that his role is to protect all the villagers, not just himself, and to grow compassion within his enemy, so the fight is no longer worth fighting.

Kubu’s story is a journey to discover his place, protecting the village as they welcomed, encouraged, and supported him for so many years. Another way to say the same thing is that our hero discovered that he belongs where he originally was. He just needed to know how to create that sense of belonging for himself and others. He does this by seeing their relationship to him and stepping up to protect them. They are a community that belongs to one another.

In classic epic journeys and in our own lives, learning how to belong typically includes learning to see that others help us to be the person we want to be. We help neighbors become what they want to be. We all share mutual concern for the welfare of one another and we learn how to serve one another. No matter how big the adventures or how dangerous the challenges, belonging is where we know others care about us and we care about them. That situation may be true from the very beginning, but if it is not recognized, we don't feel the belonging.

The true hero discovers that she belongs where she started, and she knows how to create that for others. The world is waiting for more heroes.

July 1, 2017

Do Your People Know They Belong? (How?)

When leaders ask me how to make their community stronger, the first question that jumps to my mind is, "Do your people know that they belong?"

As a leader, you may think you know who belongs. Some of your members may be confident that they belong. But are you confident that everyone knows that they belong?

This belonging can be expressed formally or informally.

Belonging comes about in part from these four things:

1) We know that others share our values (at least those values that are pertinent to the community).
2) We receive (and/or offer) invitations to participate.
3) We have evidence that others care about our well-being.
4) We believe that we can grow in a way we want, with community support.

There are certainly other elements to belonging, but these are critically important. Do your members or prospective members have a way to see these things?

Do you have a ritual, formal or informal, that lets each member know themselves, and the other members as well, that someone fully belongs? I can't tell you what a difference this will make.

Belonging rituals can be long and involved, with robes and fire-lit halls and weird chants. And they can be as simple as a quiet conversation between two people explicitly acknowledging the full embrace into the community.

When I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer there were several moments that I can reflect on that let me know that I belonged. There was the call that invited me to serve in Zambia, the moment I started orientation in Washington, DC. And the moment I got off the plane in Southern Africa.

However, there was also a formal ceremony in Zambia in which a Peace Corps pin was given to me and a state department officer shook my hand. Obviously I knew I belonged in the Peace Corps before that moment, but it still sticks in my memory as a transition from trainee to full volunteer. It provides punctuation to my experience.

How do your members know they belong now? If you have no ritual, make the implicit belonging explicit. You’ll strengthen the belonging immeasurably, simply by doing this.