It takes a community

It was 2003 and I was working at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana. I was a brand new officer with my eye on the ball. I made one of my first cold calls as a political officer to an office in the Ghanaian government. I dialed. A secretary answered the phone. “Hello,” I said, nervous, rushing my speech almost without breathing, “My name is Kerry and I’m calling from the American Embassy. May I speak with Mr. Mensah?”

Haste Not in Life

Haste Not in Life

“Good afternooooon,”the secretary sang in her wonderful West African lilt. Then an expectant silence.

I tried again. “Good afternoon, my name is Kerry and I’m calling from the American Embassy, may I speak with Mr. Menshah?”

“Good afternooooon,” the secretary sang out, “How are you?”

Deep breath. Finally, I remembered. I wasn’t in Washington anymore. It was no longer acceptable to brush past the niceties. In many other countries in the world that haven’t forgotten their manners, it doesn’t matter whether your rushed, hurried, busy, important, upset, in a bad mood – you do not forget your manners. Not if you expect to get anywhere with your day. “I am fine, how are you? How is your family?” I replied. Her family was fine, thank you for asking.

You’ll be amused to know that once I finally got into the rhythm of being polite and remembering my social graces, that when I called back to Washington and greeted the person on the other end of the phone with a “Good afternoooon – how are you?”, I received a very skeptical and impatient silence, laden with heavy dose of “What do you want?” Such is the cultural whiplash of living an expat life.

But this exchange isn’t about being an expat. Or maybe it is, because sometimes we’re expats in our own communities, in our own lives. We’re so busy, so focused on our mission. When you have a passion about something, it means you also have an ambition to see that passion realized. Ambition isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s desiring forward motion, with momentum, towards a goal. Yet….

“When people who have a high need for achievement…have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward.”
– Clayton Christensen, How will you measure your life?

When you become addicted to that feeling of forward motion, to exclusion of most other things, that’s when you risk running into a brick wall. Chances are, you’ll be moving with such forward momentum that you won’t even see it coming. What’s the antidote? It’s taking time for community – the good ol’ it takes a village to make your passion sustainable.

Ok, whatev, you might think. If we’re struggling to make ends meet, when we barely have enough hours in the day to go to work, rush home and take care of the kids before collapsing into bed, who has time for community? For the acquaintances or strangers in our lives? For community meetings – heck, I already serve on [insert committee here] – isn’t that enough?  This is part of the problem.  When was the last time to spoke to a stranger or an acquaintance?  And really listened to their response?

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the first chapter of Outliers about the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania. A close-knit town of immigrants from Roseto, Italy, Roseto Pennsylvania had half the death rates from heart disease than the rest of the United States. Researchers looked at everything – diet, genetics, physical activity, habits. You can read Gladwell’s first chapter online, if you haven’t already done so, but the bottom line was that Roseto was an outlier not because they had a special diet or special genes, but because of the community that they created. Gladwell quotes one of the researchers as saying:

“I remember going to Roseto for the first time, and you’d see three generational family meals, all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other, the blouse mills where the women worked during the day, while the men worked in the slate quarries. It was magical.”

Gladwell’s point in this outlier anecdote was “…to appreciate the idea that community — the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with — has a profound effect on who we are.”

Contrast the observations of the outlier community of Roseto, Pennsylvania to the observations of Clayton Christenson:

Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my [Harvard Business School] classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.

If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most…. Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.

In this example, he discusses the state of the nuclear family, but he doesn’t touch upon community. If we’re busy allocating our resources, energy, attention to our careers, and struggling to make time for our families, what’s the state of our communities?

People's District

People's District

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to hear from Danny Harris who writes the blog People’s District. It was a panel conversation as part of Digital Capital week on Trust 2.0, building trust through technology. Danny came to the District of Columbia to work for the government and was soon enchanted by the diversity of the city. One day he had an epiphany while shopping at Whole Foods – no one spoke to one another. And if he didn’t speak to those like him who shopped there, how much of a chance did he have to learn about the rest of DC that was not like him? So he pledged a bit of urban therapy for himself – to interview a stranger every day. Seven hundred stories later, you can see the result in his People’s District blog. “I used to think these people were extras in our lives,” Danny told us. “I see my bus driver four times a week. He’s not an extra – he’s supporting cast.” Danny’s dream? To see the equivalent of a kitchen table on every street corner, where neighbors could come out to congregate and talk to each other.

Last week, I had the pleasure to meet Cary Umhau, co-founder of Spacious, a new organization dedicated to “creating space for people to flourish and to have fun while deeply engaging others, especially those unlike them.” One of the many offerings is their “Silver Lining” campaign – you stash some cards in your purse, in your wallet. And when you see someone doing something that makes you smile, you had them the card that says “Thanks for uncovering the silver lining in my day….by ___________” and you fill in the blank.

Spacious Silver Lining Campaign

Spacious Silver Lining Campaign

This is a long entry to tell you that there is a movement afoot. It’s about creating community. It’s about creating space in your life to get to know those who surround you in your daily life. I encourage you to be a part of it.

As for me, I know that if I could go back in years to 2003, I would definitely give Mr. Mensah’s secretary a Silver Lining card.

Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.
– Henry Miller

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