Community, what is it?
Community is one of these words that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And lately, we have been talking quite a bit about community, and often get asked “What is community?”.
We have all felt community. We can feel community in where we live, where we work and where we play. Places like our neighbourhoods, community centers, workplaces, sports leagues, the list goes on.
And what do all of these places have in common? A group of people coming together around a common bond.
In our neighbourhoods, it’s all about proximity. We live close together, we see each other, and we coexist with one another. We are physically put in a place with others around that common bond. However, although we may live in a “community”, we may not feel that “sense of community”.
A person who feels a “sense of community” within their neighbourhood, likely knows their neighbours, contributes to community groups, and there is a shared behaviour of how they greet strangers in the community. This is in contrast to simply “living” in the same place.
Similarly, in our workplaces and in our social activities, we can be there with others doing the activity, but do we truly feel “community”? Do we feel connected? Do we feel supported? Do we feel like we belong?
These concepts are not new - they go as far as the earliest days of human civilization. Our ability to connect, support, and love one another is inherently what makes us human.
A study from Harvard has found that the best indicator to live long, happy and fulfilling lives is the strength of our relationships. In the Harvard Gazette, they summarized the article with “Harvard study, almost 80 years old, has proved that embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier”.
In this study, they illustrate the importance of relationships. A community can be seen as an interconnected web of relationships.
One-on-one connection = a relationship, while many relationships linked = community.
When I started my career, the definition I would come back to for community was this: a group of people who connect with one another around a similar bond.
Over time, my thinking has evolved. What makes a community really strong and powerful? And it has come about that there is a particular type of community that really makes me excited, which the previous definition doesn’t fully encompass.
The Best Type of Community: Growth Communities
Growth communities, also called learning communities or in some cases “communities of practice”, are when people come together to help each other grow and self-actualize.
Those last two words are particularly important: growth and self-actualize.
When I think of growth, I think of a simple analogy: trees. Trees start as seedlings, and with nutrients, water, and sunlight, they grow into a sophisticated and intricate system consisting of the trunk, branches and leaves.
I have one tree in my small backyard. Over recent years it has had some health concerns and I had an arborist come by a couple of times to diagnose it and help maintain the health of the tree.
One time I asked him, “When will it stop growing?”. He replied, “When it dies”.
Simply put, for a tree to be alive, it must be growing. Yes, there are times where it hibernates, but it must start growing again or the tree is dead.
People are like trees. While we don’t physically die when we stop growing, our soul can die. We need growth to feel alive.
Mark Twain shared this quote that reflects this:
“What is the most rigorous law of our being? Growth. No smallest atom of our moral, mental, or physical structure can stand still a year. It grows--it must grow smaller or larger, better or worse--it cannot stand still. In other words, we change--and must change, constantly, and keep on changing as long as we live. What, then, is the true Gospel of consistency? Change. Who is the really consistent man? The man who changes. Since change is the law of his being, he cannot be consistent if he's stuck in a rut.”
The other important piece of the pie: self-actualization - a reason to live, a purpose that allows us to live a meaningful and fulfilled life.
In Victor Frankl’s book, “Man's Search for Meaning”, the psychologist breaks down why some Auschwitz inmates continued to move forward in the darkest of environments, and why some lost their will to live. And his observations were that the inmates that moved forward, had a reason to move forward. Whether it was a loved one, a piece of unfinished work, or a community to contribute to. They had to live so that they could continue to make a difference in the world.
Learning, teaching, supporting, motivating, encouraging and celebrating with one another is a fuel for us to grow and self-actualize. Through a sharing of knowledge, support of others to boost confidence, and a place to be our true authentic selves, growth communities amplify our ability to make a difference.
So the definition of community I prefer is: "a group of people who connect with one another to grow together so that they can make a common difference in the world"
The Pillars of a Growth Community
At its core, a growth community has three key parts: Connection, Growth and Fulfillment. No matter how you dissect the community, these three concepts come back over and over again.
Connection: our ability to feel connected to those around us. To have a friend. To feel that if we reach out someone will answer, and to know that we are not alone.
Growth: supporting each other so we can achieve something together. Growth can either be personal growth or growth of the overall mission. For example, in the Careers In Tech Community that I organize, people come to help navigate their career journeys. But at the same time, they are also advancing the future progress of the tech ecosystem as a whole.
Fulfillment: lastly and maybe most selfishly, is that a community helps someone make a difference in the world. We all deserve to live a fulfilling and meaningful life. Through growing with others, we gain the confidence in ourselves to know that we can make our difference. We all have a difference to make, and community is a key part of this.
Similarly, start-ups are on a mission to make an impact on people, equipping others to self-actualize, so they can make their difference in the world. Start-ups achieve this by either helping them do a particular task, learn a certain skill, or by amplifying their abilities so they can make that difference.
Community is an ally to the start-up’s mission. Those that embrace community as a core value, and not just as another item on the checklist, will be the ones who make the biggest difference. Think of iconic brands like Tesla, Apple, or Nike - they developed community as a core piece of their brand, and that has made a huge impact on their business.
No matter how the definition of “community” has evolved, the fact remains that we no longer are only connected to each other through proximity. We have limitless ways to interact, connect and come together.