Looking to Make Friends? Make Community Instead.

Moving across the country comes with its fair share of difficulties. When I left Michigan over two years ago, I arrived in Seattle without roots to call my own. Until then all social circles were more or less a byproduct of proximity and circumstance–high school classes, freshmen dormitories, academic departments, etc. Now I was on my own. Everyone around me seemed to have it all figured out: their routine, their friend group, and their favorite establishments around town. For the first time in my life, I felt like an outsider. How was I supposed to break through? Where to start?

What Are We Making?

We generally frame situations such as this in the context of making friends. And while this describes the circumstance to an initial degree, I’m going to take it one step further.

When faced with a situation like this, what you really want to be doing is making community.

Trust me, I’m not attempting to undermine the sanctity of friendship. Nor am I saying there is not a time and place for such relationships along our social spectrum (see below). What I am saying is that beyond unidirectional friendship lies a deeper, richer web of connections held together by shared values we refer to as community. And when faced with the seemingly daunting task of establishing a new life in a new city, this is worth seeking.

Undoubtedly every successful relationship, friendship, or connection begins with a simple ‘hello’. And of course things must progress from a common starting point. I won’t reject that. But as I’ve navigated the world of post-collegiate social interaction, I wish I was seeking the idea of community from the start.

While I’ve undoubtedly found friends within some of my communities, I think they are mutually exclusive. There are plenty of times I felt supported by a network of others who simply shared my beliefs, but I wouldn’t hangout with them on the weekend. On the other hand, I’ve spent time with many friends out of convenience or proximity only to realize that our views on the ‘bigger picture’ don’t align. I think there is space for both, but as always, let do it with intention.

The Social Spectrum

Below is one spectrum in which I’ve developed to describe these interactions. The depth or significance of the relationship increases to the right. Both extreme groups, strangers and community, represent a network of people–effectively pools of individuals. They are more ambiguous than acquaintances or friends which are centered around one-on-one relationships in which you know one another by name.

acquaintances
My social spectrum boils down to four main categories with relationship depth increasing to the right. Strangers and communities are webs of people (abstract) while acquaintances and friends represent single individuals (linear).

Each time we invite strangers into our social web, we slide them further to the right. At first they’re acquaintances, then eventually friends. Some make it into our closest of circles, while others fade away. While I think it’s healthy to have a dash of each, I want to strictly focus on community because I believe it’s an often overlooked portion of the spectrum.

If you asked me about the importance of community shortly after graduating college, I would’ve probably brushed you off. Community? Who needs that? Isn’t that for married people or families? I finally have a job, a car, and a career! I’m an individual in ways I’ve never experienced; I’m finally making it!

And in pursuing my newfound sense of individuality, I spent a lot of time accumulating stuff, getting my apartment to look a certain way, making my job sound as attractive as possible, and filling my weekends with pricey dinners and fancy drinks. At the time, I thought I was impressing someone.

Looking back now, I realize we were all doing the same exact thing–desperately trying to keep up with each other.

No one was really getting ahead. It was based around competition, not community. As I continued to develop a more intentional life, I leveraged Meetup.com to help me find a community of others interested in these concepts. It was from that journey that I’ve emerged more clear on who I am, what I desire for in life, and how I want to live. Without diving into the specifics of the group itself, I want to share the basic ingredients I’ve observed in deep, meaningful communities.

Elements of Community

These past two years have altered my understanding  of community and its importance in a curated life. The definition of community is quite broad, and so too are the ways in which it serves participating individuals. I’ve seen communities positively impact people in a variety of ways: simple listening, active participation, feeling understood, discovering values, making insights, and of course, finding friends. After experiencing all this, I deeply believe communities serve a vital function within society. It’s hardly a surprise that connection and belonging tend to correlate with higher levels of personal happiness and satisfaction.

At first this may sound a bit contrived. Is there really a difference between simply making friends and making community?

Yet, as I journey further, I recognize the incredible benefit of surrounding myself with like-minded individuals. In seeking out others interested in simplicity, intentionality, minimalism, and sustainability, I’ve truly found my niche. Not only am I listened to, but I feel heard. I can share thoughts without fear of rejections or ridicule. I am kept accountable for my beliefs and am encouraged to grow. These repeated discussions have helped tremendously in feeling like a part of my greater Seattle neighborhood. Let’s walk though four major reasons for why this works.

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During dark Seattle winters, communities gather inside apartments buildings or coffee shops

Acceptance

Great communities have core values, but accept people in all stages of their journey. Regardless of a community’s agenda, the goal is making newcomers feel welcome while maintaining the interest of long-time veterans–this can be challenging! Each person has a unique perspective and everyone can be both a teacher and a student. Creating a space where people are able to share their true self is the best way to grow any community.

Vulnerability

Great communities allow individuals to be vulnerable without fear of others passing judgement. This is one of my favorite human qualities. It’s so easy to be distant or closed-off, but it takes real courage to lay one’s emotions on the table. It’s saying: “hey, this is who I am and what I think, take it or leave it.” A community that acknowledges this as an asset of each individual, rather than a flaw, will flourish. Conversations will be rich, incredible stories will surface, and people will leave with a new perspective on their own lives.

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Outdoor potlucks bring community and food together in special ways

Accountability

Great communities check-in with those who wish to be held accountable. Sometimes we listen, other times we speak. Occasionally, we set goals in which we want to achieve. The community is there to be everyone’s personal cheerleader. They support one another during failure and commend one another during achievement. The community motivates each other to stay on track and follow through. This is the single largest proponent of our fourth and final element.

Personal Growth

Great communities encourage everyone to grow closer to their true self. Many groups of like-minded people band together because they want to move closer to a specific ideology or set of values. Strong communities help people learn more about themselves and each other in an attempt to advance their knowledge. With genuine sincerity, they ask about each others’ progress.

No one is trying to win. Community is not a competition.

Time and time again, these four attributes set communities apart from many friendships. I think of it as an evolution of individual bonds. While friendships can exhibit accountability or acceptance, I believe community serves a separate human needs–feeling a part of something greater than ourselves or any single person.  It reassures us that we’re in this together. We no longer deflate our neighbors, but cheer for them. We place our judgement on the back burner and do our best to remain open-minded. We share our stories and experiences without reservation. This is true community, and we all need it in our lives.

So if you find yourself in a new place, or perhaps you simply want a new social circle, there’s good news! Community can be found in nooks and crannies throughout your town. If the thought of simplicity or minimalism bore you to tears, there are countless places (such as Meetup.com) to find others with your shared interests. No surprise here, but the best chance of discovering deep and meaningful community will come in discussing the values and principles in which we live by. As you progress in your own journey, seek out the four elements listed above. And if you are not experiencing them in your current circles, but the first to push social change–anyone can!

Now, go forth and commune.

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