December 19, 2022

What I’ve learned this year … about community (and about how I want to spend 2023)

For several years, I’ve published a semi-annual summary of the things I’ve learned – a summer edition and an end-of-year edition. I’m changing up the format just a bit for this installment. Usually, I list month-by-month observations. A list of things that range from ordinary to profound – and everything in between.

(Find past lists from summer 2022, winter 2021, summer 2021winter 2020summer 2020winter 2019, and summer 2019.)

This time, I’m going to focus on what I’ve learned about a topic that has particular meaning to me, rather than just a laundry list of my personal thoughts.

The topic I’ve chosen for the end of 2022 is Community.

Many of you who know me are aware that I am a longtime family physician. I was professionally trained in the importance of community to the well-being of individuals, families and society at large. Some of you also know that I had a mid-career transition about 20 years ago that included training in public health and preventive medicine. That training deepened my understanding of what community is, and how it affects health and well-being. As a result, I shifted my focus from working 1:1 with patients to working at the community level. I wanted to have a broader impact.

As my career has progressed, I moved into coaching, and it has been a true privilege to spend the past 12 years as a professional executive coach. As part of that work, I’ve done a lot of 1:1 coaching with professionals from many walks of life and stages of career. It has been a pleasure and a wonderful learning experience. However, as my coaching career matures, I again find myself longing for that sense of community-level impact.

So, what does the idea of community mean for a coaching business? I haven’t gone back to school this time, but I am on a learning curve. I’ve been researching what community means, how communities form and what they do. Over the coming months, you will see me launch, build and refine communities in an exciting new online platform for hosting community spaces. (Watch closely — launch information will be available in January!)

Before we all dive in, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned about community. They are shaping my process as I build out my community spaces, and they may inform parts of your life, too.

First, some background.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definitions of community include the following (along with several definitions I’m not listing here):

  • People with common interests living in a particular area
  • A group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society
  • A body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society
  • A body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic and political interests
  • A sense of joint ownership or participation

A Stanford Social Innovation Review piece shares is this wonderful quote: “First and foremost, community is not a place, a building, or an organization; nor is it an exchange of information over the Internet. Community is both a feeling and a set of relationships among people. People form and maintain communities to meet common needs. That treasured feeling of community comes from shared experiences and a sense of — not necessarily the actual experience of — shared history.”

This scholarly publication indicates that “a sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging . . . that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through commitment to be together.”

And finally, this quote from an article in the Atlantic: “For Bill Bishop, the author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, that semantic shift speaks to a much broader transformation in American life. It speaks to the rise of the individual as a guiding force in culture; it speaks as well to the declining power of institutions to offer that guidance. As Bishop told a group at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic: ‘It used to be that people were born as part of a community and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals and have to find their community.’”

My review of these and other resources reminded me that communities serve many functions. A community can be a home for people to define their identity based on common experiences. There is a sense of relationship and interdependence and belonging that comes from a highly functioning community. Communities are formed and maintained to meet common needs, and they only thrive when those common needs are met.

There are many kinds of communities, as described in this New World Encyclopedia entry. For example, geographic communities are based on a shared experience of a particular location; cultural communities can reflect common experiences in ethnic, religious or multicultural groups, or common identities such as the LGBTQIA+ community or a community of retirees who share similar backgrounds; and community-based organizations can be small, informal and local, such as tribal, family or kinship networks, or they can be more formal and more global, such as professional associations or national or international organizations.

In my study of communities, I was particularly intrigued by the characteristics of “true Community” described by M. Scott Peck in his book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. With the help of this article about Peck’s work, I’ve paraphrased those characteristics here.

  • Inclusion, commitment and consensus around the effort required to build community
  • Realistic perspectives and contextual decision-making
  • Contemplation and self-examination, individually and collectively
  • A safe place for people to share vulnerabilities, heal and express who they truly are
  • A laboratory for personal disarmament so that peacemaking, compassion and respect can occur
  • A group that can fight gracefully, resolving conflict with wisdom and grace
  • A group of all leaders, where it is the community itself that leads and not any single individual
  • A spirit of peace, love, wisdom and power

When I think back over my months of study about communities, their function and their characteristics, I am more inspired than ever to spend the next stage of my public-facing career building community. I’ve been contemplating what kind of community I’d like to organize and facilitate, and here is the best answer I’ve come up with so far. It sums up the reason for our new community offering, which is scheduled to launch next month.

Our online community, the Bespoke Life Network, brings together people who want to positively impact the world, intentionally design lives of meaning and purpose, and create good in the world around them. We are a community of people who believe in and support the common good of humanity and who want to intentionally craft lives that support these goals.

I’m really interested in your thoughts about community, and about the purpose statement above for the Bespoke Life Network. Share any thoughts below, and stay tuned for an announcement about our launch in January 2023.

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