Every morning at the lake, I drink my coffee from the top porch where I’m comfy in my chair and close to more coffee. One morning this summer I changed it up. I filled my mug and took the steps down to the dock where I could sit low and watch the fog slowly lift like the steam from my cup; warm lake water meets with cool mountain air and makes something mystical. I can’t sip enough of it.
It was quiet on the dock, that golden time just before the chatter of the houses bounces across the banks, the children and dogs beg for breakfast, and the fishing boats whiz by in a rush to find a percolated pool of speckled trout.
Silent, in my own fog, “SMACK, flutter, flutter!” suddenly my heart stopped. The sound was fast and loud, the slap of wings like firecrackers as they flapped against the water, dragged their feet, and quacked, “Let’s go! Hurry! HUMAN! Get the hell outta here!” Or at least that’s what I imagined they said once I realized it was a community of ducks and not the north Georgia militia (having learned my feelings about Trump). Alighted, the water rolled right off their feathered backs, and into the fog, they disappeared.
And so did my coffee. My heart rate back to normal, back to the porch I climbed where I sipped a second cup and started my summer thinking about COMMUNITY.
I’m not a big fan of birds because I live in Kentucky where there are gobs of greasy black grackles who love to poop whatever they just ate all over my porch and driveway. Then there are the graceful ones who define something special about life. Ducks are great; they strategically arrange themselves in a V-formation to conserve energy and maximize aerodynamic benefit. Watching them leave the water in unison is impressive. But ducks have nothing on the starlings.
Have you ever seen starlings murmurate? The phenomenon of “murmuration” is when huge flocks of starlings in migration form shape-shifting flight patterns. There are many theories on why they do it, far more than on how.
For me, starlings are a visual metaphor of COMMUNITY.
These days everything is a community. There are online and brand communities, support communities, networking communities, think tank communities, and the list goes on. So many shoe communities! Nike, Adidas, Vans have millions of members. Makeup communities like Sephora, music communities like Spotify, food communities like Whataburger, hundreds of networking communities like Linkedin or tiny Facebook and then others like the Anaplan or Alteryx, open source project communities like Istio (what the?). Millions of philanthropic and other support communities, help desk communities like Apple, Amazon and even the ubiquitous TensorFlow Community (just kidding–I have NO idea what they do). Search the engine of your choice, and you will find an infinite list of suggestions where you can be a community member without ever seeing another person’s face.
The good news is there is something for everyone even if you don’t leave the house. No one is alone in this universe. The bad news for us marketers is how overused the word “community” is, and when words are overused, they tend to lose their punch and their meaning.
A quick Google search for the meaning of “community” offers a wide range of suggestions. Webster defines community as “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.” That’s a pretty broad definition so one would assume there are a vast array of synonyms to use and help clarify. There are not. Try to find one. It’s impossible. Maybe in another language, but in English, “Community” just means community.
It is an over-used word, but now you know why. “Community,” is a single word without a direct synonym, a giant clue that this giant word it is difficult to define.
I want to try, so that means a story. Let’s go back to the lake and to He Who Has No Name.
Our cabin is on the least gentrified part of a beautiful, deep water, mountain-lake in north Georgia. There are roughly 20 homes on our point where a wide creek pushes crisp, clean mountain water past us all year long. Our scenic vista is protected by National Forest land directly across and surrounding our small cove. It is idyllic.
Our neighborhood hosts distinct contrasts. I’ll spare you the history lesson, but some homes are permanent RVs; others are new construction, four-story lake homes built off the base of old fish camps. Some people live here year-round; most come on weekends and summer for a peaceful, refreshing break. It is a neighborhood for a few and a community for most.
A COMMUNITY as defined by the lake:
First, there must be members. Knoxville is three doors down, right next to Harold. Atlanta lawyer lives next to Knoxville, and then there’s the Paige house. Paige doesn’t own the house. She’s a local real estate broker who redeveloped an old concrete fishing cottage into the first and only million dollar house on the point. Next is Jimmy, the full-timer with the motorcycle, then Jeff and Cathy, dog lovers, and next is the new doctor from Atlanta and his new, sexy wife and “tercraft.” That’s a Mastercraft boat whose letters get knocked off when its owner pulls hot into the slip. Knowing everything about each other isn’t the point in our lake community. Protecting each other and the lake experience is.
We don’t do potluck suppers. We don’t even know much about each other beyond which house we live in and the boats we drive. Sharing a mission doesn’t mean we merge lives all that much. In fact, we try our best to stay out of each others’ way. NO WAKE PLEASE. In this community, we share a common interest in nature, family, camaraderie, animals, fresh air, and lake quiet.
Lake quiet has its sounds; Cicadas, crickets, and frogs are normal even if they are deafening at night in June. An occasional Bobcat is okay even if it sounds like a baby crying right next door and unnerves you. Lake quiet means no jet skis or rap music before 8 AM. No leaf blowers or weed eaters or chainsaws before 10 AM and make it quick. It means no dance parties, fireworks, or target shooting past 11 at night. It means you understand that people are there to rest, and you respect that prerogative.
It is a rare day at the lake if something doesn’t go wrong. Your boat won’t start, or you hit a floater, bang up your propeller, and need a tow. Your dock lost floatation or your canoe disappeared after a big storm. You wrapped a ski rope around the innards of your jet ski or heaven forbid your cousin’s right arm. Sometimes you can handle your issues yourself, and sometimes you need some support. The goal is always to get fixed and get back to the lake as quickly as possible. Members of the community know this, so they are ready to help (if asked).
When you are a part of a community, you learn its mores through observation or tutelage, and you do your best to adhere to that code. The code reflects the community’s values, so if you can’t or won’t buy in, then eventually you will no longer belong.
That’s when you are him who has no name.
Harold owned a small, fish camp cabin two doors down for over 30 years. He shared a driveway and a well with Cat, and for a while, they were friends, neighbors, and community members. Then Harold stopped coming and let his little cabin turn to a crooked, crap shack with a sunken, snaky dock. For over a decade, it was an eyesore to the neighbors and a potential lake hazard in our narrow cove. No one said a thing to Harold (NO WAKE PLEASE) all those years; they just shook their heads and looked towards the lake.
After Paige sold the million dollar house down the road, Harold resurfaced with dollar signs in his eyes. He partnered with neighbor and contractor He Who Has No Name (HWHNN) and his wife to flip the flop and build their own million dollar lake mansion (and make some money).
The Three Stooges began their development venture by ripping out Harold’s shack and disregarding a 30-year partnership. They blockaded the shared driveway refusing access ironically to the only people who ever used it. Legal letters flew around mailboxes for a few months to no avail. Note: all property partnerships need to be put in writing somewhere.
Not surprising, Cat’s kids (Cat passed away a few years ago) refused Harold and team access to the shared well, so that’s when HWHNN tore down a bunch of trees and dug a well up the road across from the Paige, million-dollar house. Now, every time those community members walk out their front door, they see fat gray gravel, a raw, red clay embankment and a fake boulder rising from the center of a small lot like a headstone on a lonely grave. They get to question their million-dollar lake home investment every morning and night, a mythological punishment, undeserved.
After completing construction of the well, Harold’s million-dollar mansion development suddenly stopped. All winter and spring, no movement. Curiously, the bright red port-o-potty remained in the middle of the community cul-de-sac, the gateway to the lake, so everyone wondered what was next.
And then it was summer. COMMUNITY CODE: Anything goes off-season. Burn your wood piles, build your house, repair retaining walls, do your tree work, work away; your port-o-potty on public property is fine. But summer at the lake is sacred. It’s when everyone is there to enjoy what they work year-round to afford and maintain.
I called HWHNN to get the plan. I told him I was hosting family and friends this summer, coming in from all over the country, and I’d appreciate his removing the potty from the public cul-de-sac or move it onto Harold’s lot. After a classic, southern, passive-aggressive exchange where I said, “Since nothing has happened over there in months, I’m assuming you are done with it,” and he said, “well, I guess my workmen can just poop in the woods,” and I said, “I’m sure there is PLENTY of room on Harold’s property…” he said he it would be gone by June 19. It wasn’t. A week later, the stinky red apple still stood there screaming “Welcome to the Lake!” I called again, told him exactly when my company would arrive, and my guess is that’s when he declared war on Independence Day.
The day before my company and everyone else’s would arrive for peak week at the lake (the week of July 4), I was standing on the roof of Critter Cottage with a leaf blower (after 10 AM, and I made it fast) when I saw a giant tractor-trailer roll in and park in the middle of the community cul-de-sac. HWHNN stood at the top of my driveway, long gray beard, plaid shirt tucked into jeans, knife pouch hooked into his belt, and watched sub-contractors pull a bobcat and a back-ho from the trailer. And chainsaws. Lots and lots of chainsaws. I climbed down from the roof, walked over to him and a little breathless asked, “So, HWHNN… how long is this little project going to take?” His answer: “Oh, I reckon they’ll draw it out 5 or 6 days. Time to clear the lot.”
Have you heard the term “Amygdala Hijack?” It’s when the neocortex of your brain shuts down and the emotional response that follows is out of proportion due to a perceived threat. I felt the blood move from my feet to my face. Calmly at first with great effort, I asked: “Huh. So you decided to pick peak week at the lake to start cutting down trees?” No reply. I continued. “So everyone who comes to relax can listen to chainsaws all week?” With a bearded smirk, he pulled the trigger, “Well, I reckon a man gotta make a livin’ ain’t he?” Amygdala fully flooded, my mouth moved very fast and very loud: “That’s a bunch of BS and you know it. You’ve done NOTHING on this project for MONTHS. You’ve had ALL YEAR to cut down trees and clear this lot! What do you think all these property owners do all year who want to have a single week of vacation at the lake? You don’t think THEY work hard?” And then more—I couldn’t stop yelling. His face never moved except to finally ask, “Are you cussing me out?” and I said, “Well, I RECKON I am!” Then finally, I found the truth: “You and Harold have no respect for anyone on this point and never have. You may LIVE in this neighborhood, but you are NOT a member of this COMMUNITY.”
Subtext (and I love this community and I am here to protect it).
Historical revelation (I now understand how the Hatfields and McCoys got started).
Recovering from Amygdala flooding is a five-step process.
- Realize you have flooded and walk away as fast as possible to avoid injury to self or others.
- Jump into the lake to cool off.
- Open cooler, pull out favorite beer and drink it.
- Call someone to confess.
- Text HWHNN to apologize for losing your temper (without taking any of it back).
Jeff from Atlanta walks his yellow lab on a leash because he’s afraid she’ll get bitten by a copperhead. I haven’t seen a copperhead in years. But he’s a dog guy and he’s extra-careful, and I respect that. Whenever he paddleboards past our dock, sometimes with his lab in her lifejacket, he stops to talk, often about dogs. One day, I showed him our new dog ramp and admitted that we’d lost our favorite throw toy while training our lab puppy.
I pulled myself up the ladder and out of the lake. Water rolled off my back. Amygdala fog lifting a little, I noticed the throw toy we lost was on the table. Jeff from Atlanta retrieved it and brought it back to us.
The chainsaws started each morning at 7 AM for 6 days following my rampage. The stump grinders went all day long for almost the entire week. They hung a hand-written For Sale By Owner sign on the dock where ugly stumps and trees floated trapped along the bank with no access to the land. When they finally finished, peak week was over and all the water traffic was gone; they missed their opportunity. They are asking $650,000 for an empty, nature-raped lot for anyone who wants to build a million dollar lake mansion. I would tell you who to call, but unfortunately, it is He Who Has No Name.
Think about the starlings again. Thousands and thousands of those small birds fly together in perfect synchronistic collaboration. They don’t touch each other but they know exactly how to move to accomplish their communal goals. If a few starlings do their own thing without awareness of the overall flight plan, my guess is they don’t make it for long. They are kicked to the side or left out in some way. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they don’t need the community for their survival. I say good luck with that.
The word “community” doesn’t have a finite definition. It consists of the parts and particles (the values) of that which makes it up. An online support community has a code that is very different from a residential one. A retirement home community is different from a sorority house. A local bar like “Cheers” is a community very different from a Bible study group every Wednesday morning. Or is it? You’d have to be a member of both to know for sure.
Now the big questions that make this a Bethinc. blog: How do you BUILD community? That’s what everyone wants to do after all.
- Define your values, your common goals—In schools this is your mission and philosophy. In a small business, it means who you are or who you want to be. Do you teach gifted children, children with special needs, or all of the above? Does your business make ice cream or art or both?
- Attract and sustain the right community members—“right” means mission appropriate. If someone doesn’t buy in, and you can’t get them there through education and training, then that person needs to go. That might mean an employee or a paying customer, and it’s not easy to say goodbye. I promise that letting go of those who to run roughshod through your mission and against the flow of flight will pay off over time. It is the only way to build the culture that promotes what is next.
- Establish what it takes to get there—this is your strategy, your flight plan. Once all community members are on board and ready to fly, your murmuration will take form, and it will be beautiful.
How do you MAINTAIN your formation once you’ve accomplished it?
- Educate and you pay close attention.
- Be willing to adjust as needed but in unison.
- Consistently articulate your community’s values.
- Use your voice and story to send echoes through the population as a reminder of who you are.
- Respect those who work to promote the mission, and support each other along the way.
And it will be beautiful.
*”He who has no name” is not meant as a direct reference to Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter or anyone else. While there may be some symbolic similarities, HWHNN is what we call someone who is officially “booted” from the community, specifically the business and referral community. Don’t worry; it only happens once you’ve burned your last bridge, and where I come from, everyone has many bridges.