(last updated on April 29, 2014)
It’s been a busy couple of weekends, and I was determined (or rather, hopeful) that I wouldn’t go crazy. Thoughts about identity and being part of a tribe follow.
The first weekend of May was New England GiveCamp, a yearly “coding for charity” event that connects cash-strapped non-profit organizations with willing volunteers in the tech and media industries. True to its name, GiveCamp involved camping overnight in the Microsoft NERD Center down in Cambridge with a whole bunch of people. By the second day I realized that this was a more unusual experience than appeared to the eye: the non-profits involved were truly involved in the problem-solving, and the volunteers were really helpful and genuine; the very nature of the event filters out anyone who doesn’t give a crap. As it turned out, this was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a camp-like event due to the high level of support (catered food FTW, and prizes) and commitment to a cause. The non-profit organization team I was assigned to was for EV Kids, which connects Harvard and Boston College students with inner-city Boston kids for a multi-year commitment of mentoring, outdoor camping, and support. They already had a website from last year’s GiveCamp, so we focused on simplifying the home page and fixing some scripts that had become obsolete. It was also fun to work with people who had overlapping skills; we were able to split the tasks up with confidence and understanding of the underlying issues. This is a luxury I hadn’t experienced in a very long time, maybe since high school. With the right partners, difficult tasks are whittled down to size. The major takeaway for the weekend was to purposefully seek overlapping skills in my partners, and tackle tasks together.
This past weekend was the wedding of one of my best friends, Alen Yen. I was tasked with both being a groomsman and video stream implementer for the bride’s mother, who was unable to leave the hospital for the event. The event was held in Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont, so I went up the night before the wedding to get ready. I’ve never been to Vermont before, despite having lived in neighboring New Hampshire for 12 years. First of all, I got to drive through farmland carved out of mountains; they were all abloom with dandelions and grass, ready to be plowed under. Beautiful. I reconnected with people I had known of or had met in passing over the years, and it occurred to me that the tribe that had formed around Alen was quite remarkable, and that it was fantastic that they were all here. The connections between people in the room, disparate though those groups may have been, were almost visible in their intensity. It was then that I started thinking about tribes. I really should reread Seth Godin’s book to see if what I’m feeling has already been summarized, but let me see if I can do it myself:
- I’m thinking of “tribe” as a group of people who really ‘get’ you, and have accepted you as one of them. The tribe recognition moment came to me when I realized that two factors had come together: I was a recognized member of the Alen tribe, and also a friend member of the Japanese Toy Robot tribe. While I couldn’t follow the significance of the vintage chogokin and vinyl photos flashed across half-a-dozen iPhones, I certainly felt I was among a group of like-minded people. I felt something similar at GiveCamp, except in more of a technical lifestyle sort of way.
While my goals are my own, the tribe supports and nurtures them. The selection of one’s tribe, and the acceptance into that tribe, is about the celebration of shared values and goals. Personally, I am striving to achieve a high level of personal excellence, whatever that is, and it’s important for me to be surrounded by people who are doing the same. However, my goals are still uniquely my responsibility, because I’m the only person who can truly assess whether I’ve met them or not. My tribal buddies may help me, but they want to see me cross the finish line on my own power.
A shift of identity. In the past, I’ve written that I believed “being part of something bigger than myself” was the key to some kind of breakthrough. At the time I thought it was inspiration or community connection, but both GiveCamp and the wedding are different in that my starting assumptions were different. These are both events that are about celebrating giving and union, and I subconsciously shifted into a giving mood that de-emphasized my sense of self. In a sense, I surrendered my identity to the event mission, rather than striving to maintain it in sharp relief. This was quite different than my attitude when going to an event like South by Southwest Interactive for the first time, when I was hugely concerned by how I would present myself and be perceived by other industry pros. I’m not sure what the ramifications of this observation are, but it feels important.
p>So what is the upshot of all this pondering? It’s the rediscovery of the importance of tribe as partners. It’s recognizing that my tribal instincts, particularly the community celebration aspect of it, have atrophied. I need to rekindle the bonfire and break through the barriers that I have in allowing those parts of me to shine like a beacon. By embracing my weirdness, I also rekindle my sense of conviction, which is a precursor to taking decisive action.
The Tribe I’m part of, if I were to bulletize it, would incorporate the following:
- The desire to self-empower through responsible learning and experimentation.
- The desire to overcome one’s self-imposed limits by deconstructing them.
- The desire to produce or perform at a very high level, and celebrate excellence at every opportunity.
- The desire to share and reciprocate knowledge and resources.
- The desire for complete transparency and authenticity, in an environment that promotes and protects it.
- The recognition that getting from here to there is a lonely, difficult, and uncertain journey with few meaningful shortcuts. And that this is no reason not to go for it and enjoy the challenge with a positive attitude.
- The joy that comes from helping comrades in the tribe to do any of the above.
- The appreciation of weirdness, uniqueness, and original thinking without imposing judgment due to differing tastes.
Every tribe I’m part of celebrates the majority of these elements, if not all of them.