Sandbox Summit in Lisbon, January 2012

And 5 ideas how to embed a spirit of humility in a community

Photo by Alicia Sully: Dragon dance at the Sandbox 2012 Summit in Lisbon.

My most meaningful community experiences have been the ones where I have connected to other members on a very human level. Where I feel comfortable showing my real, vulnerable, broken and beautiful self. Where other people dare showing me their real, vulnerable, broken and beautiful self. Where I feel supported in being honest, where I feel I can let my guard down, where I don’t have to pretend. It is in those vulnerable interactions where the magic of community happens.

The rockstar community experience

This stands in sharp contrast for me with the experiences I had in some communities that are very careful about selecting their members and have — on the face of it — some of the most interesting and accomplished members. Many of them describe their members as “rockstars”, “the leading [fill in the blank]”, “the leaders of tomorrow”, etc. Their members are full of superlatives and I used to feel proud to count myself as one of them.

But what I have realized over the years is that when a community describes their members as “rockstars”, people will show up with their rockstar self. We all have a version of that inside of us and we can turn it on if we have to: we show up with our strongest image, our strongest stories, presenting the most promising angle of ourselves. But it turns out that our rockstar selves are pretty boring and predictable. We try to impress each other. We talk at each other. We sell. We look for reciprocity and opportunities. We are less generous. We are less human. We don’t listen. And we certainly don’t open up our vulnerable hearts (which everyone has, even rockstars…).

The more selective your community, the more you need humility

When designing a community, nothing is more important than creating a safe and vulnerable space. And a core element of that is to promote a strong sense of humility. I think every community is better off with a culture shaped by humility, however certain groups embody it naturally. But there are certain communities that need humility to survive: the more “accomplished” the audience, the more selective the group, the higher the expectations towards the members, the more essential a sense of humility is. Otherwise what you’re creating is not a community, but a marketplace for really shiny human beings to show off their best selves and look for the right opportunities. The way I think about it is that in a community of rockstars, people show up in big armor. Because of how accomplished they are, they have built a really strong and really splendidly looking armor. But unless you strip them off their armor, they will just hide behind it, bounce off each other, instead of truly connecting.

The more rockstar your audience is, the more humanity you need.

5 ideas how to encourage a sense of humility

1 — Humanizing language & storytelling

The way a community describes its people matters a lot. The more superlatives, the less human you will get. Strong examples for me come from communities that use storytelling not to list their member’s achievements, but instead focus on their lives’ story, including their struggles, hopes, dreams, open questions. Instead of calling members by their roles (entrepreneurs, innovators, architects), call them by their human qualities (curious, brave, excited humans). Humanizing language matters both in the public facing communication because it sets the expectations (your about page, the questions in your application process, what you highlight in the profiles of your members, how you talk about your members on social medial), but also in internal communication (the internal newsletters, updates, etc).

2 — Leadership role models

In a community everyone foremost looks at the behavior of their informal or formal leaders and then models their own behavior based on that. Therefore nobody can better role-model humility than the people with the most power. How do they show up at events, how do they describe themselves, how much of the spotlight do they put on themselves (versus others), how do they tell their own story and what do they highlight, achievements or human struggle? How much do they care about titles? How do they introduce themselves to new members? The willingness of a leader to show their human side will directly affect how willing members are to be vulnerable and real.

3 — Can you make fun of yourself?

My favorite part of the recent Sandbox Summit in Croatia was the talent night. Several groups performed small comedy sketches that were making fun of the community: how over the top spiritual certain experiences have become, how so many Sandboxers think of themselves as extraordinary, the privileged lives many members live with all their travels across the globe, the dreamy (and some might say naive and illusionary) conversations many Sandboxers love. These performances were in my eyes a great sign for the health of the community: people felt confident to make fun of themselves and others in the community, the audience was chilled out enough to laugh at themselves, the group became a bit more self-aware as a result of it and took itself less seriously.

4 — Celebrating failure & human struggle

I’m part of a community that meets once a year and everyone in the room shares “their moment” of the past year. Over the past seven gatherings, people have started to share real vulnerable, deeply painful moments, often with tears involved. Why are people not just telling a story that makes them look good? First, the leaders of the community have been great role models by sharing vulnerable stories themselves. Second, the facilitators have framed the format as one where vulnerability and brokenness is not a weakness, but a sign of humanity and beauty. They set a strict rules of confidentiality that stories won’t leave the room. And then over the years the group has built a confidence that their willingness to open up will be celebrated, supported and hold by the people in the room, both by hugs right after you speak, but also in encouraging and loving conversations afterwards.

Another approach can be to design a core event experienced focused on failure. A great example and template comes from Fuckup Nights, an event concept originally started in Mexico City and now present in 250+ cities, where people share and celebrate stories of their failures.

5 — Create self-awareness by calling out privilege

I’m part of some communities whose members are very privileged in terms of financial resources, lifestyle, education, upbringing. Some of the communities are self-aware of that privilege and they call it out, they acknowledge it. Most of them don’t. That decision makes a big difference. Spelling it out increases the collective self-awareness. And it makes privilege less something people hide behind or take for granted, but the awareness creates a stronger sense of responsibility to collectively use that privilege as a powerful tool to improve the world around them.

What has worked for you to create a sense of humility in your community? I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts and any feedback you have on this post!