When we move into entrepreneurship, and when we move into positions of leadership, positions of visibility- when we start to be able to take the courage to tap into our own charisma and gather people around us, how do we create a sense of belonging? How do we create a sense of membership, of presence, of connectedness? And how do we think about who we are, and how we are, and what it’s going to mean to people when they take our identity on as part of their own identity?

Notes and full transcript:



Hi, everyone, thanks for tuning in. You know, one of the things that comes up around the holidays, over and over again, and especially for those of us who are intensives, or who have some other kind of idiosyncrasy that makes us just a little different- you know, everyone just kind of: "yeah, they're, they're not... but, you know, we love them anyway." Like, anytime "we love them" is followed by "anyway," that that's a sign. So we love them anyway.

If you're one of the "anyway people," it's particularly challenging to go to places where everyone is anyway-ing you. But even otherwise, being the anyway person is, is harder. And that's what draws us to each other, right? That's what makes us want community, that's what makes us want to find each other. That's what makes us want to connect and support each other and tell each other, we're cool. And we need to hear that. We know we need a hype team. And we have to be that for ourselves, so often, in so many places.

Which also means that we get creative, that we get resilient, often, not always. That we learn to really appreciate who we are, and how we are, because we have to. Because nobody else is doing it for us. And so if we're going to have that perspective at all, it has to come from us. Or it comes from people putting us up on a pedestal and then almost inevitably, knocking us back off that pedestal. Which is inconvenient. And uncomfortable. And painful. And really, like, nobody wants, nobody wants that.

So belonging is this funny thing for us. Because we know we belong, like deep down, we know we must belong somewhere. And also, where the hell is that place anyway? And then when we go back to our families of origin, or the communities where we grew up, or when we gather with people that we don't see very often who have very specific expectations, or when we go to the office Christmas party- any of those contexts are places where we might find our "anyway-ness" a little bit highlighted. A little bit more highlighted than we're used to, or than we're comfortable with, or than we have the energy for. And so then we think about just not going at all, which of course doesn't increase our feeling of belongingness.

And it's really easy for us to stick with that perspective and to be like, "okay, so, I don't belong there." But when we move into entrepreneurship, and when we move into positions of leadership, positions of visibility, when we start to be able to take the courage to tap into our own charisma and gather people around us, sometimes the tables get turned. And then it's like, how do we create a sense of belonging? How do we create a sense of membership, of presence, of connectedness? How do we create a sense of relative safety? It's not perfect safety, but how do we how do we make this a place where people can belong? Where people can, you know, sit with the cool kids? How can we do that?

And how can we do that in a way that creates appropriate boundaries, and holds appropriate boundaries? And also invites people in? And that's also of course, always, right, the question of branding. You knew, I'd bring it back to business. That's always the question of branding. So there's like, there's who you work for: your team, your peers, your colleagues, like, how do you create that sense of belonging there? And then how do we create that sense of belonging for our clients or our customers? Like how do we create a space where safety and security and persistence and like, the room to mess up, is present?

I think I mentioned before that I had a really wonderful conversation with someone about what makes restorative justice work. One of the things that they said- they're, I would consider them an expert- and one of the things that they said was, was that restorative justice works when everyone is bought into it. Everyone who's participating has bought into it. And also, when everyone who's participating is part of a community where membership in the community is meaningful. Which is to say, there was something that was required to be a member. You couldn't just walk in and become a member and walk out if you feel like it. Like there has to be a higher threshold for memberships than that.

Those thresholds for membership are the tricky part, right? Like you don't want to create barriers but you do want to create significance. So you want it to be significant, but you don't want it to be closed to people who need it. And who can be part of it productively and who can be wonderful members of the community. And figuring out how to make that kind of semi-permeable membrane around your group, is that kind of ineffable tricky work of belonging. Sometimes, it's about money and branding, right?

Like, if you think about the barriers around being an Apple person or an Apple ecosystem person, one of those barriers is often that Apple devices are more expensive than the similar devices from Android or from a Windows-based system or a Linux-based system. That barrier is about financial access. And that's, that's common in a lot of places. It's not just Apple. But sometimes that barrier is about a particular look or feel or a particular language set.

On the left, we do this a lot, where if you don't know the right language to belong to our community, to not offend the people who are likely to get offended by different language choices, then instead of scaffolding people in, we simply communicate to them often not explicitly that they don't belong. And that's not necessarily the best choice. And we don't necessarily make it easy to figure out what you do have to do to belong. And often, that's because we are uncomfortable with setting boundaries.

So if you take people with those kinds of non-work experiences, and then you put us in the position of creating an institution, or leading an institution, then figuring out how to make those boundaries, or how to make graduated membership stages so that people can enter in an appropriate fashion- I hate the word appropriate god, I can't believe it came out of my mouth- but like, appropriate to, to their stage of engagement. I think one of the challenges is often that we want to make people feel members before they've done any work, because we want them to feel like they belong, because we know what it feels like to not belong.

And then we have the kind of Sodom and Gomorrah situation, right where if you turn people away, they end up in the desert, and they end up dying. And so you don't want to turn people away. So you want to bring them in. But, and this is where the biblical comparison falls apart- when you do bring them in, you have to figure out how hospitality is going to work. Because if you bring them all the way in to the most tender, most vulnerable places, and they don't know how to engage in the culture of the institution, in those tender vulnerable places, they can cause a lot of damage without even meaning to.

Not to mention if you bring someone in and they actually are malicious. So this semi-permeable graduated-stage membership thing makes a lot of sense when you think about churches or community organizations, sometimes discord servers or Facebook groups. But also, when we think about bringing people into the circle that is belonging, around our business, around a product- some people, you know, some products and some businesses don't have to be so careful. And other products and other businesses are very intricately tied up in belief or in marginalized communities or in other spaces where the stakes are higher.

If you're selling popsicles, you will almost certainly create a brand that tells people what kind of people buy your popsicles. But on a day-to-day basis, you can put your popsicles on a shelf, you can like get them distributed to major grocery stores, and people can buy them. And it doesn't have to be that complicated. People can just buy your popsicles and eat your popsicles. And that's it. But many of us have products that have more intricate contexts or longer lifespans, longer lifecycle.

And so everything from the customer service experience to the new product development to the internal workings of the company feels like it has to be in a little more alignment. And that alignment, that alignment and the idea of, of belonging to the group of people who use this product or who participate in these activities. That's- that alignment is critical to the identity-development piece of what it means to be associated with your brand. Of what it means to be associated with your company.

And so in the same way, that a very stuffy, wealthy family with conservative politics might say, well, you being gay abstractly is all well and good. But you personally cannot be gay because you are the firstborn son of our family. And it's going to affect our image. In the same way, companies often try to figure out how they can impact who takes up their product, because the company is worried about how it's going to affect the company if certain people take it up.

But I think it's also really important to think about who you are, and how you are, and what it's going to mean to people when they take your identity on as part of their identity. Apple certainly thought long and hard about that for a long time. And I'm picking on them because they're one of the most identifiable identity brands. Jeep is another one. Very different identity. But Jeep is another one. They- Jeeps are Fords. I know there are probably some Jeep lovers out there who are going to be recoiling in horror, but Jeeps are Fords.

But if you try to market something as a Ford, and it's a Jeep, like those are two different audiences. Ford's are like steady and reliable, right? That's the image- and sensible- and American-made. I mean, that's the image. And then Jeeps are like rough and tumble and adventurous. It's a very different marketing archetype, if you're familiar with the archetypeing systems, but it's also a very different set of ideals. It's a very different set of values. And it's a very different thing that it projects if you drive a Jeep. Subarus are another one.

I drive a Subaru. And that fits for me, the only thing that doesn't fit right now is that I don't drive a hybrid because I'm wearing out the one I've got. So belonging, when we think about branding, is a little bit different from belonging, when we think about, you know, holiday meals. Big banquet tables. People of several generations gathered around eating. Maybe even multicourse meals, which here in the States is not common, otherwise.

I was just talking to my mom about how I actually prefer eating coursed meals. And, you know, when you think about it, this grazing habit that so many of us have developed is really just coursed meals that are not plated. It's, you know, I wander through the kitchen, and I eat the first course. And then I wander through the kitchen a few minutes later, and I eat the second course. But even that, like knowing how to navigate a coursed meal is a part of belonging, it's a part of identity. Either you know it, or you don't. Either you're used to it, or it's weird.

And all of these little tiny signals contribute, you know. Do we all know the same music, the same movies, the same pop culture, the same literature, the same, you know, not-pop culture? Do we all reference the same things? Do we all expect the same things? Do we all engage with things in the same way from the same perspective? Do we all have the same set of expectations when we- when we anything? Right?

It's about expectations, it's about unspoken rules. It's about, you know, an autistic person's nightmare. I mean, it is and it isn't right? Because the the nightmare part is not being told the rules explicitly. The comfort part is, if you're in a context that you're familiar with, you know, the rules, and you know how to conform. And if you conform appropriately, then everybody will be happy. There's that word again. But I think appropriate is this funny concept when we think about belonging, because belonging is about knowing who you are, and how you're supposed to act and where you're supposed to be.

But even more than that, it means knowing that if you mess up, if you need to be brought back in, that you will be brought back in and not kicked out. Belonging is about knowing that if you need to be brought back in, you will be brought back in and not kicked out. It's about ease, it's about comfort, it's about familiarity. But really, it's about feeling like it can't be taken away from you. Now, the trick of that, of course, is that sometimes it can be taken away from you anyway. In almost every context, there is something you can do that so egregious that they will take the community away from you. That the community will remove itself from you.

However, knowing what those things are, knowing where those thresholds and boundaries are, knowing what you can do to remedy things before they get to that stage. And knowing when and where and how you might decide that this organization, this community is not your space anymore. And remove yourself. All of that is possible because of belonging. Because you, because you know, from the inside.

So, when we think about branding, when we think about ourselves, when we think about our presence in the world, when we think about all the places where we might belong or might not belong, as leaders, it's important for us to do this consciously. Right? To engage with these questions as like, okay, so how... how am I going to create the exact right amount of welcome? And when I do that, like, first I do that from my gut, we almost all do. And then, once I've done that, like, how, how do I check myself? How do I hold that up against a bright window to see if it's got flaws or cracks or bad ideas or terrible politics or prejudice that I didn't know I had, buried in there somewhere.

Like when I think about who the ideal members of my community are, how do I know when I'm being careful and deliberate about who I invite. And when that careful deliberation is based on a rotten foundation. We've got a lot of rotten foundations in this country. We've got a lot of rotten foundations around the world honestly.

And figuring out how to be collaborative, be collegial, be co-supportive, in making sure that we get the right people in our communities, but that we don't exclude folks for the wrong reasons, is, I think, one of the most important tasks that we can engage as the weather turns cold and we turn inward.

Thanks for listening, and I'll talk to you soon.