I was sitting on a ferry last week with my friend D—coming back from our self-organizing group’s meeting—and we got to talking about what makes groups like ours last. She’s part of another group that she really wants to make work. So am I. She’s worried that her other group won’t last, because she and only a couple of other people seem really committed to showing up to all the meetings and everyone else is waffling and too busy to commit to regular meetings. In my other group, I’ve been worried that I’m the one not being committed enough to keep the group going. I actually forgot about the last meeting, something I almost never do.

Here are the ideas that we talked about, in no particular order. The last two bullets are ideas I’ve had since as I reflected on our discussion:

  • Group members show up in response to internally felt needs. As individuals, as much we’d like to make other people see the amazing potential in the group, we can’t. Those who see it will show up, those who don’t won’t.
  • Be happy with what you have right now. Try not to freak out if only 2, 3, or 4 people regularly show up at the beginning. This is not the bad sign that our individual selves often think it is (as in, “Argh, the group’s not as popular as I think it should be! Maybe we’re just a bunch of losers! Maybe they’ll think I’m a loser!”). Today we can see just 2 to 4 people at the beginning for what it truly is: a very, very good sign. As in, “Yea! We’ve found someone else who cares about these ideas/activities/people as deeply as we do, and we’ll have the opportunity to get closer!” It is closeness that makes groups amazing and amazing groups possible.
  • It’s the “in with both feet” people who really matter. Have you ever been talking with somebody and had them say something out loud that you’ve been thinking too? D said to me “There are only a few of us in with both feet.” The language she used sounded like something I’ve been trying to say. She had better language for the experience than I did. Anyway, what we’ve learned is that it makes sense to devote yourself to the “in with both feet” people. Get to know them. Have fun with them. Invite them over for a meal. Introduce your dog to them. Share a recipe (or something else not at all related to the reason you got together with them in the first place). Skype if they’re far away. Connect them with others you know who share their interests or others who you could imagine them being with and working with.
  • As you can, let go of the groups you’re not fully committed to. They, and you, will be better for it. You’ve got more important things to do, and a half-hearted group member isn’t helping anyone, no matter how awesome you (or they) are.
  • Stop seeking. Stop seeking to make your new group larger, for example. Just meet regularly with other group members. Get closer. Care about them as human beings and allow that caring to deepen. These groups get larger in their own time: apparently in direct response to how much individual members allow the group to enrich their own lives. As the group enriches your life and the lives of other group members, nearby others will notice on their own. Those who see your needs being met by the group—and who feel their own similar internal needs—will find the group and join you. Be willing to wait for other “in with both feet” people. I cannot say this strongly enough: they are so worth the wait.
  • Be ready to be surprised and delighted. The people pulled to the group by their own needs will show up unexpectedly—often from other parts of group members’ lives that they weren’t even watching. When the group does grow and expand, you will be surprised and delighted. That is the nature of self-organizing groups.
  • If you must do something as an individual, do it—but take the time to notice the result of both individual action and group action. Ok, I admit that today I sometimes watch for other “in with both feet” people from other areas of my life and from different groups that I’m part of, and sometimes I ask to see if they’d be interested in becoming part of my forming self-organizing groups. Old habits, blah blah. I think this is fine as long as I pay attention to the result, and as long as I continue to honor the forming group I’m becoming part of and recognize that this is a group forming to help me. I’ve learned that most of my individual actions to help the group aren’t actually needed. These are not groups that my individual self needs to help. For the most part, they help me. When together, we help us (and often those around us whether we intended it or not). I’ve learned that I cannot imagine what these groups will become on my own—they’re too awesome. I’ve learned that my individual imagination can artificially limit what is possible for the collective imagination of the group (lately I’ve been learning actually, no, it really doesn’t–the group becomes something amazing even when I do stupid things that appear to get in its way). So if I do ask someone to join, I no longer attach ego to whether that person says “yes” or “no” because I recognize the group that’s unfolding is different (and always better) than I could imagine on my own.

These ideas are pulled from real experiences in self-organizing groups, and they are—perhaps despite their initial appearance—extremely practical. For example, today I learned that one of my proposals to speak at a conference that I really wanted to speak at this fall was accepted and the other one was rejected. The one that was accepted I spontaneously co-created last month with a self-organizing group member. The one that was rejected I created on my own. Note to self: some conference organizing committees are so saavy that my individual self isn’t good enough for their conference–they want my self-organizing groups!

On my own, I could plan a million groups into existence that get very-good-for-an-individual results but that I myself eventually end up not being 100% committed to. I can plan any number of “in with one foot” (or toe) groups into existence. But that’s not good enough for me anymore. Self-organizing groups offer me a room full of “in with both feet” people. Ok, so it’s a small room at first. There’s nothing wrong with a small room, perhaps especially for those of us learning right now that it’s these groups that change us as people, and through us, the whole world can change:

  • “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
  • “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” Mohandas Gandhi
  • “What began as a promise to my dying sister, Susan G. Komen, has evolved into the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures. I am in awe of our victories over the last two decades.” Nancy G. Brinker
  • “On February 23, Secretary Clinton will respond to questions from Egyptian youth during a social media dialogue hosted by the Egyptian online news and information portal Masrawy.com.… In Egypt, youth played an instrumental role in the unprecedented protests that have created a new chapter in the country’s history. The United States is committed to engaging with youth and civil society around the world, whose voices play a vital role in shaping their communities and future. Furthermore, as Secretary Clinton reiterated in her recent speech on Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices & Challenges in a Networked World, protecting the universal human rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association online as well as offline are central to the United States’ foreign policy agenda.” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Spokesman

Thanks D.


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