Community member Emergent by design asked this question today. Love her. Love the question too. I began writing a comment and found that my comment just kept getting longer and longer until I thought to myself “It would be rude to add a comment this long to a discussion. This is a blog post.” So Venessa, here’s my from-the-heart answer to your fantastic question.

Short answer: From my perspective, it’s much easier to become living proof that we are trustworthy, together, than it is to try to live and trust without proof on our own. That is, I don’t leap from a scared individual state to a state of unconditionally trusting all living beings on my planet. I can, but it’s not sustainable. So I baby-step it from individual, to small self-organizing groups, to community, to culture, and into the space between. Until I notice that the proof for trust is me, is us. We are trust. We are our own proof.

My story (hopefully more practical and less “woo woo” than my short answer)

I experienced unconditional trust within a self-organizing work group at Microsoft. A year into our time together, I experienced many other people unconditionally trusting me, because they trusted the self-organizing group I was part of (and vice versa). They even saw positive attributes within me that weren’t actually in me as an individual (articulate public speaker comes to mind: that was actually a group attribute, I suck at it). Eventually, other divisions began trusting our division in slightly new ways. Our division reorganized itself as a result. Those of us at the core of this group had gotten so close as people that we could take individual actions and make individual decisions that somehow just worked together. We could take what was happening (good or bad) in any moment and make it feel as if we’d planned it to happen. It totally rocked. And suddenly the thing we’d been working so hard toward didn’t even really matter to me anymore. Because I was surrounded by close friends.

Now mind you, this was at Microsoft: the competitive, male-dominated, trust wasteland (or so I’d thought) where I began my journey toward unconditional trust by being unconditionally trusted by group members and then an ever widening circle of others. When I quit, these dear friends announced that they’d be getting WWLD? bumper stickers, made us margaritas (despite a snowstorm that kept most Seattle-area Microsoftees at home), and smilingly presented me with a $56,000 bill for all the extra server space my long-winded emails required. I cried all the way home, mourning that I wouldn’t see them every day anymore.

I left there to study self-organizing groups and work groups. Trying to understand the nature of self-organizing groups. Each group I studied and was part of changed me. You cannot study a self-organizing group unless you are part of the group, trusted by that group, moving in the world as the group, if only for a brief time. These groups changed what I could see and how fluidly I could move in the world. As a researcher, about 20 groups in, I started trusting all complete strangers within self-organizing groups instantly. Also, I began trusting strangers most days. It felt weird. Naive. Stupid.

It wasn’t.

One day I recognized that I was now studying community: a whole new thing I couldn’t see before because I hadn’t fully, consciously experienced it before. About 40 groups/communities in, I stopped counting and ditched the spreadsheets. Goodbye “Researcher” and hello “Community Story Wrangler.” The people I want to spend time with will actually like the real, story-rich, spreadsheets-suck me. I began gathering community stories. I began to recognize that what I uniquely had to give had deep value for my world.

In January, as I gathered stories for a book–including David Hodgson’s story (at the Hub, a coworking space in San Francisco)–I realized that I’m no longer satisfied with unconditional trust “most days” and “most people” anymore. I want unconditional trust all the time. The idea to turn our home into a community space then showed up.

In late February, our home became a free community coworking space one day/week. Every Wednesday, at 10 a.m., we unlock our door and it stays unlocked until at least 7 p.m. Some days 10 people show up. Today, it’s just me, the dog, three cats, and one community member who stopped by to harvest strawberries for his new bike-based homemade popcicle delivery service.

In 4 months, I’ve learned that trusting strangers–by their very nature–are 100% trust worthy. Every human that has taken a risk, and walked through our door, is, in that instant, trusting and therefore trustworthy. And another cool thing about making the space free is that people also show up generous, bearing gifts “Here’s some tea!” “Do we need coffee? I’ll bring some!” “I could edit your book!” and “How are you set for toilet paper?”

A total stranger asked me if he could bring us toilet paper. Holy shit.

Two weeks ago, in my supposedly “rough” urban neighborhood, when I stepped back inside from talking to a neighbor, one coworker was reading Rumi poetry out loud to everyone else. It brought tears to my eyes. And mine weren’t the only ones.

In the past 3 months, three coworkers have offered/are considering opening their homes as complimentary free coworking spaces as well (one for people with kids, one for people with cat allergies, and one for people south of Seattle). Um, wow. Didn’t see that coming.

We’re now part of the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance (go coworkers, hackers, makers, and ALL collaborative space people!). This community is freaking amazing. Dozens of space holders who show up to help/be helped. Last week, two amazing new friends–Chelsea and Alex–from Office Nomads showed up here and helped me brainstorm better ways to let the community know about our space. I’m thinking about becoming a member of Office Nomads one day/week to get myself out of the house a bit more, but mostly to get to hang out with them. Office Nomads hired an anarchist to bring a little more order to their space! WOW. I swear I’ve never fallen in love with people so fast in my life. I’m thinking about sending them chocolates.

I’m learning that it’s not just unconditionally trusting strangers that is getting easier here, now, by the day. It’s actually falling in love with total strangers. Being so amazed by others that offering a gift to them is the only thing my little individual brain can remember to do.

I don’t claim to recognize this brand new world I’m living in now. I feel like Alice in Wonderland. When did this gift economy get here? Yesterday I was gifted two amazing Vee Gardens–one a birthday gift from a friend and another an impromptu surprise from the inventor/artist/creator himself after he heard I had a free community coworking space.

From my perspective, today as an individual I stress and struggle and flail and scream at the gianormous hole that humanity appears to have dug itself into. As community, though, we fall in love with total strangers, give each other gifts, and pull ourselves up together. Maybe we even build something amazing for all those who come next.

No, not maybe.

That’s what we’re doing right now.

This is Nils and Grant. They just made a 500-year table for our coworking space. Our community will eat and work and laugh around it after our great, great grandchildren are gone (great, great grand dogs in my case). And everyone who does will understand what I’m only just beginning to see. That proof that we should trust each other is absolutely everywhere too. It’s even in the chairs we’re sitting on and the table that we’re eating and working and laughing at together.