This is a selection of edits from essays on starting, and closing Thirdness, a meta community.
Jump to section: Building a Meta Community, Circle is not a Community, Communities to Circles, Closing Thirdness.
In February 2020, after years of running dinners, salons, and a few Slack groups, I experimented with an intentional community. The idea was to start a place where people don’t brush off each other but engage. A space where people can show up with a seed of an idea and know that it will be respected and given room to grow, not put on a hyper-fast collaboration assembly line.
Having run gatherings, salons, and more recently dinners, I grew to appreciate the transformational value of light facilitation (credit due to Priya Parker for opening my eyes to that space).
Out of all these formats, the smaller dinners were the most semantic. People showed up open and vulnerable, with an idea of how they thought, able to navigate different backgrounds and opinions around the table in a way that resulted in value, new thinking, new tools, and new concepts. Those took place for a year, but I realized they didn’t have accumulative value and that there was onboarding that needed to happen every time. There was little overlap in guests, but by large, people knew each dinner.
It made me think about starting a closer-knit circle, a group that commits to creating a space to act on their creative surplus and looking for people who do the same. By design, members pay $50 a month and need to do 10 hours of work. That work is either on themselves or someone else. The logic was more than creating accountability, as is the case in writing groups. It was to develop what Shafir and Mullainathan (Scarcity, The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives) call slack in a system.
The idea is that when we pack systems too tightly, they become less adaptive. Think of traffic of the road leading to traffic jams;
“Roadways operate best below 70 percent capacity; traffic jams are caused by lack of slack. In principle, if a road is 85 percent full and everybody goes at the same speed, all cars can easily fit with some room between them. But if one driver speeds up just a bit and then needs to brake, those behind her must brake as well. Now they’ve slowed down too much, and, as it turns out, it’s easier to reduce a car’s speed than to increase it again. This small shock — someone lightly deviating from the right speed and then touching her brakes — has caused the traffic to slow substantially. A few more shocks, and traffic grinds to a halt. At 85 percent there is enough road but not enough slack to absorb the small shocks.”
Similarly, I was trying to get people to commit to having slack in their calendars and practice.
A culture of connectivity (networking) is more conducive to passing objects around rather than reflecting on them (finding value and meaning). Thirdness was a space to practice that tension without studying it. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that those who did not feel vulnerable enough to share their process ended up not fitting in.
Is it better to deliver a 25% value to 10,000 people or a 99% value to 100 people? It depends on your goals. If you’re thinking of artifacts, then scaling is a good outcome for the transaction of products. But system thinking looks at second and third-order consequences. In this context, it means being generative instead of editorial and pedagogical. Through my work in AI, and systems, it became clear that shallow value is abundant and cheap. But vertical Scaling: more context rather than more people, is challenging. Thirdness was successful in generating such scale through thirdness.
In psychoanalysis, the analytic third is the idea when two people have a relationship, they create something new. There is one person, the other person, and in their exchange of openness, thoughts, and feelings, they create a new entity specific to their relationship. They grow and can use that developmental value for the rest of their lives. In many ways, I see this space as a collection of ‘thirdnesses.’ We meet regularly as a group, but a lot of creation of thirdness happens in the ‘diagonal connections.’ Intellectual discourse, mutual support, sharing of work, and asking for help between people in the group.
The members make the space which is the community. It is not a product looking for a fit and marketed to its segment. It is open-ended — and is not a territory. I refer to the community as a bonfire, where people show up with their creative surplus and throw it in the fire. The value and learning are helpful in everyone’s respective spaces. As part of its design, all community members had to sign up to walk into a half-lit room. In other words, if you need complete understanding, this might not be for you.
The community is a place for small actions and not one single project to deliver. It is not about writing your book or getting a new job: even though members did work on their books and found employment. The difference is that there is no sense of meeting at the starting line and checking each other’s progress.
As part of owning the space of ambiguity, there was little in the way of setting goals, checking on those goals, or helping with to–do’s. Around the central bonfire, there were smaller, themed groups. In the writing group, for example, people could join weekly with nothing written or with no intention of writing. And use that space to learn, reflect, and develop a desire to write or not. The design is that finding room for ambiguity is good for creativity.
The goal is to write and rewrite, practice and rehearse, to move from knowledge to wisdom, to get to know one's context It should feel like a rehearsal room for people who speak publicly about their opinions and interests.
The community is not a band but a rehearsal room for solo artists. We all travel from our day-to-day work into the meta, engage with others, and use those learnings and processes back in our context.
Communities celebrate connectivity; they look for numbers, scale, and group cohesion. An admin validates a slack group or a mailing list in numbers, but a circle looks at increasing context and group divergence. A circle creates value in the space between as the energy we all seek.
Before introducing yourself to a community, you might scope it out for its do and don’ts, language, and jargon. These factor to the way you render yourself. Once established, it will be difficult to change that view. Communities are developmentally governing. If I can change my practice, I will need to change my communities.
Circles are places for continuous oscillation—space where you can render and re-render yourself. There is an inherited affordance to circles. When people change or develop new and fragile ideas, before they make sense. Oscillation and integration are the cycles of intersubjective spaces.
When we enter a space looking for things in common, we inadvertently create a reciprocal ecosystem. A place where you feel like you must “bring something to the table.”
A community is a room with the facilitator at the front, inviting speakers, activating, and funneling value, like the last breakfast lecture you attended. The space for conversion is the dialogue between the group and the facilitator (or their guests), and it is the facilitator that is the one funneling (controlling) the conversation. A circle is a bonfire, the exchange happens in the middle, and the facilitator positions herself around it. The value comes from within the circle. A circle is a band practice for solo artists, whereas a community is a choir. Similar to The Thirdness Network, or a space of intellectual discourse and transformation of the kind that happens in retreats.
When you start a group on Meetup we help with some of the logistics, but it’s up to the organizer of the group to set the group’s vision. […] What is your group going to focus on? What do you want to accomplish by starting a group? What do you want people to get out of your events? Who do you hope to meet at your events?
Similarly to how members of a circle can show up as a process and not as a product, the group itself is a process and not a product.
A circle is in conversation with the room and can adjust to its inner workings: the energy, cultural context, and transformation. Communities are crafted for a target audience based on a need, seeking a deliverable, or in sync with a campaign. They are a product placed on a shelf, waiting for a customer.
Because communities are fit for a persona, there is an implicit agreement on a future benefit (transaction) and the performative nature of that group. Members need to be a certain way, follow etiquette, and fit in. Otherwise, the community might deem “it is not a fit,” Hence, the application uses a standard form: standard applications look for familiar personas. A community is a fixed space which expects its members to be slow in their transformation.
Purpose Why does the community exist? Member Identity Who is the community for? Values What is important to us as a community? Success Definition How does the community define success? Brand How does the community express itself?
Circles are for thirdness, communities for sameness. A community unifies around an idea or identity, or a common goal. It is about creating a collective commonality–like altMBA’s coin–to create affiliation and be more robust as a collective.
There is a standard starting and finish line.
A circle is a space for small actions and not a big reveal. It is about enabling people without telling them what to do. It is about open, vulnerable dialogue with the person in all of its diversity. Communities are about converging such identities into a fit, out of the dogmatism of finding a common language with the other.
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After a year and a half, I decided to close Thirdness to focus on Critical Business School, coaching, and making space for whatever needs to come next. Below are some more thoughts and learnings.
Most of my work at Thirdness was to hold open a space that would otherwise be closed. Openness not to plan, to be misunderstood, and to not make anything. It is a rally against the ‘talk is cheap’ idiom because, yes, talk is cheap, but meaning is at a premium in our connected world. Convergence towards action was a signal that the ‘temperature of the space’ was out of sync. The problem is what happens when we run out of energy or incentives for ‘collaboration.’
Thirdness is not a ‘thing.’ It is not a product, a methodology, or a souvenir of something independent. It is not an ecosystem, but a movement through the system that is our (1) individual and (2) shared lives, culture, and careers. It is a discovery of our creative surplus through a shared, open-ended space.
Thirdness is a space of movement and changes together. Citing the original invitation from February 2020, it is a ’ rehearsal room for solo artists.’ Showing up regularly in and of itself does not generate change. It is the prompts and safe discourse that allow for sufficient misunderstanding. Accountability groups are helpful for procrastination but do not allow for adaptability and growth.
Tending to a space like Thirdness is a very different act of design. I was not there to navigate any outcome or to sequence a particular behavior. I was mainly there to ‘watch the temperature,’ decide when to ‘add a log to the fire’ (through conversation, prompts, constructive confusion), and ‘open the window’ (let inertia take its course).
The term balance describes an optimal point in online spaces and personal growth. In Thirdness, as a space in meta-movement (personal change), it was more about equilibrium (wiki). The harmonious, safe movement that allows for growth. The term equilibrium describes a system in which forces or influences are balanced. Colloquially, it also represents a calm state.
Everyone wants to be popular online. Not only in a commercial context, say an employer, campaign, or other business activities. More is always better without considering the meaning, impact, and value—more subscribers, more people in a Slack or a Discord team, larger Twitter following. When we don’t consider the meaning of scale, we become a media business looking for eyeballs for the right call to action.
On a more tactical level, these communities-as-a-business Slack/Discord groups are simply a way for a brand or individual to be on-stage, broadcast messages, and occasionally allow the audience to mingle.
Hand in hand with the scaling community is the personal scale. It echoes a much larger psychological and funding model; everyone wants to be rich and change the world. It is increasingly clear though, that ‘changing the world’ could mean changing something small for many people and that most of the time, the value goes to the brand/individual (thought leader status, product sales).
Thirdness speaks to small actions in a generative rather than transactional way. There is no big reveal, micro pivots at best.
We fit different trends and buckets of being. A person who travels and takes video calls in other parts of the world is nomadic but not a nomad. Can you make art without being an artist, be thoughtful without being called a designer, and see meaning without calling yourself a poet? We can oscillate when we allow for confusion, where clarity asks us to pick a landing.
I look for discerning and generous minds, which involves joining various communities. I prefer paid communities, as they tend to have more design and holistic thinking. As I reflect on half a dozen such gatherings, I have yet to find any Slack/Discord that delivers organic, ongoing value if the admin first asks members to introduce themselves.
When we have to introduce ourselves to a room full of strangers, anything we say is wrong.
While I am constantly looking for communities which don’t ask for people to fit in, I am now channeling my energy to Generous Design, and various workshops. (Links in the sidebar)