Keeping the gang together
Cass Sunstein talks about the “architecture of serendipity.” I like that word, “serendipity,” and not just because it’s one of my favorite places in NYC, a former haunt of Warhol. The word is synesthetic to me, music to my ears. It evokes fancy, the color green, the ideas of hope, and grace.
Sunstein’s point about serendipity is that good organization needs to create space for beautiful accidents to occur. I don’t believe lightning can be bottled, and I certainly don’t want to be like Sunstein and attempt to mechanize something deeply human, but our lives are serendipitous. How many relationships of ours, how many jobs, are caused by chance encounters and low-probability events? I think all of my jobs and relationships have occurred this way.
We can’t bottle serendipity, but we can better our odds in relationships and life, with good habits.
And one good habit is networking. I am a natural introvert, but I’ve trained myself to talk to everyone in a room, and to glean information from them, not out of any nefarious motive, but to see what connections can be made, and how people can be helped. This has helped me many times, in unforeseeable ways.
COVID threw me for a loop in this regard. I was, at the time, thrust into a job I had tried to decline, in the office every day, and because I was involved in part with staffing, I was relying upon a network that (due to COVID), I was unable to cultivate for an entire year. It was, in many respects, a very narrowing, parasitical, and depressing year, culminating in an election with many unforced errors.
But as with my work at agencies, my work in the White House gave me a number of new colleagues and friends that will be assets in the long run. And since that time, now that D.C. is opening back up, I’m able to get back into my pre-admin groove and serve as a ball-bearing. How to maintain new relationships like these?
A second good habit is intentional contact. As I’ve noted before, I write a million letters and emails a day, and I call people, and I check in. Perhaps too much sometimes. I follow up immediately when I meet someone new. I try to maintain connections and do good for people. Life goes by quickly, and I can’t say how many times I’ve been pleased when someone has reached out years later, or vice versa, and the relationship picks up where it left off, or something good comes of it. This goes against my introverted instincts, and for some it might go against their pride, but most times people want to hear from you, and neglect is a killer.
A third good habit is in-person contact. I’m involved with a number of alumni groups for various things I’ve been involved with, formal and informal. People need things to look forward to, and physical presence is key. How many people stay in toxic work environments out of mere habit? An in-person relationship of low value (even with your Amazon delivery person or whatever) is always higher value than a distance relationship, and distance relationships are always parasitical on in-person relationships—they rely on and anticipate face-to-face contact. From the negative side: this is why cults try to isolate people, for example. In-person contact can artificially pump up something fake, but it can also turn something real.
From the positive side, this is why it’s so important to organize and attend in-person events. I just started golfing. I organize play dates for my kids. I go to fundraisers and policy events. Etc. This is the social equivalent of “touch grass.” Each of these in-person interactions make space for new things to happen. And in many respects quantity does surpass quality: I occasionally attend different retreats or things, which are good as far as they go, but which cannot stand in for low-intensity but highly regular iterative contact. Psychologists are well aware of this phenomenon, and frankly, it’s one of the main reasons I stay in D.C.
A fourth good habit is inclusivity / openness. Organizations pay good money for “outreach,” but people need “outreach” as well. I have at least four circles of friends / colleagues who I maintain contact with, but those are generally closed loops. So the challenge is two-fold—how to grow outside these and grow these groups, and how to ensure they don’t shrink. This means no unforced errors— I worked at one agency where the echo chamber was huge, and anyone outside the inner circle was shunned. This isn’t healthy. And I’ve worked at organizations that would run through people and then discard them. And I’ve had circles of friends where people would have one hiccup and then cut a person loose. This is, in all cases, the same phenomenon, and it indicates a system that isn’t robust (or lindy). Trust is a habit of action, and only trusting systems can grow and thrive.
A fifth good habit is risk-taking. This is building on the prior point. I’m very slow to open up, and very slow to trust, but I make a conscious effort to do so. There’s a mental point where you have to just take a leap—not everyone is a plant, not everyone is a mole, or a corporate spy. Not everyone is after you for your money. Not everyone is after you because you’re pretty. Not everyone is a Fed. And at some point, you just have to roll the dice with people. Risk-taking isn’t blind, and you should gather all information. But you cannot have a habit of trusting only negative information, and you can’t have a risk tolerance that is so low that you are frozen. Taking risks often pays off, so have habits that mitigate downside risk, but take the risks.
A sixth good habit is positivity. I’m a natural rationalist, which people (wrongly) can take to be negativity— constantly probing things with a kind of detached critique. And I have high standards, so I don’t dole out compliments at all. I don’t use words like “beautiful” or “brilliant” loosely. In fact the other day a friend was attacked on Twitter for good work and I (in a calculated way) used the term “brilliant,” and when she reached out to say thank you, she laughed about my use of the term, because those who know me know it’s abnormal behavior. But separate from this, I have trained myself to give encouragement and congrats very loosely, because people need this. Lord knows I do. And this type of positivity isn’t fake, and it has huge upsides, and allows people the space to naturally train all the habits I’ve listed here. You don’t need to be a flatterer to be positive.
Organizations can do the same thing. Not everyone needs an award, but everyone needs shared goals and a culture of action and positive reinforcement.