Interview: The Importance of Community Across Every Generation
PSFK's founder Piers Fawkes spoke with Colin Beavan on the PurpleList podcast about productivity, aging and the importance of community
In this extract from the PurpleList podcast, PSFK’s founder and editor-in-chief Piers Fawkes spoke with Colin Beavan, a transformational coach and consultant, to discuss productivity, aging and the importance of community.
Colin: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work about learned helplessness by Martin Seligman. He conducted an experiment with dogs, where he put one in a cage, and it had an electrified bottom.
He would pass the electricity through the cage, and the dog would run around and try to escape. Eventually, the dog realized it couldn’t escape, and when the electricity came on, it just stayed put and whimpered.
Then he moved the dog to another cage where half of the floor was electrified and the other half was not electrified. He put the dog on the electrified part, turned on the electricity, and even though the non-electrified part was only a couple of feet away, the dog didn’t even bother to explore.
I’m using this as an analogy: By the time we’re 50, we’ve spent 30 years believing that the only way we can be productive is in the workforce. When suddenly we don’t have to be in the workforce anymore, we don’t bother to explore the rest of the cage. We just sit there thinking, “Well, I’m not economically productive so I’m not productive at all.”
The truth is that we have to cast aside this kind of learned helplessness and re-explore. Part of the way to do that is to get involved in communities, find things that you’re passionate about and find communities that are doing those things already.
In these times, one way to do that is to get engaged is civil discourse; you can go and become part of our democracy and work for the type of world that we want.
One thing to bear in mind as we’re getting older is that we’re much less likely to have actual pensions that will take care of us. We obviously have to deal with personal security, such as finding ways to make a living that are in line with our abilities, particularly as we become physically less able and less agile. How do we actually find ways to earn?
The other question about productivity is how do we even unpack this word “productive”? For so long in our culture, we’ve conflated economic productivity with true human productivity. We have this cliché of people retiring and feeling that they’re not productive and then keeling over dead almost because they feel as if they’re not useful.
One of the things we must clarify is, what does it really mean to be useful, and what does it mean to be effective—because to be a good neighbor is important. To help with your children’s children is important. To be a good friend is important. To create art is important.
In other words, we need to actually redefine what productivity means to the extent that we can, and to the extent that we are privileged enough not to have to be economically productive. What actually brings us joy?
Piers: It’s interesting because when I heard you talk about community in the past, I fast forwarded to Sunday brunch or a dinner party, or… that’s where my cliché daydream goes to. But as we talk about it, the idea of working with other people, creating art and other creative chores with groups of people allows people to embrace community as well.
Colin: Right. People who study community talk about the different types of roles that people play in our community. We need a community that’s actually composed of many different roles. For example, one role a person in our personal community might play is that of confidant. Generally, people say that a personal community is comprised of between 12 and 15 people. We don’t need 15 confidants.
On the other end of the spectrum from the confidant is the fun-haver, the person that we go to parties with, the person that we go to movies with, the person that we go to brunch with.
We need this combination: on one hand, the confidant, on the other hand, the person that can take us out to the world that we just have fun with that we might not confide our problems to, and someone in there, a person that goes to the emergency room with us.
One big problem about relying on Facebook and the like for our social connection is that, yes, it’s great if we want to find out where there’s a job. Yes, it’s great if we want to find out who to connect to that can get us this or that, but not so good when it gets to midnight and you need somebody to take you to the hospital.
This whole thing about being part of a community that meets regularly, either as you say like in a workplace situation where we’re working together doing your own thing, or an art group, being a part of a community where we can form these strong bonds and people fill these different roles to each other.
Is it as important for younger people to embrace older, more experienced people, or is it something that needs to be done at that older life stage?
No, it’s absolutely just as important.
As a matter of fact, there’s research that shows that a young person who has 10 friends, but those 10 friends don’t know each other so that’s just 10 friends, but it’s not really a community, versus a young person—this study was about teenagers—who has 10 friends, and then the 10 friends know each other too so that that is a community, that young person with the 10 friends that know each other has far lower chance of having suicidal ideation.
In other words, depression and other mental health issues are less likely to occur in a very young person, in any age person in fact, if they have a strong community. The challenge for older people is, as I said, is that first of all, as soon as we finish with college, our friends start to move away.
The loneliness starts quite early, say mid-20s, when people are moving around for their jobs, but it gets even worse the older we get, especially after a divorce, particularly for men after a divorce in midlife, or just the simple fact that researchers find that older people are more picky about who they’ll spend their time with.
They’ll say to themselves, “I’d rather be alone than spend time with someone that I’m not that interested in.”
The fact of the matter is that we have to overcome our resistance to being around people and get over that initial resistance when we get to know somebody to build the kind of bonds where we stop asking whether they’re boring or not but we’re in each other’s lives just because we have been around for so long and it’s become like family.
An audio version of this interview can be found on our PurpleList podcast. Colin Beavan has been a speaker at PSFK conferences. Watch the video here: