Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Tribes: Could This Be The Secret to Happiness and Life Fulfillment?

The Man Camp project started years ago based on a simple idea - I was interested in bringing the world together. Building bridges. Making connections. Curing world hunger and assuring peace and prosperity for all. All that Jazz

The major roadblock I've found to this is our tendency to really, really dislike each other. And we're all guilty. It's easy to point out the KKK, Westboro Church, ISIS, and fans of "The View" as bigoted fucks, but we sometimes fail to realize those Bernie Sanders supporters that go on and on about their seething hatred for Donald Trump are just as guilty. Hate is a human condition.

After studying why people seem to dislike each other so much, I've come to a simple conclusion - we suck at empathy. Sure, most people claim to be empathetic. They might even be able to give scores of concrete examples. But they fail to realize they're only good at empathizing with people a lot like themselves.

This is a really easy concept to test. Simply pick a controversial topic like gun control or abortion. Find someone with a strong opinion on the matter. Ask them to explain the motivations behind the other side's position. Almost all people can give an answer, but it's almost always their interpretation of the other side's motives, not the other side's actual motives. Seems like a small point, but it's hugely important. Complex social problems require complex answers, and complex answers require a thorough understanding of all the variables at play. In our modern world, this rarely if ever happens.

As someone who is deeply interested in leadership, this has always proven to be a really hard puzzle to solve. 

Until now.

The Tribal Organization Hypothesis

Humans are social animals. It's a major reason we're at the top of the food chain. In the most simplified terms, evolution has and continues to reward those that have the ability to play a role in a social unit. For our ancestors, this meant organizing into tribes, usually around 150-200 members (a number we now call “Dunbar’s number.) Sometimes smaller. Bigger tribes would usually consist of a collection of smaller tribes united for a common goal. These tribes had specialized roles, which is sort of the point of social organization. Specialized roles were filled based on ability, which has a strong biological basis. When individuals fulfilled their biological imperative in this way, they felt complete. Like, Jerry Maguire complete. They were fulfilling a role that was both personally intrinsically motivating AND they were contributing to the greater good of the tribe. Individuals prospered and tribes prospered. It would look kinda like this:

Then came the rise of agriculture. Industrial revolution. Democracy. The Enlightenment. The rise of the city. And yes, I know this list is not in chronological order. The point - we started organizing in ways that took us away from our tribe. But all the "tribal biology" remained. So we compensated by forming a new tribe. Many tribes, actually. Think about all the "tribes" you belong to today. For me, these are just a handful of my "tribes":

  • Family
  • Social network of real-life friends
  • BJJ/ MMA gym teammates
  • Runner friends
  • Professional networks... and so on.

The problem in almost all of these cases is the issue of goals. Before we abandoned our hunter-gatherer tribal organization, survival was the goal. In that high stakes world, people had a vested interest to bond with their tribe even if the tribe had significant differences. Joe, the dude who guards the perimeter of the tribe's camp, really, really hates people from the Jaguar Tribe. Sally, the tribe trader, is easily annoyed by Joe's frequent rants about those stupid, barbaric Jaguars because she knows them as kind, intelligent artisans. But their need for survival demands they find a way to get along well enough to make sure their tribe is the most powerful, thus assuring their survival. That model looked something like this:

This wasn't too difficult because Joe and Sally knew each other really well on a personal level. Despite their obvious differences, they also had a lot of qualities in common. They both love dancing around a fire. They both love the cave paintings on the other side of the mountain. These points of similarity are only possible because Joe and Sally have the time and exposure to get to know each other. This gives us a clue to an important ingredient required for successful tribes - a shared interest.

Now take away that need for survival, which is exactly what we have in the modern world. Imagine Joe is a modern-day police officer. Sally is an international businesswoman. They still kinda rely on each other, but that connection is too diffused for either of their brains to really grasp it on a personal level. Worse, it's extremely unlikely they will ever get to know each other on a personal level. If they ever encountered each other in real life, there's no chance they would get along. Their respective views about strangers would be a chasm that cannot be crossed by either of them.

When we moved away from tribes required for survival, we still retained that innate need to form tribes. So that's what we do today. The problem? Since we don't need the tribe to survive, we no longer need the tribe to consist of people who play specific roles. When we don't need people to perform specific roles, we will avoid the discomfort of surrounding ourselves with people that think differently. Instead, we surround ourselves with people that think like us, have the same belief system as us, and behave like us. In essence, we create echo chambers. Those echo chambers severely limit human potential because we simply have no reason to get along with people that have a different biological imperative. 

A modern example - the gun control debate in the US. The anti-gun side believes guns are dangerous and need to be eliminated to keep us safe. Gun advocates believe the world is dangerous and we need guns to keep us safe. Both are right and both are wrong based on the world they live in. But both sides are absolutely convinced they are right and the other side is wrong, and we see all kinds of cognitive biases popping up to reinforce that belief. On a practical level for someone interested in leadership, this poses a HUGE problem. A mutually-beneficial solution will be impossible in the modern world because neither side has any incentive to empathize with the "other side."

This problem is made infinitely worse because of social media. The one thing that keeps us from completely abandoning our drive to create specialized tribes is in-person relationships. We all have people in our lives that have a different biological imperative, but we bridge those gaps because we have a mutually-beneficial personal or professional relationship. And there's the whole "there might be negative consequences to bitterly disagreeing with this person in real life" issue. Like someone punching you in the face. Social media mostly eliminates those barriers, ergo we create really, really restrictive echo chambers. Being right feels phenomenal, even if it results in a radically limited world view. 

Conversely, let's say we were still organized as tribes. Joe and Sally's tribe, in fact. Joe would most likely be pro-gun; Sally anti-gun. They'd have a very different point of view, but they could use their personal connection and mutually-shared survival goal as a tool to bridge the gap and reach a compromise. That's only possible because they understand each other's point of view.

This concept is brilliantly highlighted in Sebastian Junger's excellent book Tribe, which is centered around the idea of soldiers returning home from war (read a critical summary here.) In the book, Junger details the scientific data supporting the benefits of belonging to a "tribe", including the powerful sense of contributing to the greater good. From the review:

"When Junger notes how high unit cohesion for soldiers or high community unity can reduce psychological symptoms, or how soldiers returning from war might miss the war because of the camaraderie they felt in the trenches, he is latching onto an important concept — the human need to belong and be part of something. But the book’s most powerful statements come not from Junger but through quotes from Sharon Abramowitz, who spent time in Africa in the Peace Corps. Abramowitz reminds us that Americans are prone to express support for the military through posters and words, but our society does not effectively give returning troops what is most prized: jobs. In this manner, Abramowitz clarifies that it not just being a member of a tribal community that promotes psychological well-being. Instead, recognizing people for their achievements and assuring that people hold a meaningful role in society could offer innumerable benefits, and not require any bloodshed to achieve them. That would indeed create a tribe people would seek to join." 

Here's an even better review. This one highlights the need for a "common enemy" to bring a tribe together. Maybe that "common enemy" can be something as simple as "modern day social isolation." Maybe all we need to create a "tribe" is the desire to want to create a tribe.

So How The Heck Does This Help?!?

If a leader has any desire to lead a diverse group (which is inherently going to be more competitive than a homogeneous group because they're capable of responding to a much wider variety of challenges), they need a framework to get the group to move past their petty differences that result from different biological imperatives and resulting world views. Explaining the tribal organization hypothesis might be that framework.

Joe the guard and Sally the trader would normally be in a state of perpetual disagreement because they have no framework to understand each other. If this model were explained, they would come to see their world views, while different, are simply two different strategies to carry out the same function - allow their tribe to survive. 

So what if we were to create this kind of tribe in real life, today? Absent a survival imperative, could it work? Could we bring a group of people together of varying backgrounds, ages, races, political ideologies, etc., and have them thrive as a "tribal" community?

I'm not talking about a hippie commune attempting to create some weird-ass Utopia. Nor am I talking about some sort of communal living arrangement. Or a cult. All of these ideas are centered around a specific goal or belief system, which automatically eliminates the diversity aspect of tribal organization, thus weakening the tribe itself.

I'm talking about a group of people (possibly up to 150-200 individuals) within a relatively small geographic area intentionally creating a dispersed "tribe" set up based on a few guiding principles that would utilize the concepts I discussed above. The goal would be to create a community of sorts, of people who would all be working together with the goal of helping the "tribe" survive, thus allowing each individual thrive. The basic purpose of the tribe would be to provide a wide, diverse social support network should any given individual member struggle.

The real benefit would come should our safe, prosperous modern society and all the associated comforts ever come under threat. A major war, natural disasters, pandemics... all could and would dramatically affect the safety and convenience we now take for granted. Countless stories throughout history have taught us the veneer of civility can and does disappear in an instant. In those cases, people HAVE to fall back to the basic tenets of tribal unity to survive. Shit, we've seen that in our lifetime with 9/11 and Katrina.

Why wait for disaster to strike before setting up a community that provides mutual support? We have this innate drive to live in and participate in a tribe; why not establish one right now?

Of course, we have many "communities" like this already. Any geographically isolated very small town more or less works like this. So do many small religious congregations. Both of these scenarios have flaws, though. The small, isolated town requires just that - isolation. What if the "tribe" members preferred to live in a more populated area? Religions suffer from the flaw of a lack of ideological diversity, which, depending on the voracity of the dogma, can be exceptionally exclusionary AND require all members to adopt their particular belief system, thus eliminating a key component of diversity.

Some other folks are taking a more radical approach, such as this group in the Pacific Northwest. They're clearly creating a tribe, but they're also rejecting modern conveniences. I'm not really down for that unless it's absolutely necessary. We don't have to live off the land to get the benefits of tribalism.

Will this idea work? Is it possible to create a "tribe" that exists within modern society? I'm not sure. Is it worth a shot? I think it is. Imagine all the possible benefits of always having a wide network of tribal members to call on should you ever need help, advice, or just support. Think of what we could accomplish as individuals with a tribe of cheerleaders all doing their part to help us thrive and reach our full potential. Or imagine how fulfilling it would be to share your skills, knowledge, and expertise with a tribe of genuinely appreciative folks.

The San Diego Man Camp Experience

This latest incarnation of the "man camp" idea came about after a multiple year experiment running a Facebook group-based men's group called "San Diego Man Camp" (I lived there for seven years.) For the members who regularly participated and supported each other, a great deal of personal and professional growth occurred. For me, lots of lessons were learned, including a decidedly difficult problem - we only existed online. I knew most of the men in real life, but for the most part, they didn't know each other in real life. The group had all kinds of potential to create the kind of tribe I discuss above if only we weren't dispersed around the world. Magic happens when a group of motivated men get together and work towards common goals... and that just occurred in a Facebook Group. I can't help but imagine the potential if we all lived within a fifty mile radius. That group is (and was... we've had a few great members who left over the years) filled with the exact kind of men I would want in my real life tribe.

Once I started recognizing the potential for a real-life men's group AND the potential benefits of setting up the kind of "tribe" I discussed above, I started working to create a life that could make both come to fruition. So here we are. The actual men's group is well under way, but the "tribe" concept is still a bit theoretical. This post was written for two very specific goals:

First, I want to start a discussion about these ideas to help hash out the pros and cons. The idea is in its infancy and requires A LOT more thought and assessment. The best way to do that is to get feedback and input. Brainstorming and what not.

Second, I want to assess the interest level of people who may find this concept appealing. A tribe needs tribe members. Broadly, who might this idea appeal to and why. Specifically, who in my social circle is interested enough in the idea to consider giving it a go?

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you

didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail

away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore.

Dream. Discover.”
- Mark Twain

I've had a lot of "out there" ideas over the years (hello barefoot running ultramarathons, writing books, traveling the country in an RV for two years with little kids in tow, taking a pro mma fight, etc.), which have taught me a valuable lesson - I can't let the fear of potentially stupid ideas inhibit me from trying those ideas. As the Mark Twain quote above illustrates, life is simply too short NOT to try "out there" ideas. I assume most people who read this will think something along the lines of "Well that's stupid; it'll never work." But I didn't write this post for those people. I wrote this post for those people who will read this and say "Huh. That's interesting. I'm going to give this a little bit of thought."

To those two ends - if you have thoughts on this idea, either comment here on the blog post or, if you're reading this via Facebook, comment in the original thread I posted. If you personally find the idea appealing, either comment here or on Facebook OR shoot me an email at eldiablobjj "at" gmail.com.



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