Stations: How Community Leads to Happiness

As I sit here, alone, in my dark, home office, I want to share with you what I have learned about community and it’s role in work and happiness in my life.

The Third Place

Third Place

Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, made the term “The third place,” popular in his book, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, but the “third place” is actually a phrase coined by contemporary sociologist Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg postulated in 1990 that the third place is, “a public place where people gather for the social satisfaction that they can’t get from the first two domains of the home and the workplace.” Oldenburg argued that the availability of such gathering places in America was lacking. Schultz turned America’s ‘lack of place’ into a business opportunity encouraging loitering and turning Starbucks into that third place. In this post I will argue that their is a direct relationship between the number of third places and happiness (in life and work).

Social Structure

In Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell recounts the story of a town whose inhabitants rarely got sick. After a doctor named Wolf began looking into why, he “slowly realized was that the secret of Roseto wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or the region where Roseto was situated. It had to be the Roseto itself.” The town’s social structure had multiple generations living under one roof, the townspeople talked to one another on the street, they cooked together in each other’s backyards, they went to the same church, and had “twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2000 people”. In short, the towns people were a community and they had places they could go to congregate and interact. It’s these ‘third’ places that I call Community Stations.

Community Stations

If you went to a public school your teacher may have setup your classroom into stations. If you were in first grade there may have been a station for reading books, a station for building blocks or puzzles, and another station to watch an aquarium or greenhouse. These were all places you could go, sub-sections within the larger classroom to hang out with people like you doing things like you. When you grew up you may have been assigned a “work” station at your job and bought a “play” station for your home. In the 1800’s whole towns were built up around “train” stations and now every corner has a “gas” station for our cars. Third places like Starbucks are a “coffee” station – and like the stations set up around the classroom, is one where like-minded people gather to talk and share what’s going on in their work and their community.

Personal Community

Your community is more than the 2 square miles around your home. It’s made up of the various types of community stations, the most important ones being your home, your work, the stores you visit, and your friend’s homes. Each station in your personal community is like a node on a network and like Facebook, the more friends you have, the better the experience. This network value is called the Network Effect. But unless you live in a college dorm or in a close-knit community like Roseto, you have to travel greater distances to these different stations. But the more stations you have, the greater the chance you will be able to interact with these stations and the greater the value of the community. This is why density matters and it’s why more communities are choosing to infill instead of building sprawl.

Walkable Neighborhoods

Alex Steffen talks about infill in communities being used to build denser communities, but there are already places like that: cities. I recently wrote about how people under 30 are moving into the cities and driving less, what Nathan Norris calls The Great Migration of the 21st Century. More and more people want to live in walkable neighborhoods, places where shopping, fun, and friends are all within walking distance. There is even a website dedicated to judging the walkability of a neighborhood. But you don’t have to live in a city to have a walkable neighborhood. Suburburban “sub-divisions” like these in the Indianapolis area can be specifically built to be walkable.

Networking Indianapolis

Indianapolis NetworkingIn my post about working in Indianapolis, I wrote about how on Thursdays I would start out at the local BNI meeting, then go to Subway where the local Sandwich artist would remember me and ask me about my business. After breakfast I’d head to Starbucks where I’d normally run into someone I know and begin working. At night I’d attend a meetup or go to a friends house before heading home. After going full-time on my own business one of the first things I noticed was how lonely I was working from home (like right now?). I wrote:

When I worked for other companies I was around other people all day long. We had meetings. I sometimes got to go places on the company’s dime. Some of these times were good. Most of them were not noteworthy. However, once they were gone, I started to miss that in my life. Sure, I met with clients occasionally, but for the most part I stayed in my office at home. While my family is a joy to me, there is a certain need to go beyond that and meetups can help with that.

Work Communities

My wife used to work at a hospital with a man named Melvin whose job was to keep rooms stocked each day. He had worked at the hospital for many years and had developed a routine that involved starting out in the stock room and making rounds around the hospital, stopping to talk to various people in each location. These were his stations within the hospital and without them he would not have been as happy at his job. He needed the community that the stations provided him. As an IT and web consultant, my clients were scattered around the city of Indianapolis and it created many places I could go throughout the day. My clients became part of my community and added to my work enjoyment. It didn’t feel like work – it felt more like visiting a friend.

Seeking Stations

I live in Tipton, Indiana and there isn’t a whole lot to do here. There is no coffee shop and none of my friends live around here. There is a bowling alley, a movie theater, and several gas stations. My kids like walking to the gas station to get candy and occasionally I’ll walk to watch a movie, but the only place for me to go to ‘work’ is McDonald’s and Jim Dandy. One is depressing and the other won’t leave you alone. There is no place to ‘hang out’. It’s a walkable neighborhood, but where would I be walking to? I decided that there must be something to do here, it’s just that I don’t have the information as to what that is. That’s when I got the idea for Seektivity – an app that lets you share activities and events going on around you – kind of like a Foursquare for activities instead of places. A lot of my friends thought it was a good idea. Shoutt has since come out with something similar, but it adds a ‘borrowing/lending’ feature. I shoutted in Tipton, but so far there has been no one listening (if you live in Tipton, give me a shout out on Twitter).

I take a drink of my coffee and get a text from a customer. The room seems brighter now. I feel like I’m a part of a community – and for a second I am happy.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like, How to Work a Life of Purpose.

The Epic Generation: From the Garden to the City

“You know I always wanted to pretend that I was an architect.” – George Costanza, Seinfeld

Nathan Norris recently wrote an article entitled, “Why Generation Y is Causing the Great Migration of the 21st Century” about ‘under 30’s’ moving into the cities and driving less – the new migration into urban spaces. Norris writes, “At the same time, television shifted from glorifying the surburban lifestyle in the 1960’s and 1970’s (e.g., Leave it to Beaver and the Brady Bunch) to glorifying the urban lifestyle in the 1990’s (e.g., Seinfeld and Friends). These cultural changes have pushed Generation Y to look for more adventure than previous generations, and they are less fearful of cities than previous generations.”

I forwarded it to a friend and he wrote, “Art (used loosely here) imitating life or vice versa?”

I wrote that I’ve been watching the TEDtalks “Building Wonder” curated channel on Netflix, which is mostly about architecture and it’s seemed to correlate with conversations I’ve had with him (in the past and recently) about the desire to be part of a community like Bloomington, Broad Ripple, or Nora. We sort of had that community in high school, now that I think about it, with Benjamin’s Coffee House or even to a small extent at Heiskell’s Restaurant (at the height of our takeover). We also had it at church and at college and we also had it for a time in Daleville (before the breakup began). Community is what you make of it – but physical constraints help.

This “art” reference he mentioned made me wonder if I haven’t been yearning after that ‘public living room’ that Friends had in that apartment or Jerry’s apartment. People came and went as they pleased. There were four locks on the door, but they were never locked. They also had that other space, the coffee shop down below – Seinfeld had it with the diner. In Daleville, we had La Hacienda and Starbucks. We knew the people working there and they new us. Remember when George found the rubber band in his soup and playfully sprang it back to the cook who left it there? I think we all long for that sort of community where we all know each other on that level.

Another friend wrote in reply, “I think it has to be ‘art’ imitating life. It isn’t like Seinfeld or Friends glorified New York as the central scene where all things are happening – that had already been the prevailing public opinion since at least the 1920’s. Although, I don’t think it is “imitating” so much as it is a broadcast company’s calculated offering of what the public will find interesting or novel. Green Acres wasn’t about the country, it was about the voyeuristic experience of someone foolishly leaving the wonders of the big city for the country – adding in the tension of the couple having different perspectives.. Beverly Hillbillies was about the opposite – people who don’t. belong in the wonderful urban/suburban area and the comedic tension. Andy Griffith played on the mundane and simpleton of the small-town, where previously there wasn’t any television that was centered on a “watch the paint dry” town. By and large, I think TV producers expect there to be curiosity and reverence for NY and LA from outsiders and appreciation from those who live there. Other than a few shows who are using the difference in location as a position separator or as central to the theme – shows and movies have generally been based in NY/LA/Other large metro.”

Here’s the list of TED Talks for those of you who don’t have Netflix:

1 Bjarke Ingels: Three Warp-Speed Architecture Tales 18m

2 Thomas Heatherwick: Building the Seed Cathedral 16m

3 William McDonough on Cradle to Cradle Design 19m

4 Cameron Sinclair on Open-Source Architecture 23m

5 Joshua Prince-Ramus on Seattle’s Library 19m

6 Liz Diller Plays with Architecture 19m

7 Alex Steffen: The Shareable Future of Cities 10m

8 James H. Kunstler Dissects Suburbia 19m

9 Kamal Meattle on How to Grow Fresh Air 4m

10 Jane Poynter: Life in Biosphere 2 15m

11 Anupam Mishra: The Ancient Ingenuity of Water Harvesting 17m

12 Mitchell Joachim: Don’t Build Your Home, Grow It! 2m

13 Rachel Armstrong: Architecture That Repairs Itself? 7m

14 Joshua Prince-Ramus: Building a Theater That Remakes Itself 18m

15 Magnus Larsson: Turning Dunes into Architecture 11m

16 Michael Pawlyn: Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture 13m

17 Ellen Dunham-Jones: Retrofitting Suburbia 19m

The Birth of a Neighborhood

This is a guest post by Zac Parsons. Enjoy. – Erich

About a year and a half of an earlier stage in my life was spent in the industry of new home sales.  My experience in ministry didn’t pan out as I would have hoped.  I still found myself in a position to want to help people, but not with all of the political red tape of working in a church.  Since owning one’s own home is seemingly part of the American Dream, being a part of the that dream fulfillment was very attractive to me.

I began as a temp.  A temp is someone who fills in for a full time new home sale associate on one of his or her days off.  It wasn’t good money, but it gave me experience and allowed me to meet people within the new home industry.  I was able to travel around the area, and learn what I liked and did not like about new home sales and the career path of a new home salesperson.  Ultimately, it led me to a builder who was building a community less than a mile from the high school that I graduated from.  After temping with the builder for a month, I was interviewed, tested, and ultimately offered a position as a full time floater for the company.  Now, I would exclusively temp for this builder at all of their locations around town.

After a few months, I discovered that a position would be opening for a new community, just a mile away from where I had first met this builder.  It was a farm that was near to the area in which I had grown up.  I lobbied and applied for the position, and was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to sell homes for this neighborhood exclusively.

I had a sales partner, who had her own clients.  Because of the length of time it takes to build a house, I got to know all of her clients as well.  I answered their questions, demonstrated the features of their new home, and painted a picture of what the community would be like when it was no longer just dirt.  It was a challenge at times to find the right way to describe what the neighborhood would look like.  Some people wanted to perfectly manicured lawns.  Other people wanted to see the streetlights lit up at night.  Everyone loved the idea of people outside, knowing their neighbors, and using the playground and park area.

As the months went by, homeowners would stop back in to check on the progress of the lots sold, the plans for the development of the common areas, and the prices of the homes.  Unfortunately, with our economic situation, it hurt for them to see the prices drop again and again.  It hurt me as well, because I was with them on the journey to fulfill the American Dream.  These homes were supposed to be investments.  They were supposed to provide a base to grow from.  I felt like I was a part of the sadness that they felt.  I was one who advised them of making the decision to purchase.  I wondered what they thought of me, in all of it.  I wondered if they regretted their decision, since the community was still mostly a construction zone, and their homes were worth so much less than what they had paid for them.

About 6 months ago, I left that position, to pursue a career in psychological growth education.  During that time, one of my home buyers mailed me an invitation to attend their engagement part at their new home.  I hadn’t been back to the community in that time, and didn’t know what to expect.  As I pulled into the neighborhood last Saturday, I could hardly believe my eyes.  There were at least a dozen new homes started, where there had been dirt before.  The grass in the common areas was completed.  Three of the streets were completely finished and occupied.  It was amazing.

I could not find a place to park on the street, so I circled around behind.  As I was driving by, one of the young couples that I had sold a home to was standing outside with their dog.  I stopped my car, rolled down my window, and gave them a friendly:  “Howdy!”  Their faces lit up and they practically bounded towards my car to greet me.  They were extremely happy with their neighborhood, their new neighbors, and the fact that they were a part of something at it’s beginning.  The financial implications of buying a home when they did, did not temper their goodwill towards me.  We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, and I felt great about the good fortune of running into them.

I ended up parking on the other side of the neighborhood, where I knew every one of the homeowners.  As i walked down the street, I remembered putting SOLD stickers on the signs in what was a dirt lot with each different family.  I imagined them living in their homes, eating their meals, playing together, and feeling safe.  As I rounded the corner near the playground, I heard children shouting and playing.  About 20 kids were engrossed in a game of kickball, barely being able to see in the twilight of the evening.  Some parents were talking on nearby benches, peacefully enjoying the weather and the community.

At the party, I was greated with hugs and words of genuine appreciation for my role in helping them build their home.  They spoke of how much it felt like a community now, and how happy they were to have such a place of their own.  I didn’t stay long, but I thanked them for inviting me and gave them a small gift.

There are so many things in life that you cannot see for what they are until to take time to step away from them.  On some level, I knew that I was a part of building a community, but when I was frustrated by slow sales, dropping prices, or other dramas of the industry, I lost that vision.  There was not one moment of the dirt becoming a community.  It was dozens and dozens of moments, many of which I was not in control of.  This is how life functions.  Where you are now is not exactly where you will be one year from now.  Growth will occur.  It is up to you how much you will be a part of that growth, and in which direction it will occur.