The scene: a Friday night happy hour at New Work City. We have happy hours every Friday, but this one was particularly special, because we were sending off one of our most steadfast and supportive members who had recently decided to move on.
A group of familiar faces gathered for the occasion. Each of them, in their own way, had themselves already moved on, but on this night they came together for their friend.
We toasted to the end of an era. We talked about what we’d be doing next. We laughed.
Then we went our separate ways.
That night, which took place a few weeks ago, marked a major shift for me in how I approach New Work City and its community.
Up to that point, I was operating with an all-in-one strategy that for years I’d wanted so badly to work. It was a strategy that envisioned the coworking space as the place where people do their work in the daytime, but then also gather socially in the evenings for movie nights and card games. It was a strategy that envisioned my circle of closest friends and the circle of NWC’s most active members as being one and the same.
I’d seen it done successfully in other coworking spaces, at least as far as I could tell. More importantly, it was what I’d wanted: a place where my friends were my coworkers and the line between the two was nonexistent.
The strategy worked for a while. At its peak, it was something really special. We were playing volleyball together; we had a weekly late night “therapy” session at my favorite local pub; we were collaborating on projects.
But it didn’t last. It started with one of the big teams in our space moving out (for the best reason possible—they were so successful that they outgrew us), removing from our daily routine a couple of people who were cornerstones of our cadre. Shortly thereafter, one after another started dropping off. By the time we got to this special happy hour, there was no denying that the circle was no more.
What happened? Certainly, each person had their own story and their own reasons. New York City is a place of transition. Few New Yorkers I know are people who are exactly where they want to be and seek to stay put for a long time. People come to New York to get to somewhere else.
Our location feeds into that sense of transience. The fact that New Work City is on Broadway & Canal Street makes it convenient to just about everyone, but it’s not exactly a neighborhood people want to hang out in. While our neighborhood has for a long time been home to a vibrant community of independent workers, those workers trade in knockoff bags and watches. Most NWC members live far from the space and from each other in every direction. Gathering, then, is always somewhat of a stretch for everyone.
There were a lot of factors at play, but ultimately, it fell on me. I placed myself at the center of the group, then disappeared for weeks at a time. One might assume my falling for a wonderful woman who lives in another part of the country had something to do with it, but I’ve done this in the past when there wasn’t a long-distance relationship to focus on as the reason. Eventually, one way or another, I find a way to detach. The reality is that I could have taken everyone along for that journey and I didn’t. For long stretches, I just fell off. That’s on me.
That wouldn’t have been as big of an issue if I’d architected something that didn’t depend on me so much, but from the very start I had set an expectation that I’d be around to keep things rolling. When I wasn’t there, things didn’t feel quite the same.
Seeing what had happened for what it was, I toasted that night knowing I had to go a different way from now on. I had no desire to repeat this cycle again. I certainly had no desire to disappoint people I cared about. Rebuilding was going to require taking what I’d experienced, learning from it, and adjusting.
The following Monday, I came into work and started to rebuild.
I quickly realized I had narrowed so much of my focus to the relatively small group of friends I was cultivating. Zooming out, I was able to better see the entire community of 150+ people who were all in their own ways finding each other and forming their own bonds and sub-communities. I had no direct involvement in this happening; I didn’t even know a lot of these people. But here they were, under my nose, befriending each other and conducting business together and going out to lunch with each other. Letting go of the smaller group let me see the bigger group for the wonderful ecosystem that it is.
I shifted my focus to facilitating connections between members without getting too directly involved myself. I still play an active role, but as more of a coach than a player. I meet with members and the people who have stepped up to play larger roles at NWC with the intention of figuring out how to best empower them to use the thing we’ve built to their best benefit, without making me a linchpin any moreso than necessary.
It’s only been a short time, but already I am finding myself much more comfortable in this role. I find I’m less afraid that the work I do now will end up overloading me later. I feel like the work I’m doing is helping build something more sustainable.
One example: this past Friday, we held the first of what will be a monthly series of Welcome Aboard Member Meetings (WAMMs). Sarah, our Space Captain, did a tremendous job recruiting for it, so we ended up having two separate meetings totaling 26 coworkers, some who’d joined as recently as that day and others who’d been members for years. We learned more about each other, why we joined, what we’re working on, what we need help with, and even our favorite snack. We took it as an opportunity to educate people as to how they could use the tools NWC provides to achieve what they’re going for.
A monthly meeting like that is something that I can work on and be present for that doesn’t foster lots dependence upon me but instead can act as a clearinghouse for empowering and emboldening people to connect with each other without the constant need for a middleman.
It’s only been one meeting, but it’s left me hopeful for the potential in this new direction.
As for me, I realized that I can go further to change my own story. I wonder: What would it look like for me to be unafraid of taking on too much and shutting down when I get overwhelmed? Being open and transparent with people got me so far when I practiced it naturally. When New Work City was just getting started, my fastidious inclusion of everyone in every step of the process of getting it off the ground gave people an opportunity to buy in and feel like they were a part of it.
The less I shared as time went on, the less opportunities people had to connect to me and to it. This invited greater dependence on me as the provider who’s holding all of the cards.
Shutting down and closing people out can be an effective defense against being overwhelmed with input, but the collateral damage is too great. At this point, I think there are far greater risks in not sharing than there are in sharing. Why not flip things over and see what happens?
As for cultivating friendships, I can now start to focus on what that looks like outside the context of my coworking community. I can and do still have friends who are members, of course, but what does it look like for me to think of my network of friends as something distinct and separate from my business? This is something I now make myself free to explore.
Posting something like this is scary to me. I feel vulnerable exposing myself.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m just someone trying to figure it all out. That can be insanely hard for a leader to say, but it’s the reality whether you face it or not.
I’m working to face it.
There are still so many people whose lives would be so much better if they had better ways to connect with each other. There are still so many people suffering who don’t have to be. There’s still a lot of work to do.
If sharing more of my vulnerable, imperfect self helps me be a better vehicle for helping those people, then it’s time to open up and let it flow.
If I’ve let you down, I’m sorry. I want to do my part to support you and invite you to support me, imperfections and all, out of love for ourselves and each other.
Thanks for reading this. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to connect with you.