Thrown together with a bunch of strangers

Our second edition of Doors features a conversation with Erin Anacker. Erin is a People Enthusiast at Betwixt where they help connect women in design with their people. In addition to her passion for developing great relationships and communities, she loves the outdoors, conversation, and deep tear-jerking laughs.

You are incredible at connecting and introducing people. Where did you learn that?

Until you asked, I've ever really thought about it! I think it’s a natural inclination of mine that has been reinforced over time, especially during and after college. And it was not until the last couple years that I realized how powerful introductions can be, much more than say, referrals.

Is there a secret to a great introduction?

I suspect it's about matching (or balancing) personality and interests. When you have two personalities that either energize and/or compliment one another along with a shared passion, a new relationship is much more likely. Giving each person a little context during an introduction can also help, rather than simply announcing that two people should know one another. What is it about that person that made you think about the other? What do you love about them that the other person may also enjoy?

Those connections are essential to a healthy community. What's the first community you loved?

My first thought is summer camp. Every summer, from 4th grade through high school, I attended camp. There is something particularly magical about being thrown together with a bunch of strangers for an entire week where you spend nearly every minute together. Which reminds me of a comment I made to my husband a couple days ago. His decision making process is longer and more cautious than mine. He mentioned a hypothetical scenario about a big decision he is weighing, and I told him, "At some point, you just have to make a commitment. When you commit to something, you are much more likely to give it your all and figure out a way to make it work.” I see summer camp similarly.

In my experience, situations where strangers come together and commit their time and energy to one another often produce the greatest experiences of human connection.

Summer camp is a great example. I've seen something similar with my son and college, where everyone embraces the fact that they're in this together.

Yes, precisely! College is very camp-like (which is part of the reason I loved it so much).

What’s a common misstep you see communities make?

There are so many, but perhaps the biggest issue I see is when organizers assume that simply gathering people together builds community. A gathering of people is not the same as a thriving and connected community. In order for a strong community to form, you have to think about individual relationships formed around individual moments. The job of the organizer is to create opportunities for those singular moments to occur in order to facilitate relationships. When they are able to do so enough times successfully within a group of people, that’s when a true community is formed.

That's such a helpful perspective. In our conversations, you’ve championed Uncommon get togethers in as many places as possible. Even 2-3 people in a cafe is meaningful and worthwhile.

This summer we held a SPARK brunch in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA. (SPARK being my online community for indie women in design.) Both events were somewhat spontaneous as a member or two happened to be passing through. Our community is quite small, but sharing a meal with 3-5 other people whom you only know online was incredibly powerful. I would argue it's actually changed how we interact with one another virtually (even for those who were not able to attend).

What do you love about where you live?

Tri-Cities, WA has a very tight-knit creative / indie community with a great deal of people who are just as geeky about community as I am. What I love most is how much of our conversations revolve around growing and maintaining community, whether it's on- or offline. We don't always agree or even get along all the time, but are generally determined to figure it out, have hard conversations, and build each other up.

This season’s theme is doors. Is there a memorable set of doors you’ve passed through?

I think the most interesting set of doors I've ever passed through was in prison. In college, I took an abnormal psych class. Near the end of the quarter, our professor took us to the state prison to learn about mental illness, speak with inmates about their lives, and tour the facility. There were layers and layers of doors. Just to get inside, you entered through a chain link fence with barbed wire across the top, then a lobby door and a second lobby door. Once officially inside the building, you checked in with the front desk, who passed your information to security. Then, you walked to the next set of doors and made eye contact with the security guard beyond the glass. With his verification, the doors opened into a holding space between two sets of doors. This was when the first the big, loud clanging THUD occurred. When those were sealed behind you, the next set opened into the hallway. Never in my life have I felt so inside.

A huge thank you to Erin for her integral part in Uncommon's story. The last question was what would she like to ask in our next interview. We'll save that one until then!

Prompted

The latest dispatch asked, Who has opened doors for you?

Steve wrote:

I have a lot of friends named Jo(h)n who've opened doors for me. One was my first boss. I had just graduated from high school and was looking for a computer programming job to pay my way through college. I learned the basics of PHP and applied for an opening. John hired me. That job left a huge impression--many of the skills I learned there I still use today, but more importantly, John became a treasured friend. Our meetings are rare these days, but I cherish those precious occasions chatting in his office, catching up on the mundane and the noteworthy, sharing our mutual respect and friendship.

Stephan wrote:

When I finished my bachelor studies, I knew which master I want to do. However, as I was not really engaged with the content of my bachelor studies and as I am questioning how most of the teaching at university is done, I didn't have the best grades. They were good but not sufficient to be able to get into that master's program.

Towards the end of of my studies I met a very special professor and although he did not know me he supported me from the very beginning. When I told him about my struggle getting into that program (after been rejected for the first time), he immediately helped me with getting a spot in that master's program. I am very grateful for his engagement as I met very interesting people during my master studies.

I knew that he opened a door for me when he supported me back then but when I think about it he has opened not only that door. By believing in me from the very beginning he opened another door for me. Thanks to him I was able to find one of my passions and also to thrive as a person. And the wonderful thing about him is that he does this for everyone. He is the kind of guy I want to be when I am as old as he is (he is pretty old but still has so much energy... it's incredible).

I think as he opened doors for me it is my responsibility to open doors for others, too. So maybe think about for whom you can open a door?

Drew wrote:

Too many people to count. One of things I most passionately believe is that while we experience our lives from our own perspective it is the perspectives of others that may have the greatest impact on broadening our worldview. Family members, dear friends, teachers, mentors, managers, strangers, the list goes on. The key is to be receptive to the door and to have the willingness to walk through it.

Paulo wrote:

My friend and now colleague Andy open doors for me. Back when I had almost no design work under my belt, he somehow trusted me enough to ask me to work with him. Our first collaboration on a big project was the site for the original XOXO. I knew what the expectations were, and I was so so scared. But we did it, and the response blew me away, and exposed my work to a larger audience than I’d ever hoped. We continue to work together, and I’m forever grateful to him for the chance to work on things that matter so much to so many people.

Brad wrote:

Almost certainly too many people to count. From my mom, who struggled to get me into the best public school and kept us fed and clothed, to my early computer mentor and neighbor who helped me tear down, build up, tweak, fix and become confident with computers.

Many kind people in the software industry have given me their time and patience over the last 15 years, opening many doors selflessly. I also try giving my time, knowledge and energy to new people in software, even when it's only in small amounts.

You never know which recommendation, conversation or bit of help will open a door for someone to get that internship, job or opportunity that will change their life for the better. So I'm a fan of opening doors for people when I can, both figuratively and literally.

Andrew wrote:

My Dad has opened more doors for me than anyone else.

I am a relatively reserved person (although I'm learning how to be more outgoing), and my default response for years was to shrink away when presented with opportunity. The summer before I started at my University, he and I toured the campus and met with the Chair of my School. She showed us around and answered some questions about what I could expect, and near the end of the whole thing she mentioned that they were looking for some volunteers to help update the computer labs. Honestly, I missed most of the comment. I was intimidated, and hungry, and just looking to get out of there. But my Dad, without missing a beat, volunteered me. I was a little annoyed.

The very next day he drove me up to campus, and I started the first day of what would be three months of full time volunteering with my department. There were six of us working under one System Administrator (a nice man I had actually met at an event a few weeks prior to all this), and we spent our days pulling out all the old computers and replacing them with new ones. We had to get it all done before Freshman Orientation (which I still had to go to), and so it was a bit of a mad rush to get everything in on time. We worked hard, and I really got to know both the professor and the other students. When I started in the Fall I already felt comfortable in my program.

Even better than all that though, about three months after volunteering me, my Dad heard that there was an internship available with a local city's IT department. So he told me to apply (told, not asked, mind you). I was nervous, but he asked my Mom to drive me over and drop off my application. I took it to HR, and they told me to take it to IT directly, and when I got to IT he asked to interview me right away. I was a bit freaked out, but I did the interview, and by the end he told me I was hired. I went back up to my Mom, who had graciously been waiting outside, and told her I had the internship. I worked there for another three months.

Finally, after six months from the initial volunteer offer, I got a job on campus with the Library IT Department. When I asked my new boss why he hired me over the other applicants, he said it was because of my six months of IT experience.

Thanks Dad.

Ryan wrote:

I think my friend Greg has opened more doors for me than anyone but my parents did (in that general way parents do, by making sure you get an education and mostly turn out okay). I met Greg when I was first starting to write screenplays, and he filled a very important role: the first person with known good judgment who assured me I could write with no outside motivation to do so. We met weekly for nearly two years, and he continued to read and critique my work even when I had no one else in my life qualified to do so at such a high level.

When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles and I was looking for work in the entertainment business, he hired me for my first gig and introduced me to other people who also hired me. When I moved back to Indiana and started pre-production on my first feature film, he talked me through the creative process and supported the project financially. When I decided I should be writing novels instead of movies, he listened and encouraged me, but he also didn’t let me forget that I still have post-production on a movie to finish. Even as I write this, he has in his possession a set of short stories I wrote as the precursor to my first novel, and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about them.

Sara wrote:

My high school English teacher opened the most important door for me. He had a PhD and could have been teaching in a college, but he wanted to shape public high school minds, instead. He wore suits everyday, to express how seriously he took his job and the literature, and expected us to hold ourselves to the same high standards. We read amazing things, from James Joyce's Dubliners to an entire section on feminist literature. He prepared us all so well for college, raising the bar on our writing and critical thinking. But most importantly, he encouraged me to look to the Ivies when I was applying for schools. I hadn't considered them at all, not thinking I had what it took. That one push opened not just one door, but had a ripple effect on many doors following. I'm writing today no doubt because of his influence.

Uncommon reads

The Mindfulness Racket, an important essay by Evgeny Morozov:

So far, our debate about distraction has hinged on the assumption that the feelings of anxiety and personal insecurity that we experience when interacting with social media are the natural price we pay for living in what some technology pundits call “the attention economy.”

[...] In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas.

Campfires Helped Inspire Community Culture by Alison Gopnik:

But when the sun went down and the men and the women, the old and the young, gathered around the fire, the talk was transformed. People told stories 81% of the time—stories about people they knew, about past generations, about relatives in distant villages, about goings-on in the spirit world and even about those bizarre beings called anthropologists.

News and such

Thanks for the many thoughtful notes and encouraging perspectives that you shared for Kathy Sierra over the past two weeks. We assembled them into a lovely package and dropped it in the mail yesterday. It's hard to know what to do in these situations, but I'm grateful for a community that believes in doing something.

Your turn

Is there a memorable doorway you’ve passed through?