Community as an infinite game

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If I look back at the past 10 years (I graduated college in 2011) one common thread of my life is how important communities have been for my personal and professional development. 

In my first job out of college, I became a community manager at the Sandbox Network. Before that, I was already engaged in building communities through the organization of startup events and meetups, in Porto. Ever since, I’ve been part of or built a handful of national and international communities, like the Global Shapers, Marshall Memorial Fellowship, Portuguese Women in Tech, and others.

I learned a lot about building communities, in the 7 months I worked at Sandbox Network. The founders are masters community builders with a deep understanding of what makes them grow, thrive and how to add value to the members. I remember how hard it was and still is to explain what the Sandbox Network was all about. But I also remember the feeling of belonging that members felt, no matter their location or background. 

I applied some of those lessons in building the Startup Pirates Community of Participants and Organizers (not very successfully) and more recently, I’ve been applying those lessons in growing the Portuguese Women in Tech Community (the jury is still out on that one). 

There are plenty of articles and tools on how to build communities. In the past two years, this has been a very hot topic. I shared some insights about it, here. But there aren’t that many articles about how members make a community successful or a failure, so let me share some ideas on this. 

For once, for a community to thrive, members need to understand the infinite nature of communities. As James Carse author of “Finite and Infinite Games” said:

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

The purpose of your contributions is to keep the community going, so you can keep being engaged with this group of people and receiving value from them. There are finite games in between that you choose to play or not. But, by nature and design communities need to be seen as an infinite game.

I remember back in college, when I was part of FEP Junior Consulting (student-run consulting company), I used to say to new members: “this experience will give you as much as you give back to it”. This was true in that context and even truer for communities. Plenty of people free ride communities, never giving that much back. However, a community is only going to thrive if a high number of its members understand that they need to provide value, in order to expect value. 

One community where this is very clear, it’s in Startup Scenes. Silicon Valley is successful because most people understand that they are playing an infinite game. I saw, first hand, how generous Silicon Valley people are with their time and connections. How they understand that their networks and communities are a strength that needs to be nourished everyday. On the contrary, when I look at the Portuguese Startup Scene I see the opposite. I truly believe that the Portuguese Startup Scene could be much better if its members understood this is an infinite game. It’s not about short-term gains, but about long term community success. It’s not about taking as much as possible, but about providing value all along and paving the path for the next generations to thrive. 

In Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant show this clearly:

“The more I help out, the more successful I become.”

He also touches upon the infinite nature of communities:

“Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon.”

In communities you will always find Givers and Takers. But in successful communities, you will find a disproportionate number of Givers, that day in and day out are creating value, sharing their time, network and expertise and making themselves available for the other members. 

With the proliferation of communities, another issue is spreading yourself between too many communities. It’s not about the number of communities you are part of. It’s about your engagement and the alignment with your values and principles. Value comes from constant engagement and trust building. Not from sporadic shares, that look suspicious to other members. 

You can outgrow, feel disenchanted with or lose the alignment with a community that you are part of and that’s ok. You can always move on. But communities are definitely not about the quantity, but about the quality of the interactions, you have over a long period of time. 

Because, in essence, what we all are looking for is a sense of belonging. In “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging”, Sebastian Junger shows how our society became quite bad at making us feel like we belong:

“Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

Communities, no matter their genesis or how they express themselves could be the perfect way of providing us this sense of belonging. It personally has happened to me, several times. However, we cannot expect this to happen, without providing value, giving back from day one and stay for the long term.