My wife was busy on that Saturday afternoon in 2014, so I pulled out my list of my friends in Atlanta and sent a flurry of texts inviting 10-15 of them to grab dinner with me in Virginia Highland. Five or six of them said yes and we ended up grabbing wings and beer at Taco Mac.
It was a casual get together. I went around the table and made introductions for everyone. We had a great time and it seemed like the crew created some new friendships.
A few months later I got a text message from Matthew, one of my friends who was at dinner that night: “Hey man — just wanted to let you know Brett and I decided to start a non-profit after that dinner at Taco Mac. Excited about the possibilities!”
That non-profit would become what we now know as New Story Charity, where they work with communities in need in developing nations to build sustainable homes for the people who need them most. They went on to be just one of five nonprofits in Y Combinator’s (a world-class startup accelerator) summer 2015 class. They’ve now built 2,200 homes in 4 countries for 11,000 humans and they’re nowhere close to done.
It was just beer and wings. But it led to something so much bigger. That’s a testament to the kind of people Brett, Matthew, and Alexandria (their third co-founder) are.
It’s also a testament to how powerful it can be to build community. You never know what can come from it.
The rest of this post contains the simple system I use to track the people in my community, keep up with them over time, and bring them together to create meaningful connections..
Why Community Matters
First, before we get into this: why? Why is community important to me?
At the most basic level, I want to feel a sense of belonging. Yes, awesome things can happen like an international non-profit being born from two friends connecting. That’s not something I’m counting on by building relationships and community.
I often say to my wife that I’ve always loved the idea of humans living in hunter-gatherer tribes. They traveled together, lived together, and relied on each other to continue making it. That sense of dependence and connection is idyllic for me and I’m always thinking about ways to bring elements of that way of life into my day-to-day (without all of the accompanying dangers of hunter-gatherer life).
One of my greatest sources of fulfillment is my ability to connect people who should know one another. I love being seen as the kind of person you can call any time and know that I’ll do whatever I can to help. I want to be that kind of person because I want others to be that kind of person for me too.
Community is trust, belonging, respect, and love. That’s why I put so much effort into relationships. If that resonates with you, then this system might work for you too.
It’s Hard to Maintain More than 150 Close Connections
Dunbar’s Number is a concept established by Robin Dunbar in the late 20th century based on studies of primate communities. Through those studies, he concluded that our ability to maintain active relationships is correlated to our brain size.
Extrapolating the findings to humans, he established that we should be able to maintain close social relationships with somewhere between 100 and 250 people at any given time. This isn’t the total number of people whose names you know, or the number of people who you’d consider an acquaintance. Rather, this is the group of people who you actively keep up with and consider yourself close to.
As with any research, there’s debate over the validity of the findings, but I’ve found the principle behind the studies to be very useful in maintaining community. Rather than have an infinite list of people I should try to stay in touch with, this gives me permission to create an intentional list of humans I want to invest in heavily.
My entire system is built around being close to 100-250 people, with my goal being 150 to keep things manageable.
How I Organize My Network into Groups
It would be easy to jump straight from having a target number to making a list of people that matter to you. You might start with family, then your best friends, then coworkers, then old friends from college and high school. Before you know it, you’d have a decent list. Maybe even a full list of 150 people or more.
The problem with this approach is that it lacks intention. There is no rhyme or reason to who is on the list other than that they came to mind first.
Here are the groups I think of as separate and distinct in organizing my community:
- Teachers (8-10 people)
- Mentors (3-5 people)
- Mentees (3-5 people)
- Mastermind (6-8 people)
- Team (Highly variable)
- Professional Peers (25-50 people)
- Social Peers (25-50 people)
- Family (Highly variable)
By dividing my community into groups, I create a much more intentional breakdown of the people I want to remain close to (or grow closer to) over time. It also helps me understand the trade-offs.
Do I want to try to maintain connections with all of those high school friends? What if those connections come at the expense of connections more relevant to the person I want to become over the next 5-10 years?
Here’s a quick breakdown of how I think about who is in each of these groups.
At any given time, I want to be intentionally learning from a select group of people who know something I don’t know. I think of teachers as people who I don’t personally know or have access to (right now), but whose work I want to pay close attention to.
This would be the small group of people whose email lists I would join, books I would read, and podcasts I would subscribe to. This group usually changes with time and learning objectives. It’s also the one group that may not lead to personal connections.
I still maintain this group as part of my community list because it creates intentionality in learning and it also opens me up to the possibility of meeting these teachers if the opportunity arises.
The difference between mentors and teachers is whether I have personal access to the individual. A teacher is committed to sharing what they know, while a mentor is committed to sharing what they know with me.
I try to have 3-5 mentors at all times. I like to think about how these mentors are helping me grow in different aspects of my life — spiritual, community/relationships, mental health, physical health, adventure, financial, and learning.
Depending on which area of life I’m seeking growth in, I seek out different kinds of mentors. I always have at least one career mentor.
Just like mentors, but for me to pour back into humans who are a step or two behind me in different aspects of life. I find this incredibly fulfilling.
Even if they don’t refer to me as “mentor,” I find it helpful to think about the few people I’m pouring into at any given time.
I’ve been part of a mastermind group for years now. A mastermind group is a group of 6-8 individuals with common goals or interests who gather regularly to explore ideas and hold each other accountable.
This concept originally came from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. I’ve found mastermind groups to be a powerful tool for personal growth over the years.
You may or may not find this idea useful. If you don’t, ignore this one.
Team (Highly variable)
Depending on your work situation, you may have a team of people you work with every day.
Maintaining close relationships with my team is incredibly important to me. That means the entire ConvertKit team of about 50 people (and growing).
For you, this may be your immediate team of just a few people, a larger department at a company or nonprofit, or the entire organization.
Professional Peers (25-50)
This group is made of people who are professionally important to my ongoing growth. They may be “aspirant peers” in that I want them to consider me a peer, but they may not quite think of me that way just yet.
For example, this might be made up of software founders and executives, published authors, community leaders, and artists.
They’re the kind of people I want to get to know better, stay connected to, and who I’m inspired by professionally.
Social Peers (25-50)
This group is made of people with whom you want to spend a sunny weekend day in the park, have a casual dinner party, or celebrate your birthday.
This is also where to put those friends from the years of school and from different cities you’ve lived in. Good people who would do anything for you, but perhaps don’t relate to your career all that much.
Over the years I’ve learned this might be the most important group for living a good life detached from the hope of some future accomplishment magically changing everything.
Family (Highly variable)
Of course, there’s also the family bucket. This one is obvious in that most of us have this group.
Still, a) they’re easy to neglect and b) it’s easy to underestimate the level of effort required to stay in touch with them.
Families are complicated, so do what feels best with this one. I include all of my immediate family, my wife’s immediate family, and then those extended relatives who we have celebrated holidays with over the years.
I’d encourage you only to include those family members with whom you want to maintain a close relationship.
This is close to the breakdown I use in terms of weighting the number of connections per group. You should feel free to edit the numbers for your current priorities and the balance you want to strike between groups.
The most actionable next step after reading this article is to create your community list based on this guide. Here’s a link to a Google sheet template you can use to get started. Make a copy or download as an Excel spreadsheet and make your own list today.
What I Do to Stay in Touch
The purpose of having these groups is to be intentional about staying connected to them. You’re actively choosing the people you’ll spend your social bandwidth on as opposed to ending up being close to whoever is easiest.
There are a few things I make a point to do for these people:
- Send birthday/anniversary/special occasion cards — this year I set a goal to send at least one birthday card every week to someone from my list. Some weeks I’ve done better than others, but the core point is that I’ve sent infinitely more birthday cards this year than any other simply by setting the intention. Over a decade ago, my mother bought me my first set of personalized stationery from Crane & Co. Ever since then, I have maintained the same stationery for my cards – whether to send thank yous, birthday wishes, or just a note to say hi. It leaves a lasting impression in case you want to take this option up a notch.
- Regular texts/calls — a text to say “Was just thinking about you today. Remember when [shared experience that made me think of them.] Appreciate you!” It’s so simple but so impactful. If I have the time, I’ll make a random call to a friend to catch up.
- Coffee / cocktails / breakfast / lunch — for local people on the list, I make a point to schedule 1:1 time with them regularly. That’s especially true for those on the aspirant peers list. These are the people I consider “professional connections” and go out of my way to make plans with during the workweek.
- Double dates — my wife and I love going on double dates with other couples who are local to us. It’s been one of the most powerful ways to get to know other people that have become best friends through that very process. A night out with another couple plus a few intentional questions can set a relationship on a wonderful path.
- Dinner parties — the love I have for hosting dinner parties is nearly indescribable. Some of my favorite days in life have been the ones I cut out of work at noon to cook for 6 hours before hosting 6-12 people in our home for a fresh, home-cooked meal. Inviting people who haven’t met but should know each other is like a magic trick. A thoughtful cocktail and a well-matched bottle of wine make it feel like a night out at a great restaurant. Even better if you have great outdoor space for pre- or post-dinner conversation around a fire pit or candlelit lounge area. The less fancy version is gathering a group at a restaurant, just like the story I used to kick off this post.
- Catching up while traveling — another benefit to maintaining a list of the people you most want to stay in community with is that a work trip is never wasted. Rather than eat bad room service food, you always have a list of the people you care about and the cities they live in. I use it to shoot a text a few days in advance and try to grab a meal or drink while I’m in town.
This is a good guide to getting started with building community using your new list of the most important people to you right now. There are, of course, more advanced tactics like hosting meetups, recruiting great people to join your company, and making mutually beneficial introductions.
You should start small and build from there. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, would say: beginning with an identity statement is the perfect place to start. “I’m the kind of person who builds meaningful relationships,” might work quite well.
Setting a manageable goal for building meaningful relationships like “have one coffee meeting a week for the next three months” can be a powerful way to build a habit around that identity.
Building Community is a Superpower
As you invest in building community and bringing people together, I think you’ll find what I have: it’s like a superpower.
The more you’re able to be there for people as a reliable source of belonging and friendship, the more they’ll be attracted to spending time with you. The more you follow through on your commitments and show up regularly, on time, the more people will see you as the kind of person they want to know.
But the advanced truth is this: the more you bring people together, the more you create the opportunity for serendipity to create its own magic. When you create the opportunity for people like Brett and Matthew to meet at Taco Mac in Virginia Highland in Atlanta, you become the connector.
People will always associate whatever comes of those new opportunities and relationships with your efforts to build community.
That skill set and reputation are worth more than money can buy. So take it seriously. This simple system will get you started.