How Communal Living Makes the World Better
I've been experimenting with various models of content generation lately. One problem I have is that I'm terribly slow at writing. I decided to hire a local writer, Brittany Nelson, to help me put together content for a communal living project I'm working on. The article/interview is below. It was a great experience working with her and I think I'll continue this model for getting ideas out there.
Communal living: it’s not just for hippies, students or a prerequisite to communes; it’s a way of living that has been around since the beginning of time. We as humans started out in tribal communities. But as history would have it, we’ve moved farther and farther apart, with wars, famine, the invention of automobiles, and now, technology. Americans in particular seem more distant than ever, where individualism is celebrated and the chance of knowing your next door neighbor’s name is slim to none.
Growing up in a 5,000-person town in East Tennessee, Chris Smith, was raised in a town where church and community comes first. After living in an eight-bedroom house in college, he found his way to San Francisco and discovered how hard it was to find housing. “I stumbled on a 55-person house in SoMa called the Negev,” he says. “In my head, I thought: ‘This is the right way to start in a new place.’” Chris opens up about his experience with communal living and how it could be the next, and best, way to connect with others and make a big impact on the world.
What did you love about living at the Negev?
The community. There’s so much value in surrounding yourself with that many people. The problem with work is you’re always working when you’re there and there’s fairly low diversity because you’re all in the same company. Living in a big house with a bunch of people, from different companies, other places in the world, people who don’t necessarily fit the cultural norm you’d have at work, has a ton of variety for networking and having people to connect with. I also met my best friend in the city there—we were bunkmates. I never expected to share a room with someone post-college, but sharing a room in your late 20s is very different. It’s easier to get along. When you’re lying in bed at night right before you go to sleep, there’s this conversation dynamic that happens, recapping the day. When you’re by yourself, it’s easy to get in thought cycles that compound. But when you have somewhere there that’s just listening to toss ideas around, it’s kind of like talking to a therapist.
“When you’re part of a living community, you can associate your identity with a greater whole of people. When you do that, people are able to achieve their full impact in the world”
Did you have family dinners or group activities there?
Sunday night was family dinners and Wednesday was Ted Talks where entrepreneurs would come and speak. Monday nights people would get together and work on projects. After Sunday night dinners everyone would get together in the basement and watch Game of Thrones.
What is it about communal living that makes your want to spread awareness to the world?
When you’re part of a living community, you can associate your identity with a greater whole of people. When you do that, people are able to achieve their full impact in the world. When you have a bad day and you come home by yourself, you sit on the couch depressed. With other people, you come home, say you had a bad day, and they say, “Oh that sucks, do you want to hangout with us?” You kind of come out of it, so it averages out the lows of life; you can focus on the good things that you can do and not get stuck in your own heads too much. People can focus on their fullest potential and that makes a better world for everyone.
If you look at third world countries, a lot of times the families are a central unit, especially in Greece or Latin America, because that is the sole thing you can count on in life. In the US, without that strong, ingrained family culture, there needs to be a platform for strong communities and connections so that people can rely on each other, so it’s kind of like an insurance policy in case shit hits the fan.
Couch surfing started around 2007, which led people to crash on people’s couches all over the world. Airbnb turned it into renting your room out in your house to anyone. Lyft turned it into renting out your car. Nextdoor.com turned it into connecting neighborhoods. People are realizing , ‘Wait a minute, why have I been so disconnected from the people around me? I live next to ten people I don’t even have a clue who they are. If I’m willing to let someone stay in my room while I’m gone who I know randomly or drive my car, does it really matter to me if I live with five, ten, 20 people?’ I think generally it’s just lowering the barriers to connection.
Why do you think young people in their 20s and 30s would especially benefit from communal living?
I think it goes hand in hand with what you used to find during the previous generations— there was lifelong company expectations. You get a good job and they’ll take care of you and you find your community within the job. Now, as mobility becomes more relevant in the work environment, people are constantly bouncing around, and people don’t have that security of a long-term job. You’re not joining some massive company where you’re going to meet 200, 300 people who you’re going to stick with for a really long time. I think the world is moving more toward a conglomeration of individuals vs. large hierarchies and so it’s basically a bunch of consultants that have vertical skill sets and when you put them together they align in a way—certainly in the startup world.
“In the US, without that strong, ingrained family culture, there needs to be a platform for strong communities and connections so that people can rely on each other, so it’s kind of like an insurance policy in case shit hits the fan.”
So it kind of sounds like it’s more than just meeting friends, it’s going to help in your professional life too?
Yeah—you’re living with 30 other people that are young professionals that are working in similar or not so similar industries. What happens is you sit down in the evening to talk about some projects you’re working on and some of the best ideas come from cross-pollination of industries. There’s a lot of value in surrounding yourself with that.
How has communal living affected you personally? Will you continue to live this way?
I think it’s absolutely changed my expectation of how I’ll be living for the rest of my life. I don’t intend on living in a solo or double or three-person place unless something crazy happens like some sort of medical or family issue. I’ll always live with a group of people if I can, and that’s been a huge shift. It’s because I can divest a lot of my weaknesses and focus on my strengths. I’m more emotionally volatile than I would like and having people around helps me in so many deep ways. I don’t think I could be in a healthy relationship unless I’m living in a community. I see this as a big problem, I think people put way too much into their partners; you put all of your emotional needs and sexual needs, sometimes career needs, into a single relationship, and we’re not meant to do that. Relationships are meant to be a part of a bigger community of people.
Could you see this type of living for families?
I could see it with a couple’s one some day, one with kids, sharing babysitters, sharing all of the costs of raising kids, like nannies, etc.
It’s how we started out as humans!
Yeah. We have all this emotional angst and society tells us, ‘Oh there’s something wrong with you. You’re depressed, you should figure it out and talk to a psychologist and get some drugs.’ Combine that with a screwed up diet, which is a whole separate topic, and a church that assigns a lot of shoulds based on 2000 years of cultural patterns on top, you get disconnected from community itself. It just creates a lot of misdirection for people to find fulfillment, happiness and union in a community. We should get back to our communal roots.
What’s your goal with starting this website?
A part of it ties to seeing that this movement is happening, people are finding community in co-living places and feeling like I have a deep enough perspective on it, I can help accelerate that. I can help more people find their way into these types of communities or start them themselves. I would love to see people start communities, help find a place of community, safety, trust, friendship and better jobs. Basically I’d love for more people to find a way to achieve their fullest potential in life and I think I’d like to see more community separate from work and religion, and I believe if that can happen the world will be a better place.