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No One Has Ever Had to be Awesome in Isolation
The best way to be awesome is to join a group that expects you to be more awesome.
We all need more community in our lives, particularly groups whose cultural values and peer influences push us to be more awesome. These types of communities are more than fun and uplifting, they are a biological imperative for growth. Let’s get into it!
FROM THE AGES
“For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other—for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Christopher McDougall on why compassion is the greatest driver of heroic action:
“You can think of xenía as compassion, but only if you get rid of the notion that compassion is based on sweetness, or charity, or even trading favors…We like to pretty it up with a halo and call it angelic, but compassion really springs from our raw animal need to figure out what is going on around us and the smartest way to respond. It’s your social spiderweb, a protective netting of highly sensitive strands that connects you to your kinfolk and alerts you the instant one of them runs into the kind of trouble that can find its way back to you…When you get access to someone else’s feelings—you can put aside your own and see the world through a new set of eyes…That’s really the unvarnished essence of xenía, and it’s the reason Darwin and Andrew Carnegie could never quite grasp what heroes are all about. They thought it was crazy to risk yourself for a stranger. But to someone truly tuned into situational awareness—into xenía—treating a stranger like a brother can be the only sane response.”
Source: Natural Born Heroes
Any society whose population grows increasingly overweight, sick, and depressed cannot be deemed a healthy civilization. Like every major issue, this problem has multiple causes—manipulative marketing, negligent and/or corrupt regulatory agencies, crumbling educational standards, social media, politics, or the cultural values that drive each of these. We can even point to the occasional evil genius whose nefarious plot deteriorates the whole system. But regardless of the influences that seek to distract us or pull us from the healthiest path, our default modern society is missing the most vital aspect of the human evolutionary success story: community.
Community is more than a collection of loosely dependent individuals. A real community is a web of intimately connected people whose prosperity and survival depend on the contribution of every other person. This is the type of tribal community that characterized the first 99% of human evolution. Modern society brings progress to many aspects of our lives but prevents us from building the communal bonds that allowed us to thrive for centuries.
Today, we value the individual. We believe in personal freedom and creating your own life. We are a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “make your own way” culture that rewards hard work, ingenuity, and competitiveness. These values create the incentive for entrepreneurship that brings about our modern technology. Technological advancements also create a sense of self-sufficiency and we no longer feel that we need tight social bonds to meet our daily needs. In reality, we are more interconnected than ever but technology obscures these connections from view. We rarely ponder the thousands of people required for an Uber Eats meal to arrive at our doorstep—from the cooks and driver to the app engineers and all of the corporate employees at both Uber and the restaurant chain (to say nothing of the people who contributed to the public road system and manufacture of the car).
While there is no denying the benefits of modern medicine or how cool our stuff has become, technology cannot replace the communal bonds that it has removed from our lives. We struggle to create healthy habits or a sense of purpose on our own. The responsibility to “create yourself” is a burden that no one has ever had to bear, until recent history.
The idea of self-improvement would be a foreign concept to our hunter-gatherer ancestors (as would our modern definition of “self”). This is not because they didn’t believe in growth, learning, and individual capacity. Quite to the contrary. Early ancestral humans were physically superior in almost every way from muscle tone and bone density to visual acuity and brain size. They were also extremely skilled and intelligent with a vast understanding of plants, animals, seasons, and other features of their environments. While we cannot make a sweeping statement for every individual, we can presume that, on average, both their mental and physical health were excellent (as they are in the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes). They also lived in a relatively unchanged social arrangement for hundreds of thousands of years. No system with that type of evolutionary stability could be harmful to the individuals embedded within it. We can hardly say the same of modern culture with the dire environmental and human health crises that it has created in only a few thousand years.
But this is not a doom and gloom message nor do I mean to denigrate modern culture entirely. I’m quite grateful for the surgical repairs that I’ve had and the opportunity to send these words to you. The lesson is that self-improvement (human development anyone?), in the way that most practice it today, is an uphill battle. Growth and learning are not meant to be solitary pursuits. Developing your individual capacity is not meant to be an individual act.
The small, communal group culture that characterized most of human history used to provide everything that we needed. No one had to try to become awesome in isolation. For early humans, culture demanded that they be well-suited for any situation that they might encounter. Their entire society was structured around optimal development. The cultural values, group expectations, and peer influences all pushed a person to be better.
In a summary of dozens of observational studies of modern-day hunter-gatherers, psychologist Peter Gray states that “the general belief among hunter-gatherer adults, borne of centuries of experience, is that children educate themselves through their self-directed play and exploration.” Gray then notes that, inspired by the adult influences around them, children play most often at mimicking adult activities such as gathering, toolmaking, hunting, etc. When not imitating the adults, children play in mixed-age groups in games of their own design with fluid rules. They learn to both assert their individual needs and to consider the needs of others to keep the game going. By the age of 12 to 14, children have joined adults on hunts and other vital activities for group survival with very little specific instruction.
We cannot return to this ancestral way of life, but we can understand something about our human nature from the cultural arrangement that defines the majority of our history. We learn best from implicit influence rather than explicit instruction and we adopt lifestyle patterns best when they are the default in the culture that we are surrounded by.
We can learn from books, lectures, and other explicit forms of knowledge. But we then need to integrate that new information into our worldview and use it to structure intentional changes to our lifestyle. We will also need to understand our basic psychology to know that we will face some internal resistance and that it might take weeks or months of intentional effort for the new behavior to solidify into a habit. This process, while perhaps “unnatural,” is an essential skill to being awesome in the modern world (that’s why it is a huge focus of ours at IHD).
The other approach is to join a community that is oriented around the behaviors and values that you want to embody. Social influences can immediately shift our behavior, beliefs, habits, and even fashion preferences often without our awareness of it. Join a cycling club and you’ll probably feel compelled to wear a little cycling cap and shave your legs. Join a CrossFit gym and you might just begin to follow the Paleo diet. Follow a few extremist accounts on social media and your measure of normal political discourse will creep to dangerous places.
We can harness the power of cultural influence and intentionally join communities that we know will push us to be better. I don’t align with every aspect of CrossFit methodology, but the fellowship of the gym community is a vital aspect of my healthy lifestyle. I join CrossFit (or similar) gyms to be embedded within a community that shares my values for functional movement, physical capacity, and an ancestral lens on human health. By association, I exercise more, eat better, and have deep conversations about what it means to be healthy.
We might not have the power to shift our national or global culture (at least not immediately) but we can embed ourselves within small communities that align with our values and challenge us to be more. These micro-cultures mimic the positive tribal influence that used to guide human development and provide a counterexample to the prevailing, and often destructive, mainstream cultural narrative.
You can’t change the culture around you, but you can change the culture around you. The best way to be awesome is to join a group that expects you to work toward being more awesome.