When I lived in San Francisco, I had an orange fluffy cat named Picnic (pictured). I had to travel a lot, and I didn't have any friends in town, so I found this amazing woman named Mary to cat sit. Mary was almost too good. She was a bit shy, but super knowledgeable and dependable. Once I was out of town, Picnic got an infection. Mary took him to the vet and helped nurse him back to health. Way past the call of duty.
One time she was coming by to pick up a check (Mary didn't trust PayPal or credit cards), and she had a cat wand thing in her trusty cat sitter bag. You know, it’s like a stick with a string on the end with feathers and shiny stuff.
I offhandedly said, "Oh, do you use that toy with Picnic?"
"Oh yeah," she said. "All the time. He loves it."
"Really?," I asked. "Because I tried a toy like that with him a few times and he wasn’t interested."
She froze. She stared at me for a minute. Eyes wide. With a quiver of disappointment in me she said, "But...did you bring it to life?”
Did you bring it to fucking life?! That’s the question. I think about it all the time. I think it sums up our job as community leaders when we're launching anything new. From a new community to a new program or even a live event. In community, our job is to get people interacting with each other. We are social animals. Once people feel comfortable with each other and with the norms and genre of a space, they break through their initial inertia. Connections and conversations and feedback come more freely.
There're different tactics to warm up community projects from a cold, dead start. But to be successful, they all require a bit of faith. A spark of belief. Whether you're launching a new space or trying to entice a jaded old house cat into attacking a bit of string and feathers, commit and risk looking a little ridiculous. It takes a bit of flailing about until you strike on the right invitation that just can't be ignored. If you as the host and inviter don't believe, no one else will.
That's what was behind Mary's disappointed reaction. Her look said, "You didn't even try to bring it to life. You didn't believe. You were afraid. Afraid of being rejected. Afraid of looking foolish. The cat wants to play. It's not that hard. But you couldn't even commit."
When a new community project cannot get critical mass, I always wonder, was the hypothesis wrong? Was the execution lacking? Or did I just not bring it to life? As the inviter and host, our job is to bring these living, breathing communal spaces to life. The best part about the job is we don't have to do all the work. If we get things started, the community will do most of the work. We take that first step. We have to fight through that awkward silence until the spark catches. We may risk looking foolish, we may risk feeling like we're throwing a party and no one is going to show up. But if we don't believe, no one else will.