I have a funny story about growing up. You might find it relatable, or maybe it won’t make sense. That’s fine, move along, nothing to see here.
So it’s the late 1990s and I’m in my late 20s. I’ve been building my feature writing portfolio, building a small PR agency, trying to figure out my career. I’d quit a magazine editorship a few years ago and had kind of lost my way.
I’d also been falling in love with mountain biking. Totally new thing for me after a lifetime of being an expressly non-athletic nerd.
I see an ad in a biking magazine looking for guidebook writers. Hey I’m a writer! I apply and get the job.
Jump ahead three years. I’ve written a great trail guide and sold many thousands of copies. I’m also moderating a fast growing online forum for mountain bikers. Commercial exposure is on my mind. Community building is a natural extension to this. Let’s put on events! Let’s have scheduled rides and get togethers! Dinners, why not? House parties, maybe?
It’s exciting! I see myself at the center of this ever growing circle of love for this amazing life changing activity. It’s almost messianic.
Some funny things start happening.
We have a group ride outside Tucson and I find myself the only pot smoker among a crowd of hyper fit, hyper conservative achievement oriented riders. Weird!
We have a dinner gathering and half the people drift out early because the music sucks. Who doesn’t like indie grunge?
I host a big multiday festival and folks divide up into cliques where I want them to come together. This happens at the next festival, and the next.
It took me till my early 30s before it clicked: shared interests do not make a community.
I felt so foolish. Why on earth would I assume that everyone who rides mountain bikes likes to camp, leans left, smokes pot, listens to a certain kind of music, votes a certain way? Stupid. Stupid.
I saw this play out in the lives of my mountain biking friends. Guys constraining their dating to only women who also mountain biked, and getting so confused when their relationships fizzled out. Why wasn’t their shared activity enough to sustain the relationship?
It’s been hard but also true: our shared activities don’t create community. They don’t imply shared values. We’re individuals. Our hobbies are not a functional basis for tribes of any kind.
But this is also freeing! Go share an activity with someone who’s different than you! But don’t fool yourself into thinking other folks are anything like you, that they share something beyond the desire to do the thing you like doing. And for heaven’s sake, don’t allow yourself to be folded into someone else’s values on the basis of nothing more than your hobbies.