Creating a community isn’t just about selling your book. It should also be about creating connections. In this episode, we learn more about the importance of community and connections as Robin Colucci interviews author and community expert Charles Vogl. Charles unpacks and examines community and how building and sustaining one is an important aspect of today’s social norm. Learn more about community and its potential in this provocative discussion.
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How Community-Building is the Long Term Secret to Success with Charles Vogl
My guest is Charles Vogl. He is an advisor, speaker and the author of three books, including Storytelling for Leadership, Building Brand Communities and the award-winning international bestseller, The Art of Community. He is a strategy advisor to Google’s global health and performance programs and a founding member of the Google Vitality Lab, which works to innovate healing in our era.
His work is used to advise and develop leadership programs worldwide within organizations, including Google, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitch, Amazon, ServiceNow, Meetup.com, Wayfair and the US Army. He also has presented at venues, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford universities, the Academy of Management and the San Francisco Mayor’s Office. He holds a Master’s in Divinity from Yale, where he studied Religion, Ethics and Business as a Jessie Ball duPont Foundation Scholar.
In my conversation with Charles, he is going to share with us about creating a community, what that means and how it is different from building an audience. He is going to present to us some new ways of thinking about your relationship with your readers that you might not have considered. Be sure to stick around for the whole episode, as towards the end, Charles turns the tables and begins to interview me. We go deep into some of these ideas and start to examine, explore and unpack them. I encourage you to sit back and enjoy.
Welcome to the show, Charles.
I’m glad to be invited.
It’s such a pleasure to have you. I’ve checked out your book, The Art of Community, as well as the Building Branding Communities. This is such an important conversation for both existing authors and aspiring authors. I want to dive right in because one of the things I see a lot with people in either camp.
They’re gearing up to try to get a book deal or they’ve got a book deal and they’re about ready to launch or they’ve already launched. I see a pattern among authors where they shy away from growing a community or having a social platform, for example. When the book comes out, they think, “I need to start building a community.”
I was even talking with one of the founders of Digital Natives who said this is a big problem when authors come to them, three months before the book is launching, saying, “I have to build my social community so I can sell the book to them.” I have a strong sense that you would have something to say about approaching the idea of community building.
How should we be looking at community building? That way is already proven to be very ineffective to start pushing a community and then three weeks in and start saying, “Buy my book.” Let me know your initial commentary and we can start to refine and dig down more. I would like to know your initial thoughts on when I present you with something like that.
We need to start at the beginning so I can respond with integrity. In my work, I define a community as a group of people who share a mutual concern for one another. To be crystal clear, that’s in contrast to a group. A group of people could be people who like a subject together, go to the beach together or went to school together. Those are great and we should be members of lots of groups. That’s just not the work that I’m talking about. To even further clarify, that’s also not an audience. The audiences are great. If an author has something important to say that’s going to change the word, by God, please go build this as you can. That’s not the work that I’m talking about.
Typically, we can see the difference because, in an audience, we see largely one-way communication. We call that broadcasting. Somebody and that could be a brand and not a single person has something to say and other people get it. They get emails, listen to a podcast and listen to someone on stage. That’s not a community.
It might be a place we would start to build a community, but it’s not. The reason that’s important to know is to get community from an audience or a group. We have to make very different investments that inevitably take time, such as those people in an audience will then be connected. We call it knitting together relationships that become a community.
I hope everybody has a community and authors are people, so I hope they have a community. I’m not convinced that every author needs to build a community for being an author. If you have a fantastic family, faith, philanthropic, political activist and artists communities and then you write a book, I’m not convinced you should be spending 2 to 10 hours a week building another community for your bookwork. With that said, Robin, you and I are the same with this. The intellectual work that we’re sharing with the world forms out of the relationships we have with the community we’re already in.
If the community we’re already in doesn’t yet value what we have to say, certainly enough to go buy the book and talk about it, then something else is wrong. We should say, “As soon as we put something in the world, hopefully, in fact, there is a community that wants to hear it,” but the community isn’t there to buy our stuff. Robin, you’re a busy person and well-connected. Please answer this question to me. How many communities do you want to join in the next year that are founded to get your money?
You’re firm on that and not wiggly that maybe you would join ten. That’s exactly what’s happening when someone will be an author or anybody else wakes up and says, “You know what I need to do. I need to create a community to get somebody’s money.” My guess is you would join a lot of communities. They said, “Robin, we’ve created space, events and informational opportunities where you’re going to meet people who are growing in the way you want to grow. Some of them have achieved things you want to achieve that you haven’t yet.”
“They’re not all more advanced than you. Some of them are less advanced than you. If you join, it would be important to us that you take time to help those people who are not as wise as you become wiser. Would you like to spend more time with us? There will be some books to buy because we have some shared reading. There will be some tickets to buy because we’re going to create events and they’re not free. With that said, Robin, we would love for you to join us.” Would you consider that invitation?
I have said yes to many of these.
That’s, in fact, how we met. We both have the need to go to an event that’s put together so that you and I could meet and here we are growing together. You shared things with me about your field that I did not know and I’m happy to share what I have to share here. The reason that’s an important distinction to make is that a lot of people are confused about what I’ve talked about.
They waste untold months and years of their lives, trying to build a community that the likes of you and me and everybody we know never want to join and then wonder why that doesn’t work or it’s a struggle. I would like to have as many people off from that as we can. Is that a good opening remark to that question?
Absolutely because I do think that there’s a misconception that having a lot of likes on your Facebook or a big social audience translates to people going out and buying your book, the evidence points away from that. One thing I love about what you’re saying is that there’s a deeper layer that is what we should be pursuing in terms of creating this idea of how you put mutual concern.As soon as we put something in the world, there is a community that wants to hear it, but the community isn't there to buy our stuff. Click To Tweet
I will give you some hints here about how we can identify communities right away. Do members know each other’s names? If they don’t, it’s not a community. There are some exceptions I can think of. If people are reading your newsletter and they don’t know each other’s names, it’s not a community. There’s nothing wrong with that and God bless you. Go build a big one.
You talked about communities, both in-person and also online. Can you share with us a little bit about what you think the key distinctions are or, even more importantly, the key similarities? Whatever you think is more important.
This is a very deep subject. Let’s talk about three things to get started. The first one is the research is overwhelmingly clear. Connections that happen in person happen far faster and go deeper than they do online. The reason that’s important to know is we live in an era where, coming off of the COVID pandemic, we’ve all spent time online. Some people have this mistaken notion that we can all move online all the time and it’s going to be great.
We are living in what research indicates the loneliest era ever. When people say, “I have this great solution. We’ll do more of this thing that made us more disconnected,” my head isn’t big enough for the eye roll. First of all, we understand that there are similarities. With that said, they’re never going to be the same. We know that it takes people less time to become close in person and that it’s more fulfilling.
The second thing we’ll touch on is the part about time. We know it takes more time to connect online and because of that, if we’re making the investment to bring people together, say, authors, into an honest community online, we have to time-budget for it. Robin, if I invited you to my home for noodles this Friday night and I said, “Could you go by 6:00? We’re inviting some other people over. They’re world-traveled and have interesting things to say. Please don’t plan to leave before 10:00.”
“We’ll make sure that there’s wine and something crispy to eat,” you would think nothing of it. In fact, you look forward to it. You might arrive early and consider staying if you sit next to someone particularly handsome and charming. If I say, “Robin, this Friday night, will you get on a Zoom call with me from 6:00 to 8:30?” You can’t even believe I would even ask. Notice why and it’s because one is far more satisfying.
Here’s a great irony. We have to schedule more time online to create those connections and we want to schedule less time. Can it be done? Sure, and there are lots of examples of that. We have to know as community leaders what we’re up against. The third thing I’ll share about that is I see a lot of mistakes happen online regarding what we call intimate or campfire experiences.
Robin, when you and I go to a conference, party or celebration of some sort, what happens is we don’t stand among twenty people and talk out loud, hoping nineteen other people hear us. We never do that. We find groups of largely 3 or maybe 6, but usually not. If it’s a bigger group than that, for example, you and I go to a three-hour wedding and they put us at a table for ten, it’s uncomfortable. We’re just trying to talk to three people next to us and it’s weird because there are ten of us there. After three hours, we still don’t feel connected to those people.
What we do is we end up pairing off or doing many triplets at the table of ten.
We call that, for the purposes of teaching in my work, a campfire experience. The reason we’ve used that is simply because most people, if not everybody, has had the experience of sitting around a campfire, standing up some hours later and noticing that you feel more connected to those people. You talk about things that are important to you and touched you.
We have found that people who fancy themselves as community leaders ignore that principle that we find a campfire, which are small-enough groups that feel intimate where you can, if you so choose, have a vulnerable conversation. When we have people online, we have to then go out of our way to segment them and create some structure where they can find an intimate campfire experience. Whereas if you invite me to a wedding of 500 people, I’m going to do it within fifteen minutes. Those are three examples that are different between online.
Even that alone is so loaded because my brain is zooming around. Something I noticed since COVID is I’ve always worked on Zoom with my clients, but when my social life also moved to Zoom, I got so much Zoom fatigue. The last thing I want to do at 8:00 at night is to have another Zoom call. It’s interesting because it’s face-to-face. It should feel closer than it does. What do you think?
There is some interesting thinking about that. My understanding is I haven’t seen any research that explains how Zoom fatigue happens and what have you. There are events that we attend online and we don’t get tired. I don’t even know if it’s important that we understand why it’s happening. We just need to understand that it happens so that we don’t lean too heavily on video communication. I know for me, I often want to put on a headset and walk around my neighborhood. I don’t want to sit in this chair, looking at the camera. That’s important that we recognize that so that we can give people a connection with the freedom to do that. It counts.
That was another interesting point that you brought up about how this is the loneliest time for some people. Say a little bit more about that.
We’ve seen a trend of loneliness steadily increasing, unfortunately, since the 1970s until now. It may have been increasing since before then, but that’s what the research shows. Bowling Alone by Putnam is the most famous book that documented from the ’70s to ’90s how we were on the slide and we know it’s become much worse. In fact, the research coming out of Pew indicates we’re more lonely than ever.
I saw research that shows that 15% of men don’t have a close friend. Robin, you and I together have sat in a room with more than ten men in it. When you’re out in the grocery store or making invitations for people to join you, there are a lot of profoundly lonely people. Usually, I’m speaking, right before COVID, in a large room with people. I would say that you and everyone you know is living in the loneliest era, maybe in history.
I see heads nod because even people who don’t study this understand that intuitively, even if they don’t understand it specifically. This is important when we talk about building a community because, at the end of the day, communities largely begin with an invitation. Somebody needs to invite somebody else to spend time together, hopefully, in the physical room. Maybe digitally, but someone has got to make the invitation.
I have found where people are not yet connecting or sending out invitations. There’s a lot of fear about that. What I hope that we all understand is we are surrounded by people who are desperately waiting for invitations to connect. We’re all standing around together, desperately waiting for this together. We’re in a lonely time. When we reach out to people to connect, we’re largely on balance reaching out to people who don’t have the skills to make the connections they want.
When it turns out they’re not very good at it and maybe you’re not good at it, we need to give forgiveness to ourselves that’s the context and assume, “That’s okay. This is clunky because it’s bad up there.” One of my colleagues, he named the problem we got in this era. He says, “One of the ways we can look at it is we have a failure to build up leaders who are connecting us.”
If we can train, encourage and inspire more people to go out and invite more people to connect and create the spaces where we connect, which can be around pizza, s’mores or ramen noodles, those count. When we have more people who do that, we’re going to be more connected. We can be those people and know that we’re inviting people who are no good at this. That’s okay.
It’s amazing to think it seems like an oxymoron in a way that we live in the age of connectedness. The internet supposedly has connected the world where you can reach people in all corners of the planet, and yet we are in the loneliest era at the same time.
It’s counterintuitive because this is a total misunderstanding of what connection means. When people say, “We have 6,000 people connected to our community,” at this point in my life and work, I know that they’re largely totally full of it. What they usually do is conflate the audience with a community. God bless you if it’s a 6,000-person audience, but that’s not a community. Let’s not pretend you don’t have that.Clear connections that happen in person happen far faster and go far deeper than they do online. Click To Tweet
It’s counterintuitive because, typically, social media is good at connecting us with lots of people who don’t care anything about us. It’s lousy about connecting us with people who care a great deal about us. There are exceptions. Given the end we’re talking about the internet, those exceptions are meaningful. When we’re talking about our entire lives, everybody we know or our generation, it’s a terrible tool. The research is also pretty clear there is a correlation between time spent in social media and being unhappy.
When you know that, then you get to reprioritize how you’re spending your time, since how we handle that in our lives, with COVID, my wife and I host two dinner parties a week in our home. They’re not fancy because we do two a week in our home. There’s a meal we’re going to eat and we eat every day. That’s not such a big deal. There are people who are not us there. What happens is we have a conversation that’s fun. That’s what happened.
Since we’ve been doing this for many years now, we now have friends who know where stuff is in our house and the order of affairs. They are now hosting with us because their hands get dirty. We have built a community around that. Over the course of a year, if we’re hosting eight dinners in our home a month, those are all hours we’re logging building friendships. You can imagine how after 1, 5 and 10 years how that is a life-changing experience not only for us but for the other people who have spent those hours in the community with us.
I remember there’s those, “If you’re fortunate enough to go to college and get to live on campus.” I can think of another time because I also lived in a yoga ashram a couple of times. Other than that, I can’t think of another time where it was so easy to connect because you live and go to class with these people and party with them. I went to my 30-year college reunion.
It was interesting that I noticed that everyone that I hung out with was, by and large, the people on the floor of my dorm in my freshman and those were the ones who showed up. There was something about it was our first year away from home and we gelled together. When I think about adult life after college, it seems like you do have to be. Those things don’t just happen so much. You have to create them, like you’re saying.
Let’s deconstruct some things that were going on in that college experience. Somebody arranged it so that you were in proximity to other people your age. Many times a week, you approach somebody and said, “Would you like to do this with me, have breakfast or watch this TV show?” Somebody had created a container where you could come together safe enough that you could share possibly intimate and vulnerable conversations if you chose to. Somebody made invitations over and over again. Now, you’re no longer nineteen. Somebody else isn’t doing it for you, but you can notice that was happening and notice where you’re putting that in your life. It’s not shocking. If you then put it in your life again, your life is going to change.
What you’re saying is so important that it’s not about waiting for someone else to make the invitation. It’s about you taking it upon yourself. Why do you think people hesitate to make invitations?
First of all, I believe that we’re in a culture where people largely don’t know the distinction invitation. In my work, an invitation is when somebody knows that somebody else cares if they show up. We’re in an age where people conflate announcements and invitations. I’ll give you an example. I was approached at a party. It happened at a brunch by somebody who is a sister of a friend of mine. This sister was excited to talk to me, an expert in the community. She said, “I moved to Potrero Hill in San Francisco. I want to make friends and have a community. I hosted a brunch in my neighborhood in my home and nobody came. What can I do to build a community?”
She shared it in this way like it was ridiculous that nobody wanted to have brunch with her. She was heroically offering a community. I don’t know her and what she was doing. Maybe her home is behind barbed wire with a bunch of dogs. I don’t know if people aren’t coming. I started with the first question. I said, “How many people did you invite?” There was a long pause and then she said, “I posted on social media.”
She invited nobody. Nobody showed up. She was genuinely confounded by this. What I like to say is we live in an era where I know because of conversations like this, where people like to skip the invitation part and then be confused why they’re not connecting. The other one is I know that people think that a no to an invitation is a demerit. If you get too many noes and you’re a bad person, you failed or maybe even worse than that, you should give up.
That’s a misunderstanding of how a community works. Invitations are so powerful that they work no matter if someone accepts or turns it down. If I make an invitation to you, Robin, at least two things are going to happen. One is you’re going to get evidence and a data point that somebody else thinks you belong. In this case, with me, in my home over dinner, sitting with my wife. Maybe from 6:00 to 10:00.
Maybe you can’t come because you’re taking care of a sick parent or even an at-risk youth or work is so difficult that you collapse on a couch on a Friday night and the last thing you can do is have a charming conversation. Fair enough. You still get the data point. The second thing that happens is you get evidence that you know somebody that can bring people together in the loneliest era of maybe history. You tell me, Robin. Do you think people want to know that they are connected to somebody who can bring people together or not?
According to Marissa King’s research, she is out of the Yale School of Management. “Approximately half of the people who we’re going to reach out to are not going to be that receptive to invitations to connect. Twenty-five percent are so introverted that the idea of going somewhere, being charming and talking is not that appealing.” It’s fantastic. You know what you need and like. Please do that. “Another 25% they get uncomfortable when relationships become too close.” Maybe being invited to my home and having those conversations. That triggered some stuff and they needed that. Fair enough.
That tells us who are making the invitations is you’re expecting to get at least half noes. You throw in some sick parents, parents of at-risk kids, exhausting jobs and maybe even housework and your acceptance rate should be below 50%. If you’re getting anything above 50%, then something is going screwy with who you’re inviting in your numbers. When we understand that you should be getting half noes or more than half noes and you understand that that’s still building community and bringing connectedness into your people, now we can become more liberal in making those invitations.
Before I move on from this, I want to show you something else that’s counterintuitive so that we can distinguish between announcements and invitations. “Robin, I live in Oakland. Famously in the press, Oakland is having a real rise in crime during the pandemic. The city is having a budget crisis. We’re having a record of hot summer, which is creating its problems with fire to smoke. We’re going to have a pizza at my house on Friday night. You should totally come.” You laughed out loud.
I would still come, but I’m brave.
That wasn’t an invitation. That was an announcement. “There’s pizza. You should come.” It’s not clear to you that I care if you would come. You’ve gotten many “invitations” that are miscommunicated. It’s just announcement. “Yeah, you should come. It’ll be great.”
That’s true. That doesn’t show that you care if I’m there or not.
“Robin, we haven’t seen each other for a year and a half because of COVID. We’ve known each other for over a year. I live in Oakland. During the COVID year, Oakland had a rough time and the crime has gone up. The city is in crisis because of the budget. We’re also having weather things that are making this a difficult place to be. My wife has decided that we want to have friends around us that are connected and supportive as we get through this unprecedented time in the region.”
“One of the ways we do that is to schedule our evenings on Friday nights from 6:00 to 10:00 to do no work, get off our phones and create relationships with people we want to know better so that we have more friends in the area. We would love for you to come. I would love for you to be a part of that. Will you join us on Friday? We’re going to order pizza.” Do you see the difference?We need to think of relationships as a muscle. The more we use it, the more we put a load on it, the stronger it gets. Click To Tweet
One, I’m clear that I’m doing this because I want to be connected and there’s going to be pizza there. The other one is, “There’s pizza there. You should be there.” I want you to be there and the reason why you would be there is I have an intention. We’re building friends.
What I’m hearing in that is the way of making an invitation where it’s clear that it matters to you whether the person is there or not involves an element of being willing to be a little vulnerable.
Possibly, if a vulnerability, in this case, means I’m sharing that I have a wish that could be denied.
I’m telling this person that it matters to me. That’s not just, “There’s pizza. You should be there,” and maybe not revealing what’s underneath that. It would make a difference to that person that you did come because there’s some of that trying to play it cool, which might be impeding people’s ability to connect.
An invitation is a request. If it’s anything more than a request, we enter the realm of coercion where there’s a sense where there’s a demerit. If you don’t come, you’ll be punished or that you’ll be specifically rewarded if you do come. We see our invitations as requests that other people know we care that they showed up or not. We know that it doesn’t matter if they say yes or no. They’re still powerful. We know that most people are going to say no and that’s okay. That’s how the world works. Now, we’re freed up to start making invitations that aren’t getting made.
Let’s talk about another one of your concepts that relationships include generosity.
The reason it’s important for me to talk about it is you referenced at the top of this conversation many people want to start a community and have an extractive mindset. “I want to get sales, log-on, views, followers or posts.” You can want those things. Robin and I know exactly how many people we want to spend more time with if all of their investment to spend time with us is to get something from us.
Robin, my guess is you have purchased some meals for friends and given some rides to airports in the past. That was okay in friendship, which is to say, people got stuff from you. You didn’t keep those relationships because they were getting stuff from you. You got those relationships because you perceived that there was a mutual concern. In that relationship, there was mutual generosity that you are around people who aren’t constantly doing a return on investment calculation every time you make a request or find a voicemail from them.
To develop that a little bit further, let’s reflect on people who see relationships as an opportunity to get stuff. We call that transactional. “I’m willing to dance for you. I’m going to push out media for you. I’m going to give you access to status, i.e., I’ll invite you to the inner ring. You’re going to get that and I’m going to get whatever I want to get.” Those would be transactional relationships. The relationships that we want to be in are internally motivated where we’re growing together.
People who seek out and are building extractive and transactional relationships think of a relationship as a bank account and put things in the bank account. When they build it up, then they ask for stuff and deplete the bank account. Those people are constantly worried about, “What is the balance?” They’re worried about whether they’ve put enough in and they can ask enough. When they don’t get that ROI, then they get mad because they put their value in the bank account. We know those people and largely try to avoid them.
I’ve got to stop you here because this is interesting. I don’t know if you recall Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where he literally talks about the emotional bank account.
I can’t speak to Stephen Covey’s emotional bank account. I can speak to the fact that there are people who are constantly evaluating how much value they’ve perceived they’ve put in relationships so that they could ask. They come up sometimes as goofy calculations that I’ve witnessed. I’m seeing that we need to dispel that and think about relationships different and revolutionary to most people.
We need to think of friendships as a muscle. With a muscle, the more we use it and put a load on it, the stronger it gets. The more we ask for the ride to the airport, not because we weren’t willing to buy a car, but because there is a need right now, the more people feel close to us within some boundary. There’s a bell curve that has ends on each one. That’s how I talk about it usually. We got to think about it either as a bank account or a muscle. I’m encouraging people to think about it as a muscle so they can build strong relationships.
We get a little more complicated. The reason why the former fails is those are externally motivated relationships. “I want to get stuff external from me that you have or can give me and I’m going to be linked to that.” The latter is internally motivated. “I want to express my generosity and friendship. I want to make other people healthy. I’ll do what it takes and that includes sharing a meal, driving to the airport or sitting with you in a hospital in an ICU room.”
For those of us who have been with friends during tragic times that might have been in an ICU room, we understand what an honor it is to be invited into that room, stand with their family and hold that space in maybe the worst hours of their lives. They are not depleting the bank account when they ask us to come to the ICU room. They are building the muscle of their relationship because they are giving us an invitation to express to be the friend we want to be. When we can recognize that we are surrounded by internally motivated people, almost desperate to share the friend they want to be, everything changes.
That’s so incredible because I have to think how many people are not asking because they don’t want to be a burden or impose. This is such a powerful idea that you’re sharing.
Let’s spread it widely because it’s such a disaster out there.
It’s like if you want better friendships, ask more from your friends.
I like to share a story. My son was born and it so happened my wife went into labor a week early, and because she went into labor a week early, I was in New York while she was in Oakland when she went to labor. It was a very stressful time for me to get back. I landed and got to the hospital. All the preparations of the house that we expected to happen over a week didn’t happen. She stayed a couple of nights in the hospital and went from the hospital to our home, but this house was not yet ready for a new mom and child. As you can imagine, having flown in from New York and then watch my son being born, I noticed that I was tired and overwhelmed.
I’m mature enough now that I know that when I have that feeling, that what I needed to do is ask for help. I got my phone out and immediately reached out to a few friends. I said, “I need help.” I believe that’s how it started. Sure enough, my friend Arjan responded and said, “I’ll be right over.” He didn’t know I was reaching out an hour earlier. Within minutes, he was in my home and I said, “Arjan, here’s this long list of things we need to do for my new son to come up in this house. I can barely stand up. Let’s start at the top.” He and I knocked out that list in the next few hours.We write because we're out to change the damn world. It's because we see it's broken and people are in pain. Click To Tweet
The reason I’m telling you this story is, as a new father, I became aware that if I didn’t have that wisdom, that when I had that feeling, I need to ask for help. If I hadn’t had the humility to allow my friend extemporaneously to work on my house for several hours as a surprise call, that I wouldn’t have gotten it. My story of my son coming home and being a new father would be one of his aspirations and how tough it is.
“When you’re a new father, there’s so much to do. It’s so exhausting and you can’t get it done.” Instead, because I understood that and acted consistent with that, my story is my son coming into my life was about community and friendship. It’s about coming together, preparing and welcoming somebody into the community who came together to make sure he would join us in a safe and healthy way. That’s the difference of community.
I know that you and I were mission-driven, that the writing, talking, podcasting and speaking, it’s not because we need a bigger platform and to prove to people that we’re more important than we used to be. We do it because we’re out to change the damn world and to see it’s broken and people are in pain. While we’re here, if we can say or do something that moves the needle away from that pain, then that’s a worthwhile investment. I meet authors that I know are doing the work because they only want to be a bigger name and that usually means more sales. Usually, that’s what that means.
You and I have talked about how you and I agree the number of books you sell does not tell us how important your work is. I know there are celebrities out there that could write a book about ten ways to cook an egg and they would sell over 1 million copies. My book has not sold 1 million copies. I know that, without exaggeration, some of the most powerful companies in the world build programs based on my work. I hope that’s helping people to bring them together in new ways. We have disconnected how big we are with certain numbers and how important our work is.
I meet authors who see this game as a competition. At one point, I began writing my follow-up book to The Art of Community. It’s called Building Brand Communities with my co-author, Carrie Melissa Jones. I want to work with her because I talked about the fundamentals and millennia-old wisdom of bringing people together that we can translate and apply to our era. She was much more versed in what large organizations, often commercial, are doing and largely failing to bring people together.
We want to write the book that calls out what’s failing so they can stop doing that, but if you don’t know how they’re failing, it’s hard to write that book. We came together and it was a perfect marriage of different areas of understanding to come together and say something new. In the beginning, she was a little bit afraid now that we’re going to be working together. There are only so many conferences, clients and inner rings are we in competition.
We got to have the conversation which I want to reference here, which is, “We’re out to change the world. Even if we look at the numbers, there are Fortune 500 companies, top 400 foundations and top 100 whatever. Let’s not worry about it if you and me got to split them up. Second of all, if what we’re trying to do is share something that will shift this culture to be more healthy, safe and fair, then the more of us that are doing it well is better.”
If you tomorrow decide you want to be a super community expert and all of a sudden, people are listening to you because your work is more relevant and powerful than what I’ve written and shared, that’s better for the world. It’s incumbent on me to then find out how my work needs to be mature to be relevant, powerful and effective. If you get bigger numbers because you’re telling people what they want to hear and not what they need to hear and I continue to sing what I think they need to hear, but nobody wants to hear it and your number is bigger than mine, then I get to make that choice.
I don’t need to be threatened by you because you’ll tell everybody at conferences, “You’re great and doing the right thing. What the world needs are more people like us doing this. That’s how the world got so great now. High-five to everybody. We win.” You and I know people. We have names in our head where they’re building their entire career saying that. You and I look at the world and say, “Are you freaking kidding me? This is a horror show and we don’t want more of it. Whatever is taking us here, let’s turn this thing around. No high-fives. We get it. We’re smart and good enough. Anyway, thanks for listening.”
It speaks directly to something that I teach consistently across several different platforms, which is that book sales is one metric. It’s the metric that publishing houses like to look at and focus on because it keeps the doors open and we all understand the need for that. At the same time, though, I think that we should be measuring the success of a book on impact.
If you get your book into the hands of a few key people who have the ability to influence thousands or billions of people, then you could literally change the world with very few book sales if you’re putting the book in the hands of the right people. They can use your ideas to create some real change and movement. This is a perfect example of talking about how do we measure an author’s success if your whole legacy is about your sales numbers. The authors I meet are in it for these bigger ideas and changing the world, so it’s better for everyone.
I love your opinion on this. When we become authors, we’ll get some attention and we have a following. We’re invited into new rooms. My take on it is there’s a winnowing. I call it dancing. People know they’re dancing at the front of the room. They largely begin to recognize who is showing up with purpose. When I’m there, there’s a feeling of gravitas with people who have something to say to heal this era, at least the best we can and then who is there to dance better. They’re bragging about how they’re selling more dance tickets. Will you share your thoughts on that?
That’s true and it’s pretty easy to spot, don’t you think?
I think so and I’m often surprised about what looks obvious to me and is a mystery to other people. I’ve been told bluntly by people in my field that there are people who have books out around the community who are scared of me. I have never spoken to some of those people. I don’t know if that’s true, but I have been told and I wonder why.
What they tell me is they’re scared because they know that my work is of substance and that it’s bringing people together and not about telling any given executive, “I can solve your problems with a couple of tools, spreadsheet and checklist.” I don’t go into rooms and tell very often to executives, “That’s right. You’re doing a fantastic job. You have what this era needs. All we need to do is amplify what you’re doing.” I largely never say that. That’s not how we became the loneliest ever in American history, with 50% of people burnt out and half of the American workers wanting to leave. That’s not how we got here because you’re awesome.
Moving your entire office to full-time Zoom is not going to make it better, even though it saves on the rent. I do think that a lot of times, the solution that seems the simplest and the fastest path to the result is often not the best solution. I’ve literally turned away thousands of people who come to me wanting to write a book because out of my genuine concern, I said, “You’re not ready to write a book. You need to go grow your business, get a client base and get some on-the-ground experience to cover your monthly bills.” I imagine some of those people, unfortunately, went to a different book coach and wrote a book.
You and I both know if you sit in front of the word processor and peck long enough, you will have 40,000 words. Whether anybody should use their waking time to read them or if they use them, it will help them grow in any way is the real question.
If we’re going to take on the task of authorship because it’s true. Anyone with the ability to put sentences together can write a book, but should you? What is the purpose of the book? Is the purpose of the book to stand at the front of the room and say, “Look at me, I’m an author?” Is the purpose of the book to be part of a bigger mission and idea that you’re wanting to promote in the world?
I want to ask you a question about authorship because I want your take on this. When I was a new author, my book got enough traction. I was getting invited to these rooms, as we referenced, but I was new there and did the norms. I showed up in the lobby of a very famous company you’ve heard of that invited me to have this lunch there.
There was another author there who showed up and I had never heard of him. I didn’t know what he writes or talks about. I don’t know anything about him. Within minutes of meeting me, he handed out a copy of his self-published book to everyone standing in that lobby within an arm’s reach. It’s less than ten. I didn’t know him. I didn’t ask for a book. Even if I did ask for a book, I didn’t know the subject. I was startled by that because I was thinking of the wisdom a mentor of mine told me.
He says, “If you show people that your work is worth nothing, they will agree with you.” If someone is not willing to use their thumb to hit a button to buy my book for $14, they probably don’t want to read it. If you don’t have $14 and you asked me for a book and you want it, I will give it to you if that’s the problem. You don’t have $14 on the phone with a button on it. I was so startled like, “What is going on? You hand me a book I didn’t ask for in a lobby of all places. Where am I going to put it?” If you could share with me your take on it to help me understand when and where, that’s a good idea.If you sit in front of the word processor and you peck long enough, you will have 40,000 words. Click To Tweet
It’s never a good idea and for many reasons. The most obvious one is it devalues your book. The bigger problem with it is it undermines what is going on in an author and a reader, which is the opportunity to create intimacy. Handing someone the book that you didn’t ask in a lobby is the equivalent of sticking your tongue down to someone’s throat instead of shaking your hand when you’re introduced.
That’s why you were startled because it’s more like an attack than an invitation. It portrays desperation, low value and a form of disrespect like, “I don’t care if you want my book or not. You’re going to have my book.” Something is missed by authors who do that, who I’m sure are trying to promote their book. The real opportunity in having a book is when someone chooses to read your book because it’s interesting to them.
Maybe they see some possibility for themselves if they read it. You, most likely literally, get six hours of their uninterrupted and undivided attention in bed, frankly, because that’s probably where they are when they are reading it. You have this huge opportunity to create a form of a relationship with your reader. If you can demonstrate in the book that you see them, understand what they’re dealing with and have some suggestions that might apply to their situation and help them out.
This is why when people read books and then when they meet an author who wrote a book that they got value from, they’re so excited to have that in-person connection because they already feel connected to the author. I even tell people, “Don’t go to a conference and put your books on a table with a sign that says, ‘Take one,’ because that’s almost as bad. You’re not assaulting the person, but you’re definitely devaluing the book.”
You want to think about like, “Are they interested enough to give you $20 for the book?” That’s a good starting point because they’re making an investment. You’ve invested your time and everything that you brought to create that book. Buying the book or asking for the book even is their way of demonstrating, “I value this and I would like to partake of this.” No one should get a book without that part of the conversation.
You touched on something that’s helpful to me. A number of people have approached me and they’re fans of my work. They feel more connected to me than I feel connected to them because I’ve never met them before. I can respect that and I do the work to make a difference. I’m happy that people like it. It never occurred to me they spent six hours with me, maybe in bed. I’m a big fan of other artists. I have some empathy for that.
When we’re at a conference, there are hundreds of people there. Maybe we’ve traveled across time zones and might have spent twelve hours in an airport universe. It’s tough to be present as personal as we want to be. I know, for me, I want to be connected and kind. Sometimes this becomes a volume game. Do you have thoughts about principles we can keep in mind or live by when we noticed there are more people who want to connect with us than we have the bandwidth for that moment?
That hasn’t happened to me a whole lot. I think that first, doing the best that you can to receive the people that you can, but I also think it depends on the context. If it’s going to be a multiple-day conference, for example, it’s fine to also set that boundary and say, “I just got off an airplane. I’m exhausted. I hope that we’ll have a chance to connect more over the next few days, but right now, what I need to do is this.”
It’s probably like any other conversation where there’s a mutual concern where you’re building that kind of relationship, even if it is a brief relationship and you never see them again. It’s about understanding what your needs are and communicating them in a way that’s also acknowledging this person’s interest in you.
I know the people who do it well. I don’t think I did terribly, but I have a lot to grow. I’m remembering I flew to an event in Wisconsin. It was a healthcare event and my agent got feedback like, “The presentation was great, but Charles truly could work on his personability.” She asked me like, “What was going on?” It was a big event. Nobody had met me at the front door to show me which room it was, so I was wandering around looking for it. When I found the room, there was a session going on. It was locked and they didn’t tell me when they were going to unlock it.
When they did unlock it, which was an unannounced time, I had to get in there and then find the person to do the tech check. Somebody tried to talk to me and thought I was not very personable. I’m the community guy. I’m here to talk about community and granted that was pretty acute because I’ve been locked out of the room. Fair enough, but it reflects the fact it’s that person. They’re meeting the community guy who is all about connection and he is not reconnected and like, “How can I ever meet?”
Sometimes the wisdom that’s required there is on behalf of the other person. One lesson I will never forget that I learned was doing an acting intensive at the National Theatre Conservatory. There was a member who would get up and leave the room for no apparent reason and then come back. It was mixed age. I was in my late twenties. This person was in his late twenties.
This would go on throughout the intensive. He seemed very angry and came in and out in terms of his participation level. The whole time, I was judging him. I was thinking, “What’s with this guy?” He is not into this and being social. He keeps walking out of the room when somebody is in the middle of something. He disappears for several minutes and then he comes right back.
I found out on the last day at the farewell party that he had AIDS. I realized that all of his behavior made perfect sense. It taught me a lesson about, “You never know what people are dealing with.” I would be grateful to him for the rest of my life because anytime I rushed to judgment about somebody’s behavior, I remember that you never know.
It’s also important that people who are approaching somebody who is about to speak before a room, keep in mind, you don’t know what that person is dealing with at that moment. Just because they didn’t extend a big hug to you at that moment, want to sit down and have coffee with you, maybe there’s other stuff going on.
Thanks for sharing it. I also have had to learn that I make judgments about what people should or shouldn’t do. I don’t know how much pain they’re in or the stress they’re dealing with. I’m old enough now that I have enough back pain that sitting in a chair for three hours and listening to some of the fronts of the room is a ridiculous expectation of me. I have to be the one who stands up, goes back room and pace to get muscles moving. I’m sure there are people who think, “What’s wrong with that guy?” I don’t go around explaining. It’s super painful to sit long enough.
It’s something we can all remember that you never know and the little generosity.
I want to ask you also about your thoughts about how other authors should be or can be helpful to other authors. Here’s why I asked. You and I and hopefully, if ever we want to hang out, we want to be generous. I don’t have time to vet the validity, merit, usefulness or maturity of people who approached me who are making something, be that a podcast or book, which I’m not going to spend six hours vetting to see. I’m not going to start taking risks with my name to people I know like you, Robin.
I’m not going to choose people that within ten minutes, you realize you don’t have a clue on anything, but you check them out. I’m in this quandary. I only have so much bandwidth. I want to be as generous to other people as other people have been to me and yet there’s an enormous time commitment if I’m to step into that with quality. Could you speak to thoughts that you’ve gained with a lot more perspective with authors than I have?
Do you mean like if somebody comes to you for an endorsement for your book?
Endorsement but also introductions and encouragement to be parts of what I call inner rings. Inner rings go on forever. In groups of people, you have to be invited to or applied to. I don’t want to be the person who encourages someone to go somewhere and maybe they’re ten years too early and they will be great in ten years. With the way that shows up, they perceive a reticence to be very helpful and it’s about bandwidth. I’m going to pile on. I want to give you a lot to respond to because I want to have a question.If you show people that your work is worth nothing, they will agree with you. Click To Tweet
I know that I invited you to interview you, but this is fun. Keep going.
The other thing I want you to speak to is that for those of us who do deep work and I know that you do very deep work. You want to avoid everything that’s superficial. There’s this reality that eats up our calendar. For you and me who do deep work, that quick fifteen-minute conversation kills aspirationally only an hour of productivity and probably a whole afternoon of concentration. People want to catch up or check-in and they don’t understand the cost of that. A client contacted me from Google. I live in Oakland. They want me to come to Google and have lunch down there.
I said no because I didn’t know how important the meeting was. I would lose effectively an entire day of writing to go to lunch to see if it was anything worth it. I don’t know how many people would say, “That’s ridiculous,” but to a writer, that’s all day of writing to find out if I needed to go. I’m in this because I’m writing a book. How to not come across as a person who thinks, “I’m too cool for school because I won’t find that 5 or 15 minutes for those a week,” and you go to grab it and also being someone who wants to be available, engaged, active and approachable? If you could speak to that, that would be helpful.
This is tough because there’s a natural thing that happens. As you up-level your own life and grow as a person, especially professionally, you’re going to attract more people and have more people wanting your time. It’s an occupational hazard in a way where you have to start saying, “No more.” It’s rarely fun to say no. Sometimes it’s fun, but most often, it’s not fun to have to say no or not make yourself available.
On the other hand, it’s important to protect your time, especially when you’re doing world-changing work. You can’t be there for every little thing. It’s about being respectful but clear in your communication. Maybe saying, “Is it essential that I’m at that lunch? Unless you positively have to have me there, I need to do this other thing.” Maybe it’s like, “There’s no way I can do it.” It’s about being clear and protective of your time.
I’m glad you said that. I remember I asked somebody who is in the PR communications world. I was speaking to them. They referenced an author that I admire and said, “That person has put up this big smokescreen to seem more important than they are. They’re too cool to talk to anybody.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I thought as that was coming out of his mouth like, “This legitimately is a problem for me.” I don’t know who else is talking about me saying, “Charles is too cool. He doesn’t have time for anybody.” I was like, “I’m doing something.” That’s why I wanted your thoughts on that. I don’t want to wake up and all of a sudden, one of those people seems like I’m too cool to talk to anybody.
That’s why it does matter a little bit how you say no because it’s like you’re saying, “No, you’re not important enough.”
What I say is, “If you’re more important, I would consider it.”
It’s right to say, “I’m in the middle of this. I’ve consciously limited my calls to only a certain time frame with certain people who are closely related to the project I’m working with.” If you’re willing to be a little bit transparent with people and give them a bit so that they know more than they need to know, that helps to make it clear. It’s not that they don’t think they’re important enough. Sometimes it’s inappropriate.
Somebody reached out to me on Facebook and wanted to do a call. I’m not the right person to help her and I said, “What I think I would recommend is that you use that time that you would have spent on the phone with me talking to an attorney. I’m not the person that you need for this.” That was that, but I answered.
As you were speaking, what I realized is what I could do more of is instead of saying in whatever way is polite as I know how to make, “I don’t have the bandwidth to have this conversation,” is I can more steer them to colleagues I respect who are in the community. I can say, “If you want to talk to somebody who I admire on the subject, please reach out to them. They may have more bandwidth.”
The other thing I’ll add is I don’t know if you have this. Maybe think about getting an assistant if you don’t have an assistant.
I do, but it doesn’t matter how great my assistant is. There are only so many waking minutes.
That has made a huge difference because that has enabled me to have her be the first line of defense that she can help filter and at least give me the top-level summary.
At the end of the day, there’s that gray area and also people that I want to be helpful and responsive to. The concern isn’t that I’m not talking to them per se. It’s just that, “Am I accidentally creating this persona that I heard somebody describe another author?” While I heard it, I’m wondering, “Maybe that’s legit and that person is not pretending.”
At some point, you’ve got to give up being too worried about what other people think because there’s no way to do everything so that nobody is going to say, “That Charles is a snob. He doesn’t make time for me because he is too important.” That’s not about you. I had one business coach who very wisely said, “Other people’s opinion of you is none of your business.”
There are certainly times when that is true and then there’s a bell curve.
We’ve got to understand that we can’t control. No matter what we do, we’re going to piss some people off. They make up stories about why we did what we did or didn’t do what we didn’t do. We can’t put a lot of energy into that.
I would like to invoke the words of a great American sage named Taylor Swift, “People throw rocks at things that shine.” I have found that to be true and not just in the current chapter of my life but in the past chapters. As soon as I got some attention, all of a sudden, there are people who want to throw rocks. Before I had that success, I didn’t care. That’s absolutely the case.
With the cancel culture we have going on now, it’s a real thing. It’s about staying true to yourself and keep moving.
Thank you for having me on this opportunity to talk about my work and learn from you.
Thank you so much for having this conversation with me. Our readers are going to get a lot of different and unexpected things out of it. Charles, thank you again for your time.
We’ll talk soon. You know where I am. I love hearing from you.
You as well.
- Storytelling for Leadership
- Building Brand Communities
- The Art of Community
- Bowling Alone
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
About Charles Vogl
Charles Vogl is an adviser, speaker, and the author of three books, including the international bestseller The Art of Community.
He is a strategy advisor to Google’s global health and performance programs and a founding member of the Google Vitality Lab which works to innovate healing in our era.
His work is used to advise and develop leadership and programs worldwide within organizations including Google, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitch, Amazon, ServiceNow, Meetup.com, Wayfair and the US Army.
He has presented at venues including Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Wayfair, Harvard University, Stanford University, The Academy of Management, and the San Francisco Mayor’s Office. He has guest lectured in several Yale departments since 2007.
His first book, The Art of Community, won the Nautilus Silver Award for Business and Leadership. Drawing on both spiritual traditions and his own personal experience, The Art of Community lays out seven time-tested principles for growing enduring, effective, and connected communities. His second book, Storytelling for Leadership, draws on his own experience as a PBS documentary filmmaker to distill principles that help those in leadership confidently share authentic stories and inspire emotional resonance. His most recent book, Building Brand Communities (with Carrie Melissa Jones) won an Axiom Business Book Gold Medal. The work speaks directly to organizational leaders that seek to connect people in ways that serve both members and larger brand goals.
Charles began his lifelong study of change-making while a volunteer living in a Santa Ana, CA homeless shelter. He then worked on human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and later built teams to create high social impact media as a New York documentary filmmaker. His PBS film work won several international awards, including the Amnesty International Movies that Matter Award. All the work served as crucibles in which to learn the importance of and how to bring people together around shared values and purpose.
Charles teaches the wisdom and principles to build deep community and resilient relationships in the most lonely era in organizational history. His work draws on three thousand years of spiritual traditions to understand how individuals build loyalty, strengthen identity, and live out shared values. Building deep community in turn builds organizational resilience, attracts and retains community members around shared purpose and values, and fosters innovation that disrupts industries and influences global change.
He holds an M.Div. from Yale, where he studied religion, ethics, and business as a Jesse Ball duPont Foundation scholar.
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