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Find the Turpentine
How to build community by focusing on practice, not purpose
There’s a great Picasso quote that every community creator should keep on their desk.
It goes like this:
“When art critics get together they talk about form and structure and meaning.
When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”
In these two sentences, our old pal Pablo points out a common mistake community creators make:
They focus too much on purpose when members just want to go deep on their practice.
Let’s take climate change as an example.
A lot of communities focused on climate change flop. Members are drawn in by purpose: they’re worried about the planet and want to do something about it. But, once they’re in the room, they don’t know what to talk about.
The space gets filled with articles about climate change, lots of venting, not a whole lot of “doing”, and, well, nothing changes.
Their problem is they’re focusing too much on purpose and not enough on practice.
This may be a personal preference, but I find communities that focus on the practice to be much more interesting. I love the weird shit that “artists” (the practitioners), talk about. I love the turpentine.
If you want to put a dent into climate change by building community, I’d recommend you find the people who are looking for the turpentine. Find the artists. Find the practitioners. Then, go to the one-inch view and identify the highly specific problems the community will help them solve.
Some possible climate change identities to focus on:
Sustainable living nerds: “What worms do you put in your compost?”
Climate change activists: “What script do you use when you call your local governments?”
Climate researchers: “I’m gathering X data, who else is working on this?”
A few real-world examples…
The Daddit Community has posts celebrating being a dad (purpose), but the most engaged and meaningful conversations are about the real, difficult stuff that dads are dealing with in their life (practice):
The Creator Lab doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the growth of the creator economy (purpose). The conversations are highly practical, sharing experiments that members are running and their results (practice):
Belongly is a community for Therapists. Their homepage doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the importance of therapy (purpose). It shows the practical tools that they know members will be able to use in their work because it’s the stuff that the community talks about the most (practice):
Purpose is important. It reminds members of their “why” and keeps them going on the days when the work starts to feel too heavy. The occasional purpose post can be effective.
But purpose is the background for your community, not the foreground. It’s the “why”, not the “what”.
Root your community experience in your members’ reality. Find their turpentine.
30-Minute Exercise: How to Find Your Members’ Turpentine
Here’s an exercise I’ll have community creators do to find their turpentine:
Take 30 minutes and write down 25 questions that you believe your members are going to ask.
Get “oddly specific”:
What do your members wake up and think about every day?
What are the little annoyances they have to deal with?
What are the raw materials of their work?
What details do they tend to obsess over?
What are the questions that ONLY your members would know to ask?
If you’re building a community for people like you this should be easy because their questions are your questions.
If you don’t know what questions your members are likely to ask, then it’s time to get out of the building. Get on the phone and talk to your members or potential members. Send surveys. Ask them about a day in their life. Ask them about what keeps them up at night. Ask them what’s currently on their to-do list.
Then look at other similar communities and see what people are asking. Read the comments (that’s often where you’ll find their turpentine).
If your community has multiple identities within it, then write down 25 questions for each group.
Try it out and let me know how it goes!
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