How Camaraderie is Forged Through Hardship

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s excellent new book Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging. It’s a slim volume that addresses something really important: how hardship builds group cohesion and solidarity.

In my keynote speech at the PRCA conference, I spoke about I believe is the most critical factor in high performing teams: trust. And I pointed out that groups never work closer together than after a crisis. This applies to acts of terrorism (America’s sense of unity after September 11), natural disasters (the pan-Asian support in response to the 2011 earthquake/tsunami of Japan) and even corporate crises (morale and productivity at Airbnb actually skyrocketed following a major debacle where a host had their home vandalized in 2011).

In a crisis people are usually more aligned on what’s at stake and they have to trust each other in order to work together to face the challenge.

Junger talks in Tribe and in his previous book, WAR (my notes on that book here), about how people often miss wars. Both soldiers and civilians. While this may seem crazy, there’s a reason for it. War heightens the sense that “we are all in this together”, breaks down class boundaries (especially during combat operations or during periods of heavy assault) and drives people to help, support, and defend one another in far reaching ways. After the war, or otherwise crisis, ends, things change and that sense of belonging is less prevalent.

In Tribe, Junger writes about war and peace in modern society and hunter gatherer ones. I was fascinated to hear that during the time when Europeans were just starting to settle in North America, that there was a phenomenon of men and women joining the local American Indian tribes and never coming back. Why?

It’s believed that the general freedom of activity, social cohesion, and lack of class hierarchy may have drawn women (who had many rules guiding their behavior in their “modern society”) and lower class men (who had a tough time rising in status) into the fold. The funny thing is, despite being a more “civilized” culture, almost no Indian ever wanted to stay and be a part of the settler’s society.

From a personal perspective, part of why I am drawn to startups is the sense of social cohesion and close knit bonds. I felt that most deeply when I was training as a gymnast at Stanford. I spent 4+ hours a day with my teammates. We took the same classes, lived together, traveled together, and are together. We worked hard, faced physical danger, faced down competitors, and won glory for team and our school. Few things more satisfying than having a small group of people united and working towards an important, deeply held goal.

Another idea that really struck me while reading Tribe was the idea that people need to be around other people. People who experience trauma are able to recover much faster when they are in a more inclusive society with a high degree of interaction than people who are highly rigid class based society. Lonely people are more likely to be depressed and face a higher mortality rate.

Junger spent a lot of time embedded with combat soldiers and he notes that during your entire deployment, you were almost never alone and probably had 2-3 other people (whom you knew and knew you) within an arm’s reach away at all time. Then you return back to modern society where you are surrounded by strangers almost all the time.

Humans seem to function best when we are with people we know.

I wonder what that means for introverts and people who work remotely. It’s possible that too much space / alone time can have harmful effects, even if they might be desirable for other reasons. It was once pointed out to me that luxury and wealth is always shown as a lack of other people: more space on the plane, a rooftop al to yourself, an empty beach, and yet these exact things might lead to less enjoyment and fulfillment. And yet  How can we spend our money in ways that give us more satisfaction, not less?

Neither Junger nor I have any answers from all this, but just to say that giving people meaningful work/responsibility is important, hardship is not always something to avoid. Instead, hardship, especially shared hardship, could be appreciated for how it fosters unity, trust, and even love.

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