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Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Jason Shen
Jason Shen
5 min read
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s excellent new book Tribes: 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 Tribes and in his previous book, WAR, 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 Tribes, 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 Tribes 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

Some additional quotes I loved:

On how wealth tends to harm mental well-being

Numerous cross cultural studies have shown that modern society-despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology-is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go rather than down. Rather than buffering people up from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.

On how casualties do not correlate to PTSD

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was simultaneously invaded by Egypt and Syria, rear-base troops had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of elite frontline troops, relative to the casualties they suffered. (In other words, rear-base troops had fairly light casualties but suffered a disproportionately high level of psychiatric breakdowns.) Similarly, more than 80 percent of psychiatric casualties in the US Army's VII Corps came from support units that took almost no incoming fire during the air campaign of the first Gulf War.

How group connection prevents breakdowns

The discrepancy might be due to the fact that intensive training and danger create what is known as unit cohesion-strong emotional bonds within company or the platoon-and high unit cohesion is correlated with lower rates of psychiatric breakdown. During World War II, American airborne units had some of the lowest psychiatric casualty rates of the entire US military, relative to their number of wounded. The same is true for armies in other countries: Sri Lankan special forces experience far more combat than line troops, and yet in 2010 they the were found to suffer from significantly lower rates of both physical and mental health issues. And Israeli commanders suffered four times the mortality rate of their men during the Yom Kippur War , yet had one-fifth the rate of psychological breakdown on the battlefield

The need to feel necessary and reasons to endure sacrifice

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It's time for that to end.
What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.
How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?

How tax fraud and littering are alike

When you throw trash on the ground, you apparently don't see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you're walking in.
In this sense, littering is an exceedingly petty version of claiming a billion-dollar bank bailout or fraudulently claiming disability payments. When you throw trash on the ground, you apparently don’t see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you’re walking around in. And when you fraudulently claim money from the government, you are ultimately stealing from your friends, family, and neighbors—or somebody else’s friends, family, and neighbors. That diminishes you morally far more than it diminishes your country financially.
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Jason Shen

Human(e) technologist on a mission to help build resilient teams and organizations. Former NCAA gymnast and three-time startup founder.