Eileen Kern

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“Connectors,” Summer Camp, and Book Club

It rained during most of my vacation this summer, which meant that it was easy to fill my days with literature. I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point because another family member had brought the book along.

The Tipping Point

I was very interested in the idea that “[t]he success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts” (Gladwell 33). The specific kinds of people that Gladwell identifies as key to a social epidemic (e.g. a trend, a fad, etc.) are:

  • Connectors: People who know large numbers of people and who habitually make introductions among people. These people also often know individuals across a number of social groups and make a habit of linking people in different circles.
  • Mavens: People we rely on for reviews, knowledge, and information. These people are problem-solvers and have the power to start word-of-mouth social epidemics based upon their credibility.
  • Salesmen: People with charisma and powerful negotiation skills. These people tend to be extremely persuasive–in that others are inclined to agree with what they say.

Now, I’m not going to put on airs here: When it comes to the typical social epidemic, it is unlikely that you will find me at the cutting edge, setting the trends. But the idea of the “Connector”–on a much smaller scale–reminded me of the following stories of my failure and triumph during different chapters of my life:

To Write

I attended a summer writing workshop for young adults between my sophomore and junior year of high school. I was a shy kid. My mom found the workshop online and was impressed that Tamora Pierce would be a guest instructor (I was a huge fan). The workshop was 6 hours away from my hometown, and we bought our first family cell phone the week before so that if I ran into issues, I’d have some way to easily contact my family.

The first evening of camp included ice breakers. Awesome ones, like Mafia. It really set the scene for me, as a pretty quiet kid, to feel like I was starting to get to know the other attendees and staff members.

When I went back the next year, the getting-to-know-you element had changed. On the one hand, I did know a few people from the year prior, so I had an easier transition to make. On the other, there wasn’t the same epic level of gamified getting-to-know-you exercises. Allegedly, as I found out much later into the week, the strong force behind the initial ice breakers the year before, as well as things like impromptu frisbee or soccer, had been one specific attendee from that year.

I have amazing, joyful memories of both years that I attended this workshop, and I met a number of fantastic people through the workshop. So it is perhaps both hard for me and unfair for the workshop to revisit my biggest source of pain in that second year: I wanted to create the same kind of welcoming environment for newer attendees that this other individual had created to welcome me the year before. But, at the time, that wasn’t my strength. I knew what I wanted to see happen, but I wasn’t equipped to make it happen.

And you know what? I’m pretty sure everyone felt welcome anyway, and that I was the one being overly sensitive. But when I look back at some of the other decisions I’ve made over time, I can see that I positioned myself to learn those kinds of “connecting” skills so that I would eventually be able to help bring people together myself.

It is one of the things that made me an effective Peer Counselor, my college’s version of an RA. I choose residence hall activities not just based upon my thematic obligations to my boss, but also based upon what I thought my residents would actually enjoy. I also positioned the activities strategically–I was unafraid to remind my residents that I was given a budget, it was meant for their benefit, so they should come enjoy the benefit of that budget by, say, picking up a free smoothie in the common room, or by coming out to the on-campus theater to eat free pizza and to watch the presidential debate. The priority I placed on selecting enjoyable activities is one of the reasons that my attendance numbers were so high. (I also had other things working in my favor, like having–hands-down–the best residents.)

And I see myself trying to do a similar thing today. I’m part of a book club at work. Because the organization is growing rapidly, there are always new hires coming through. While I don’t know everyone at work, I do try to loop in new hires if I think they might enjoy the club. I’m not offended by any means if someone doesn’t want to join–but for those who do, it’s a small, friendly group of people representing a variety of departments and specialties within the company. If I were new today, I would feel so blessed if someone made sure to include me in something like this–so I try to pay it forward.

After all, as I learned a long time ago, you can’t assume someone else is going to step up to shape an experience the way you think it should be shaped.