I was speaking to a special forces unit at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, when I was struck with a huge realization about the book I had just finished writing, The Spartan Way.

In my book I illuminate 10 distinct and critical principles and their underlying core virtues within an approach to living life well while persevering through (and profiting from) adversity.

The principles and virtues I had just been talking to the soldiers about—the foundation of my new book—prompted a comment: “You haven’t talked about the importance of community. Why isn’t that one of your principles? What role do you think community plays in success?”

This hit me hard. Because I instantly knew I had left out the most important thing of all when it comes to all of the principles and virtues in my book: COMMUNITY.

women cheering as they start the race

Community Is Vital to Top Performance

Community has everything to do with successfully eating better, training better, living better, and being better. Early in The Spartan Way, in the introduction titled “Transform Your Life,” I talk about how I was introduced to several fundamental principles of the Spartan way from elders after I was encouraged to go into business as a kid. In fact, looking back on my own successes in life, not a single one of them would have happened without the support and contribution of others.

In my book I write about how to apply principles like finding your true north and delaying gratification, and virtues like passion, perseverance, and discipline. Each of these commodities is fueled by and relies upon who you choose to connect with in life. Who you surround yourself with, who you share time and commune with, who you work with.

Erica Keswin is founder of the Spaghetti Project, a platform “devoted to sharing the science and stories of human connections with global brands, communities, teams and individuals.” As she explains it, the power of community is a force that makes everything fly. Her project is named after a Cornell study that found the firefighters in New York City who ate meals together were reported to significantly perform better in their jobs.

Crews at firehouses that didn’t break bread together were found not only to suffer relatively poor performance, but were considered suspect. A report on the study shared the following insight on the latter from lead researcher, Kevin Kniffin: “The researchers noted firefighters expressed a certain embarrassment when asked about firehouses where they didn’t eat together. ‘It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked,’ Kniffin said.” So community is not only the secret ingredient when it comes to enabling top performance, but a corroded community, or isolation, drains performance and can even be toxic.

Community Has Long Been Humanity’s Secret Weapon

The firefighter study is recent, but the truth behind it is ancestral. My favorite modern-day historian on the Spartans is Steven Pressfield. In his book, The Warrior Ethos, he makes the point that long ago humanity learned that the only way to survive and thrive was to form teams and tribes. He traces it back to the story of Adam and Eve getting booted out of the Garden of Eden: from now on, you have to hunt. You have to chase wild animals and kill them before they kill you. When the situation poses a severe threat to survival—when the shit hits the fan in other words—where do we turn? Toward one another, Pressfield writes.

Adam and Eve became the primitive hunting band. The hunting band became the tribe. And the tribe became the army. The warrior ethos evolved from the primary need of the spear-toting, rock-throwing, animal-skin-wearing hunting band—the need to survive. This need could be met only collectively, as a group working in unison. To bind the band together, an ethos evolved—a hunter’s ethos.

Just like my friend Erica had put it to me, and just like the Special Forces warrior reminded me of in our Q and A at Fort Bragg, community is the blood that runs through the critical virtues in life. Pressfield wraps it up this way: “Every warrior virtue proceeds from this—courage, selflessness, love of and loyalty to one’s comrades, patience, self-command, the will to endure adversity. It all comes from the hunting band’s need to survive.” And as Pressfield summarizes and defines in The Warrior Ethos, the group comes before the individual.

The set of virtues a community sets becomes a code of honor. This is what helps keep our disciplines and habits in check. At a deeper level, the warrior ethos recognizes that each of us, as well, has enemies inside himself. Vices and weaknesses like envy, greed, laziness, selfishness, and the capacity to lie.

How Smart Phones Are Harming Our Ability to Form Bonds and Short-Circuiting Our Personal Development

Contrast the importance the warrior ethos puts on community with what you and I see every day in age of the smartphone.

Look around any public situation these days and what do you see? A traveling group at an airport. All sorts of people at a restaurant. Teenagers hanging out with one another. Passengers on a train. Parents supposedly watching their kids on the playground. The dinner table at home. In each of these social situations, you see people zoned out into the screens of their smartphones and not engaging one another.

Sherry Turkle is an MIT professor and founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle’s expertise includes culture, therapy, mobile computing, and social networking. This is what she has to say about the smartphone:

“What I’ve found is that our little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are. Some of the things we do now with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing, but they’ve quickly come to seem familiar, just how we do things.”

Turkle has been researching the effects of digital and social media on human relationships since the mid-1990s—the upsides and the downsides. The danger in our growing reliance in texting and social media to relate to others is that it undercuts how humans have typically formed friendships, communities, tribes, and team. When we actually spend time talking and taking on challenges together, we not only get to truly know the other person but ourselves as well. It’s not easy. It requires listening, thinking, giving, sacrificing, and the courage to screw up. “Relationships are rich, messy, and demanding,” Turkle says.

If we avoid the work and risk of being together and working together and encountering adversity with one another, and instead choose to hide behind texts and social posts, then we shut down what it means to be human. Turkle’s studies confirmed what you and I have seen at cafes, restaurants, work meetings, and more. Smartphones are disrupting everything from family dinnertime to funerals. Turkle’s assessment is that when we encounter moments in life that are especially difficult—like grieving for the loss of a family member or close friend—it’s all too easy to emotionally check out by checking a social feed on a phone.

Community Is Vital to Resilience in the Face of Adveristy

Scientists at the Mental Health Foundation have also declared that the attraction and escape of smartphones is a danger, that it’s upending an important part of our nature:

“Throughout evolution, social bonds have been essential to our survival. To outsmart predators, we needed to evolve for increased co-operation. Despite our capacity for violence, we’re social animals whose ancestors got better and better at interpreting signals from others so their genes could survive.”

We no longer are building the connections and awareness that allowed humans to thrive despite hostile environments, situations and enemies. It’s a problem that takes us further away from the virtues of the warrior ethos, Pressfield writes. A warrior culture trains for adversity. Luxury and ease are the goals advertised to the civilian world, but sacrifice, particularly shared sacrifice, is considered an opportunity for honor in a warrior culture.


What Makes a Community?

To build up a community, or find one to join, it will help to have a solid definition of what a community is. A cornerstone study conducted at Peabody College helps us understand what a well-functioning community looks like and how it operates.

The research team uncovered four essentials:

  1. Membership.A community has boundaries and rules. You know when you’re in it and when you’re not in it. It has a code of honor that you, as a member, are expected to uphold. Failure to uphold the code of honor or code of conduct is how you get booted out a community.
  2. Influence. A true community fosters a sense of influence. In other words, if you are active within a community, you will feel like your words are being heard and your actions make a difference.
  3. Integration and fulfillment of needs. A functioning community will reward your efforts. Your achievements within the community are acknowledged and you get a sense of satisfaction for giving and succeeding with and for the group.
  4. Shared emotional connection. There’s a bond that suggests you’re all in it together. Ask Steven Pressfield about how humans are wired to be a part of a community that swims or sinks together. It’s why a soldier or Marine severely injured in combat will have one thing on his or her mind while recovering: getting back to the squad.

How to Start Building a Community?

With the above tenets in mind, start by thinking about how you can help the people closest to you. Getting out of your head to think about others and then acting on their behalf is what makes communities strong, powerful, and indomitable.

Sounds simple, but it’s a challenging as it is profound. Those going through the 50 consecutive hours of the Kokoro Camp—a training camp for civilians modeled on Navy SEAL Hell Week—learn quickly that they won’t be able to make it through the weekend alone. The SEALFIT coaches immediately start calling out the participants for not thinking about helping those that are in the thick of it all with them.

The message: forget about how tired and exhausted you are. Think about your buddy. How are they? How beat up and wiped out? How do you help them? When a group of people start collectively thinking like this—about the wellbeing and success of each other—then you have an unstoppable team. Want to know why the Navy SEAL teams have the reputation they do? This is a big part of it.

Action Items on How to Move

  • Be conscious about using smart phones and social media. These are good tools. But you want to keep them under your control. Not the other way around. Social media is a great place to find local groups and clubs (not to mention Spartan training groups) that share your passion. This is great. What you don’t want is to slide in the direction of an addiction to staring into your phone all day where you lose an hour here and an hour there. Remember what Sherry Turkle’s research has uncovered: if you’re hiding from real human relationships and communication by zoning out into a device, you’re robbing yourself of growth and the richness of life.
  • Challenge yourself and join a community for support. This is what Spartan Race is all about. Look through our events and find the one that is going to push you beyond your comfort zone. Put yourself in a situation where you will need to rely on others to fulfill the commitment to train for and execute a difficult event. Then reach out and find others to train with. Maybe it’s a neighbor, or a mom or a dad, or a friend or a sibling, or an old college buddy. Or better yet, a local group. Or even better, recruit friends and family and build your own.
  • Want to up your game? Find a community that has high standards and will push you, and then jump in with your all. This is how Spartan races are designed, but the same idea can be applied to any path that is difficult and invites obstacles. Starting a business. Going back to school for an advanced degree. Taking on a new career path.
group running under a Spartan obstacle; beautiful sunset

Find your race today.