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The latest chapter of my life began in the parking lot of a warehouse near Brussels Airport in Belgium one sunny Saturday afternoon in 2004. At the time, I was working for one of the largest global transportation companies in the world on a multi-billion dollar merger integration project. In a strange twist of fate, I was actually working indirectly for the German government who had bought the American company where I worked. I was commuting between San Francisco and Brussels spending an alternating three weeks in each.
Looking back, I realize that this was an immersion experience in the global economy, an introduction to a layer of culture dedicated solely to profit unmoored from concern for any specific geographic community. It was a subtly disturbing experience—the disorientation from jet lag, the time away from friends and family, the unseemly forms of persuasion used with key customers, encounters with corporate travel junkies who seemed more at home on the road than with their families, the high divorce rates among the expatriate community in Brussels, the lack of any purpose beyond profit, life in a rigid hierarchy, the bewildering scale of the organization I worked for and the often pointless work.
I say ‘subtly’ disturbing because all of this was taken for granted by seemingly everyone in the organization. It was normal. And I was familiar with much of this beforehand, yet it all came to a surprising head on a jog that Saturday afternoon. Surprising because on the surface I had a lot going for me—a high paying strategy job, relatively interesting work, a wonderful girlfriend (now wife), and travel opportunities.
Plus, I wasn’t unhappy. There were positives about this experience too. For example, working with people from all over the world on a large, global project broadened my horizons. And my coworkers were nice. These were not deep relationships, but they were enjoyable. The overall context disturbed me rather than the individuals.
Nevertheless, I had a reckoning. I stopped in this empty warehouse parking lot on my usual jogging route in an industrial park near my hotel and suddenly began to cry. An internal conversation began. At first it was about me. I wanted to do something else with my life. I felt I was betraying myself by not doing work I was meant to do. I was terrified that I would miss out on my life. A mountain of regret loomed if I did not change course.
Then something really surprising happened. I felt that I was not alone, that many millions felt the same way I did. I felt the psychic pain of the collective. Then I really began to cry. I walked to the side of the warehouse, fell to my knees, and started wailing amid the weeds, broken glass and faded bits of paper trash.
At that point, I knew this was much more than a bad day. I connected to something larger than myself, and what I felt schooled me in a stern and powerful way. I could not ignore the tremendous pain I sensed in others. There was no arguing. My nose was being rubbed in it. It was oddly cathartic and shifted the conversation to what I could do for the collective.
The conversation ended with a vow to do whatever it takes to create a world where people do not feel lonely, alienated, bored, or hopeless. This was not a half-hearted New Year’s resolution. I felt I had no choice. I went straight to my office, submitted a letter of resignation, rebooked my flight home for an earlier departure and was home Monday.
I had a strong hunch before this experience that sharing was important. However, I had a shallow understanding of sharing’s place in the human experience. The commons were not yet part of my worldview. I simply saw sharing as something that could save resources and bring people together. It seemed smart. I thought of it in the context of sustainability and social enterprise communities, a milieu I had lightly explored in San Francisco over the last few years, and had wondered why there seemed to be little interest in sharing as a strategy.
I dug in immediately once I touched down. My home base was the loft Andrea and I shared in the SoMa district of San Francisco. While I didn’t have a plan at first, that did not worry me. I had made a big career change once before. I understood the process. I also lived modestly, so I had savings and low overhead. I could take off time to develop a new direction. Plus, I had something more powerful than a plan or money—total commitment. And Andrea’s unwavering support.
I used three basic patterns to find my way. First, I read as many books and talked with as many people in related fields as I could. Second, I sought out and volunteered for existing social enterprises that helped people share. But the third strategy had by far the most impact. I realized that to become the type of person I wanted to become and attract the type of people I wanted to work with, I had to create a community around my vision. So my friends Scott Levkoff, Maritza Schafer, Polly Whitaker, and I began hosting a monthly salon in April of 2005 called The Abundance League.
The vision of The Abundance League was simple—the good life was based on collective effort for the common good. We believed that it was our duty as individuals to find our best way to contribute to the common good and to help others do the same. One attendee aptly called The Abundance League a ‘prospiracy,’ as in the opposite of conspiracy and an intentional effort by a small group to create as much good as possible.
The format was simple—a two part meeting consisting of a structured networking and then a project presentation or performance by an invited guest. The structured networking part was meant to help participants find collaborators and resources for their projects. We called this part of the meeting announcements and this was the secret sauce of Abundance League.
During announcements, each person got two minutes to describe three things—their passion or project, the needs around their project, and the gifts they wanted to offer to other participants. Meetings averaged about 15 people and we met in all manner of places—people’s homes, co-working spaces, lofts, galleries and even corporate boardrooms. The magic part happened during the break between announcements and the speaker. This is when participants spontaneously matched up needs and gifts.
This simple meeting structure, repeated each month for over 5 years, created a small core of people dedicated to each other who help each other to this day. It completely transformed my life. For the first time in my life, I experienced how community could liberate rather than confine. In addition to this core, I built up a substantial network of helpful folks who were in on the ‘prospiracy.’ This seemingly put the world at my fingertips. If I needed something, it was highly likely that one of my prospirators could help me.
But the strange thing was that the community manifested rewards well beyond what I could ask for or expect. Apparently, the intention of The Abundance League was more powerful than my imagination. As one example, I met and befriended Central Europe’s premier social network analysts—Harald Katzmair—through the Abundance League. Harald attended a meeting while on a visit to open an office of his consultancy, FAS.research, in San Francisco and was instantly hooked.
He had never been asked the question, “What is your passion?” He immediately understood the liberating potential of a community where identity is based on a self-defined contribution to the common good and mutual aid around that proposition. One of his heroes is Jacob Moreno, a founding father of social network analysis, who began using diagrams of relationships in therapy to help workers understand their opportunities and limits. He wanted to help liberate workers from confining identities
This friendship lead to work with Harald at FAS.research and deeply rewarding intellectual exchanges. Harald is the most intellectually generous person I know. He not only has tremendous knowledge to share, but loves to share it. He has taught me more about myself and the world than anyone else. Graduate school pales in comparison. He’s shared his most profound insights as well as past research he’s conducted that revealed to me a good deal of order behind the complexity of our social world.
And equally important, he values what I have to share. To find a friend who appreciates my wildest intellectual hunches was an incomparable gift—one I wasn’t looking for but desperately needed. This was an education that you truly could not buy. It could only be created together for the intrinsic pleasure of it.
The other unexpected gift of The Abundance League brought me to the work I do today as Shareable Magazine’s publisher. Through years of meetings and work on Internet startups that help people share, I became known as the ‘sharing guy’ in San Francisco. Because of this, I was invited by Free Range Graphics to help them write a grant proposal for a foundation client that wanted to spark a sharing movement. The idea for Shareable Magazine came out of this. The foundation loved the proposal we wrote and funded the idea. I was hired as a consultant to help launch Shareable and eventually became publisher. We launched it on October 1, 2009. In January 2010, we served 50,000 unique visitors to our site.
The journey continues. I’m now part of a global movement for sharing and the commons, one that Kosmos Journal has helped catalyze. My understanding of sharing and the commons has deepened immensely through encounters with the great minds and generous souls in the movement including James Quilligan, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation, Jay Walljasper of On The Commons, Rachel Botsman of the Collaborative Consumption Lab, Silke Helfrich and David Bollier of The Commons Strategy Group, and many more. I now understand that sharing is more than just smart, it’s essential to the survival of our species. This century we will either learn to share on a global scale or die.
Neal Gorenflo is the co-founder and publisher of Shareable Magazine, a nonprofit online magazine about sharing. As a former market researcher, stock analyst, and Fortune 500 strategist, Neal is perhaps an unlikely voice for sharing.