Why do we belong to the organizations we do?

It doesn’t matter what we belong to - what matters is belonging to something

When Groucho Marx resigned from the Friars Club, he explained, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”  I often hear reasons about why people join, don’t join, or quit organizations, and some of these reasons sound just as ridiculous.

For example, we tend to join those organizations that closely align with our values, or do the work we care about. There is almost an expectation that members are completely aligned with each other. There are meetings to align ideas and values, programs that bring along the membership, and undoubtedly someone does not align or agree with a decision. An inventory is taken, do I belong here? Do I want to be associated? What is my purpose in this organization? All very healthy and good evaluations, or are they?

I recently received my AARP card in the mail, which I quickly threw away. The next mailing I looked a little closer, and while I am not emotionally ready to join, I am now weighing and matching values, as I know they are a wonderful organization. I agree with this, not that, some of this, most of that, but not THAT. Forget it.

I now think that this kind of “inclusion thinking” is wrong. It doesn’t matter what organization we belong to — what matters is belonging to something.

Many people don’t feel an affiliation because something turns them off, they disagree with something, and they take their ball and go home. This, I now believe, is the easy way out.

In fact, I now think it is the most fun in the world to be in a room of like-minded people (who I don’t agree with) and to be the one contrarian, the outlier, the person who politely presents a new angle or idea.

A comforting delusion

The problem becomes that some of these organizations don’t want me because I don’t agree with them. We have become so polarized as a culture that we only watch TV we agree with, and won’t even talk to the people across the political aisle.

Don’t we all have a hard time discussing politics with our friends and family, or stating a position, out of fear that we are offending someone? We stand at cocktail parties listening to some conspiracy theory, and we instantly lose any affiliation. And this, I’m afraid, is how it’s supposed to work.

Why don’t we open the doors to all organizations, clubs and institutions to those that don’t think like us? What if we stopped and listened to each other, really listened for what we all agree with, and started from there? What if we rejected any extreme position and tried to determine what is good in the many ideas to find a reasonable idea that we can agree to disagree with, but still support on a trial basis? Why not join that political party that we have a hard time agreeing with and become the internal change agent for it? What if we could represent our ideas to a group of people who we know will disagree with us, but not reject us outright? Don’t beat them, join them.

I think it’s comforting to read and hear things with which we agree. It’s comforting, but it’s also a delusion. We have to affiliate even if we don’t agree so we can make change. Our institutions need to open the door and encourage dialogue that they don’t agree with. We need to evolve and improve by joining the organizations that might not want us as a member, but eventually will.

There are many stories as to why Groucho Marx actually quit the Friars. One story from his 1959 book. “Groucho and Me,” mentions he was once seated next to a barber he did not like, to which the barber said, “We’re certainly getting a lousy batch of new members.”  That is a poor way to welcome a new member. Imagine how much fun the club would have had if Groucho stayed.

Russ Ouellette is managing partner of Bedford-based Sojourn Partners, which directs The Future of Everything project. He can be reached at 603-472-8103 or russ@sojournpartners.com