Discover more from Human Skills
Human Skills 013 - Values and Community
with Mark Freeman
Mark Freeman is a data engineer, a data scientist, a community organizer, independent businessman, and data influencer. He has worked as a community health advocate, volunteered for advocacy and nonprofit groups, and started his own company. He's been through a lot.
And through that process, he has built up an incredible toolkit of approaches, practices, and strategies he uses for everything from keeping himself motivated to organizing events to writing content. In this interview, we covered a ton of ground.
This is another one of those interviews where it was super hard to pick a theme to highlight, because there was SO MUCH GOOD STUFF. And in the end I kind of hedged and highlighted two - values and community. But you should go and watch the entire interview, because it was absolutely phenomenal. Filled with wisdom.
How do you think about values and their application to work?
So the way I've kind of viewed values is twofold. One, it sets my North Star, my why. Why am I even going through the process of something hard to do something? What's my purpose for this?
And the second point is it becomes a litmus test of "yes or no". Because as you start engaging with your values and actually living through your purpose and doing the things you enjoy, you end up getting a lot more attention and people are going to ask a lot of things of you and that kind of purpose, those values are gonna help you be able to say no to a lot more things to help you continue doing what you're doing.
So to dive further into this my values, my North Star is "how can I scale social impact?" That's been one of the biggest things that's been driving a lot of my decisions, but I still have the flexibility of changing what that means to achieve that value, right?
And so for me when I initially started when I was like 18, I was like, "I wanna do a nonprofit." I wanna start a nonprofit. Nonprofit is how you help people. And as I learned more about the nonprofit kind of business structure, I realized, "oh, these are limitations of this." Maybe for hyper local, it works amazing, but for scaled up, this may be the wrong model.
And so then I was like, "oh, well, I wanna be a doctor." Doctor, I'm able to help a lot of people. And I can potentially scale it up through public health. And so that's how I ended up getting my degree in community health, as well as realizing through that degree, I didn't wanna be a doctor.
And so, again, flexible. The value was still the same. I want to help people at scale. Non-profit wasn't working out. Being a doctor wasn't the right path. But then I fell in love with data. And I quickly saw how data can both scale my reach, by the very nature of data working with a lot of people. Very abstractly
And then also I saw an avenue via tech, and they were able to typically scale a lot of things, be it their funding or their reach for product. And so that's how I became obsessed with like social impact through for-profit businesses. How can you create structures to enable methods to empower people, empower communities through the money you generate through a business.
That is very difficult I still have not figured it out yet but that's where I am currently on my journey. This value of how do I help people at scale and that's been a driving point through that.
And so I started at 18, no one's really paying attention, to be doing this and now I'm almost 30 and now I have an audience and I have people are paying attention I have this large platform. Because I've been so passionate driven by this value, it's brought me a lot of attention.
And people ask me a lot of things like, "hey, you can you be involved with this, can you be involved with that. Do you wanna join this startup?" And I have to say no to a lot of things because I just don't have the time to do everything. I wanna say yes to everything. And so I go back to, well, does this help me achieve my goal of scaling social impact? Yes or no? If yes, then I have further conversations. If no, then I'd say, I'm sorry, I'm not the right person.
How do you develop self-confidence and the ability to move forward in uncertainty?
Yeah, so I'm glad you brought that up because I'm actually not the most confident person. I deal with imposter syndrome... heavy... and in addition... I post a lot about this on LinkedIn, but I struggle with mental health. I deal with anxiety a lot and the very definition of anxiety is you're very not confident as a feature.
And so I think there's two things. One, the fact that I actually took the time to really deal with my mental health. I have a tool box of things to manage my anxiety, to manage my depression, all these different aspects that typically lead to self doubt. I have a tool box to actually handle that.
So I have like years of practice of being in a really low spot and having to force myself to get out of that low spot. So that's one component. Now, the advice wouldn't be, well, start having mental health challenges. That's not good advice. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. If you are in that position, you could use that as a leverage point to grow.
But then the second part is through those mental health challenges, I really had trust the process that the next day will be better. And if the next day will be better, I just have to optimize on just getting over the next second. The next day. The next week. And growing that.
And with that mindset, it's a really just trust the process kind of approach. I am not confident in X, Y, Z, but if I believe in this outcome, or I believe i this is the right thing to do, going back to the values things, if I focus on just not completing it, but make it to the next day, or make it to the next iteration. And just really excelling at that. I will get past that imposter syndrome. Eventually I will see, okay, that was just my mind messing with me. I showed up continually day after day after day. I'm still here. There's obviously something going on.
And I think a really click moment for that was when I first started kind of growing my audience on LinkedIn, when I hit 10,000 followers, I asked my wife, I was like, "who would listen to me? This is wild." And her response was super blunt, but she was like "10,000 people." And even though it was so simple, it just made it very clear. I'm like, oh wow. Yeah, you're, you're right. I mean, 10,000 people have said they want to follow and listen to me. And it's grown from there.
And so I think at the core kind of that message is trust the process. You may not be confident right now. But if you focus on just continuing and iterating, you will find that confidence eventually, especially if you believe in what you're trying to achieve.
And then going back to that value system of that why, why are you pursuing this? Cause that will push you to go through those hard times when you don't believe in yourself, but you use that belief in a larger mission to help propel you.
Where do you get started helping with a community?
I think the biggest thing is you have to get buy-in from a key member of the community.
I'll do three different levels. I'll do actual community work like in nonprofit/social impact and I'll do like workplaces and then I'll do like a tech group Slack that I'm part of.
So in the community. That's actually one of the hardest ones if you're not from the community or not adjacent and don't have characteristics that make people... like disarm them, because again there is this process multiple times people saying I will help and not delivering.
And so you're battling that, and so I think the first thing is just making a commitment that you will deliver on what you said you would and not over over promising because the moment you lose that trust you're kind of locked out of that community.
And so the next part is "well who is a community leader within this group that's organizing already?" Go to them and just be like, "hey, I'm interested in helping out in this community right here. I want to help out with your nonprofit or I want to help out with your community thing. I see every Sunday you do some community event or something like that... I want to help volunteer." Boom.
You start doing that, getting your face known, building rapport with the community members. They're like, "oh, yeah, Mark, he's here every other Sunday. Yeah, he's cool. He played basketball with my kids during that one time," or "he helped give out food for XYZ." That's how you kind of get your start. Building rapport, building buy-in.
Now let's take that same mindset, put it into the work environment. I imagine a lot of people,...when you start a new job, it is very uncomfortable because when you learn new things, but then also you don't know the culture of a company.
And so if you just jump in and say, "I'm gonna do X, Y, Z, here's how I interact with people." It could go well if it's actually like how they interact and they're like, "wow, Mark just jumped in." Or it can go really bad because you're like, "whoa, what is this guy doing?"
And so in that instance, I would say the best thing you need to do, since you're already in the community, workplace, they've already accepted you, they want you in there... There's no buy-in in that sense. Again, humility, just sit back, listen and observe. How are people connecting with each other? How do people like to talk to each other? How close and engaged do they want to get with each other? What are the channels for fun? What are the channels for business, right? Where does that divide sit at?
Pay attention and really focus in on those things or ask people around you, like your manager, after you review some things and then slowly just engage with those aspects. That's in the workplace.
And then the final one is a big thing in tech right now: communities for like an open source project or things like that. So how do you get involved in those communities? It's similar. You just show up. And with this one, they're kind of understaffed, right? They just want people to show up and help.
And so you just raise and volunteer like, "hey, I wanna help out this one project." And you keep on doing that over time, the leadership is gonna be like, "hey, you want a more involved role?"
And so those are three different areas in which you can get involved in the community from different facets of my life.
How can you build community at a workplace that doesn't feel like it has one?
I think the first thing is you need to understand, do they want a community, especially in the workplace. Cause if you try to force a community where they don't want that, then you're really set up for failure. And more importantly, people are gonna be frustrated. Like, why are you trying to push this?
And I think a great example would be... there's some jobs where like, people just wanna show up, do their job, and then go home and not engage with anyone. And I'm not saying that's right or wrong. Some people just want that in their lives.
And if you try to show up and build community in that, they're going to be like, "dude, I got a family at home. That's my community. Like, I don't want to deal with y'all. I just wanna get this work done. "
So that's the first thing is recognize if community is valued. And then if it is, is it supported by the leadership? Cause if it's supported by the leadership, then you're going to have the autonomy to try to do these things. Sometimes even funding. But it really, I think, has come from a top-down perspective. And really the leadership within the company shapes through their actions, not their words, their actions of what the community will look like.
And so say, for instance, that's a yes. Like, yeah, leadership's bought in, and the culture around kind of wants a community. Then the focus needs to be in, "how do I build in touch points across the company that are disparate." So different teams need to talk to each other and outside of this work context. So maybe you have a lunch or maybe you do a fun game activity with a prize or something like that.
But what are ways that are still within the workplace but are outside of this kind of professional work? You're still professional but out of this work mindset, like, I don't even have this deliverable or something that is just like, just connecting with people on a human level.
Build out those opportunities and see how people interact with them. These kind of little mini experiments each way, right? Are people coming out of it like, "wow, this was so great. I got to meet this person. I never knew they're working on this stuff. This is this is amazing. This is so interesting." Or people like, "yeah, that was fun. I'll go back to work."
If it's the former, then cool. If it's the latter, try again, do something else. But the goal is how can you connect people who have different type of work or different type of perspectives within the company and bring them together?
Because the magic isn't when, in that moment when they meet, the magic is afterwards, where now they have a connection where if they have a problem at work, they can just go call or Slack message the person they met at that fun community meeting, through that.
And then they solve problems for each other and that just drives further connectiveness. And so your goal as a community builder with an organization is not to be the one that drives these meaningful relationships. That has to happen individually, you have to create the environment to start off and catalyze those relationships.
How do you think about hosting and emceeing an event?
Most people find public speaking terrifying. And that's kind of why I like it. Because again, going back to the mental health stuff, I like being challenged and if I'm uncomfortable, that's a challenge for me to get better and uncomfortable. So public speaking falls in that vein. And so I enjoy it because it feels like a challenge. To get over that uncomfortable feeling.
But the reason I bring that up is that... Everyone knows that uncomfortable feeling. There's very few people who've never done public speaking. So your guests, if they're speaking. They're uncomfortable. Your audience, they're like, "wow, I'm glad they're speaking because this is hard for me."
And so what I'm trying to get at is have grace for yourself. Everyone recognizes this is hard. And you're just going to be the hardest person on yourself. And so just recognize that everyone sees what you're doing and appreciates that you're taking up that space for that.
The second part is now, well, you're the MC... your guests, if there are speaking components or if there are people in the audience you bring up to speak, they're gonna be twice as nervous as you because they're doing this and not even preparing. They're just kind of showing up. And so your job is to just comfort them and make them feel amazing.
And so when I do podcasts... I have my own podcast, not podcast, but newsletter where I do a recording. Before, during, and after, I am encouraging my guests. My goal is just to make you look awesome. I'll edit whatever or I'll ask questions to make sure you look great. That's just my focus this whole time. When the call starts or when the meeting starts, "hey, so excited you're here, you're gonna do amazing. I'm so excited for this topic, I couldn't stop thinking about it."
And then afterwards: "That was amazing. That was such a great call. This is the value I think our community got from that." And you're just building people up because it's a hard thing to do.
And I think if you focus on just, again, taking a back seat and highlighting others, that will go a long way because when people are more comfortable and they feel more relaxed, they give way better responses. They have way more engagement because they're able to engage on the actual community in front of them and not just their own fears.
Do you have a framework for how you organize an event?
What I typically do when I do a first event is I create a playbook. I use Notion or whatever it is, and I map out what are all the steps I need to take to set up the event, market it, invite people, and then postmortem afterwards.
And so creating that ahead of time as your first step just makes things substantially easier because you've already thought about what you need, and if something new pops up, cool, add it to that playbook. And that's how I kind of keep organized for things.
And then it really depends on the type of event. So if it's something casual, just meeting up, your goal is... one of the questions I ask in all my playbooks is, what's the vibe that I want this meeting to have? Do I want it to be people come in, they're informed and they're learning, or do I want it just casual and, there's no plan, just show up and meet with people. Sometimes that's valuable.
So ahead of time, kind of like writing a writing an article or something like that, I say, "who's my target audience? What do I want them to achieve out of this event?"
From there, I'm able to essentially break down the steps to achieve that. And so that's why I really focus on... there's no specific framework or anything like that. It just goes back to understand your audience and tell them what they can gain from showing up and giving their time, if it's in person or online.
They only have 24 hours a day. Everyone has the same. So the fact that they're giving their attention to you is pretty special. And so what would entice people to do that? And then once they are there, how can you deliver for that?
Sometimes it's as simple as, I just need a break from work and I just wanna have fun. Or it could be as complex as, I need to learn this new thing because I'm trying to solve this problem at work.
Links to Mark
Thanks for reading Human Skills! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.