Day 25 of 30. As an expat in a foreign land several timezones away from family, and a weird geeky dude in a world of seemingly more normal, less geeky people, it can be difficult to find a true sense of belonging.
This can be true even when surrounded by other expats, or other weird geeks - and I spend a fair amount of time with the intersection of those sets. Sometimes it helps, and I feel at home with the quirks and foibles and challenges of those around me, able to just be myself, whatever I imagine that to mean in the moment. Sometimes there's a sense that the only thing uniting me with those around me is our difference from everything else around us, and then the whole enterprise can feel a bit forced.
Still, I have to keep trying - the alternative is to not have others in your life to reach out to, or confide in, or spar with, or spar with, and that would, I think, be even more difficult than the challenge of finding that sense of belonging.
There are a few places and spaces in my life where I've felt that sense. With the parkour community in Toronto, pkTO, back when it was active during my undergrad years, for instance. There was that feeling of exploring the world around me in a new way, of harmless deviance from the norm, of training both mind and body - I enjoyed my studies, and still enjoy this field of computing I've chosen to work in, but sitting at a desk typing even the most interesting or impactful of things can't provide everything a living, breathing person needs.
As a student in University of Waterloo's co-op program, I alternated between school and work semesters - and parkour gave me a community of fellow quirky folk that I could tap into wherever I was, whether that was in Waterloo or Toronto or Ottawa or San Francisco. It was a glimpse of one strong upside of our hyper-connected world: that belonging was no longer confined by geography.
Jugger scratches a similar itch: a distributed community of fellow quirky folk, gathering to play a sport most people don't even know exists. I've come to relish the moments where families stop to gawk as we play, or eyebrows shoot up at the sight of our brightly-coloured foam swords, or - every so often - someone drops by the field and asks if they can join in. It's a reminder that curiosity can overcome a feeling of not yet belonging, and that reminder gives me hope that I'll continue to find belonging in the future, no matter where I am.
As a lead engineer, and as someone who - like all of us - knows what not having that sense of belonging feels like, I'm often holding this thought somewhere in mind: how can I help my teammates feel that they belong here? As a coach for our jugger club, I think about it there too: how can we help our players, both newcomers and old-timers, feel that they belong here?
Still: for all the time I've spent thinking about it, and attempting to act on my reflections, I'll admit there are no easy answers. There are general principles: owning and normalising mistakes, being vulnerable, seeking to understand instead of blame, letting others take ownership. There are general tools: active listening, non-violent communication, space for structured reflection (e.g. retros). Many of these fall under the bucket of psychological safety, which is generally regarded as a Good Thing, especially if you want people to focus and work together.
And those will help, but we're still all messy, fallible humans with varying amounts of emotional and mental baggage. Maybe you just moved from another country and feel adrift without familiar faces. Maybe you're not yet sure if your leaders have a clear plan, let alone what your place in that plan is. Maybe an offhand remark or occasion brought memories of a negative experience to the surface, and you're not sure what to do with that. Maybe a friend brought you to jugger, but no one told you what that is, and you don't know these people yet, and you're not a sporty person anyways. Maybe your coworkers are going out to the bar, and you don't drink, and you're not sure if they'll respect that.
Tools and principles might help surface these deeper, beneath-the-surface blockers to belonging. They can't tell you how to deal with what you surface - or even if you can deal with it, or even if dealing with it is the right way to think about it. No one can deal with the fact that I'm an expat, though they can help with some of the specific challenges that can bring, or at least listen and try to understand if they don't know what those challenges are.
And this leads to another way in which taking on responsibility, whether at work or in life, whether on the sports field or in your personal relationships, can lead to impostor syndrome. Now these messy, baggage-ridden aspects are your responsibility too, but unlike technical tasks they come with long feedback cycles and highly uncertain outcomes and many, many things that are completely outside your control. It's easy to feel like you're just not any good at it, and that feeling can be pernicious, because it stops you from getting better and it devalues the work you have put into it.
And at the end of the day, these feelings make it hard for you to feel like you belong in this role, with these responsibilities. It's a self-imposed sense of not belonging - and that's also part of the challenge: that sense of belonging comes from all involved putting in some intentional work, of examining their own thoughts and reactions while trying their damned best to understand the thoughts and reactions of others, even when it's hard.
So when you find a place, a team, an environment, a community where all of that just seems to click, cherish it - it's a rare gift.