I went to Summer-camp and I never came home.

Martin Gordon
Jun 24 · 6 min read
Rik Turner at Sunrise somewhere near East Grinstead.

For the last three years, I have been attending the Happy Startup Summercamp. This annual event gives me so much and has genuinely changed my outlook on life.

So, what is it about Summercamp that has driven a change in me? What does it give me? and How?

To answer this I will take you back to my first Summercamp. I had some trepidations about attending what has been nicknamed the Hippy Business Conference. I picked up a complete stranger along the way as she was suffering from a broken leg and this made it difficult for her to travel. The rain was relentless over the previous night and some roads were impassable but we managed to get to the venue in the Sussex Weald.

What greeted me was a campsite with a beautifully decked out barn and some delicious food to share and this seemed alright. What I was not prepared for was to be met with the power of the MC of the whole event. Summercamp is the work of Laurence McCahill and Carlos Saba and their wonderful team who hold it together in a remarkable way but the event MC creates the vibe and holds it so well, leading the way without ever having to shout follow me. That is a level of charisma that makes the word charisma seem inadequate. That is the force of a man named Sanderson Jones. Part comedian, part entrepreneur, co-founder of Sunday Assembly and for this moment the person who built a community out of disparate, rain-soaked people. Within 5 minutes of entering this aforementioned barn, I was laughing and singing with people I was yet to learn the names of but have since become lifelong friends.

This is what Summercamp has given me and what I perceive as a change in me, the ability to see and take part in community building. Creating a social cohesion that did not previously exist.

This has gone on to lead me to do daring things, things I would never have ordinarily done. I don’t mean daring as in adrenaline-inducing activities. I like to do them anyway. I mean talking to strangers when our strange and backwards social rules seem to posit that this is a sin higher than any other.

A while after my second Summercamp I boarded the first train service out of Euston to Liverpool after 7pm on a Friday night. The service gets much cheaper if you travel after 7pm or before 3pm and I missed the last train pre 3pm by minutes due to a meeting in Ealing over-running. So I had killed time with a long walk into Camden, a bite to eat and got back to Euston to catch the 7.03pm train and it was rammed with people. I duly took a place in the vestibule by the door as all other space was occupied. My fellow passengers and I were all squeezed in almost nose to nose. We all did our best to pretend that nobody else existed and that we shouldn’t make eye contact. But after a short while, I realised that time was dragging on as the atmosphere was as cramped as the conditions. I was bored. I put down the book I was attempting to read, it wasn’t really working, I was only going through the motions as a social signal that people shouldn’t talk to me. I then asked the woman in front of me if she could tell me how her day had been and how she had ended up having to take this train. I was back in Liverpool in no time having had a long, funny, rambling conversation with Sunita, who I now considered a friend even only for that one journey. We had such an open and fun conversation that another passenger joined in and we became a group of three. A small community bonding through a shared circumstance.

This element of community building goes a long way to increase our social capital. Whether it is in response to a hippy business conference, where I now have a whole group of people who will back me in my business ventures of the future, or a simple train ride, where I managed to have a more fulfilling time than I would ordinarily have, social capital is the grease that gets wheels turning. The only problem is, is that we stand in the way of social capital being built by setting up our own little social rules. This is highly problematic for many of our organisations, social capital is overlooked and teams don’t work on increasing their social capital. We defer to the highest paid member of the organisation’s opinion far too often, which means that we, as an organisation, are not open to hearing from one another properly. Instead, we choose to only listen to certain members of the organisation or worse still we don’t really listen to anyone and are only listening to find the pause to say what we want to say.

Some organisations are working hard on this and little changes can go a long way. There are organisations who are banning coffee cups on desks in favour of having teams take coffee breaks and build some of that social capital. For example, the bank call centres in this piece in the Harvard Business Review used scientifically gathered data to put a value on the team taking breaks together. This is yielding tangible advantages.

Now the manager is changing the break schedule at all 10 of the bank’s call centers (which employ a total of 25,000 people) and is forecasting $15 million a year in productivity increases. He has also seen employee satisfaction at call centers rise, sometimes by more than 10%.

Further to this is the research that is showing that teams who properly listen to one another find value in each other’s skills and knowledge and are more likely to share that knowledge. This sharing of knowledge only comes with proper active listening which is a product of social capital. I see this every time I take a team through a Lego® Serious Play® workshop as the method allows each member of the team to have equal time to share their knowledge and ideas. As Margaret Heffernan says in her book Beyond Measure:

Without high degrees of social capital, you don’t get the vigour of debate and exchange that hard problems demand.

To finish off, I’ll relate a story of a very recent moment where removal of the social barricades we put in place has lead to a new friendship with coincidences that feel almost eerie.

The weekend before last, my wife and I attended some of the talks at the excellent National Festival of Making which is held in Blackburn each year. At one of the talks on Saturday morning we were asked to move closer to one another so that the video recording could get tighter to the audience and speakers. This lead to a woman sitting a few seats down moving up to directly next to my wife. The gap, one of those social barricades we erect, possibly subconsciously in public settings, was removed and we started a conversation with the woman, who we now know to be named Sandra. Through conversation, we found out that Sandra lives not 2 miles from our house on the Wirral Peninsula. This was a fair coincidence but we were just getting started. After a while, I asked where Sandra came from as her accent was obviously from the South East and not a Wirral accent. It turns out that Sandra grew up in Hemel Hempstead during the same period both my wife and I did. In fact, we knew a few people in common and Sandra’s father had taught my wife in Art lessons at school. We are now beginning to get to know each other because of a chance meeting in Blackburn despite now living not even 2 miles apart now in Wirral and growing up not 2 miles apart in Hemel Hempstead. We have built some social capital.

Building social capital is of great importance to me now. Ever since that first moment at the first Summercamp I went to I changed and wanted to find ways of building social capital wherever I go. In a sense, I have never come home from Summercamp as I’m trying to take it everywhere with me. The greatest thing about social capital is that it increases when you spend it, whether it is spent as a request for time or favours and help it all helps to develop that bond.