Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Building a Tribe without Losing your Soul

I am a writer. And like almost all other writers, I take great joy when my words encourage and influence others. In order to do that in today’s world, I need one thing—a tribe. You need one too, if you are a writer.

The good news is if you want to build a tribe, there is help. You can buy books, sign up for online courses,  join communities. There are plenty of resources online.

However, for many authors, there is an internal struggle. Sometimes building a tribe feels like selling your soul.

Photo by Neal Sanche (Creative Commons)

Photo by Neal Sanche (Creative Commons)

Building a tribe without losing your soul is not simply about what you do, but how you think about what you do. Here are four areas to check whenever your tribe building starts to feel like your a traveling salesman hawking snake oil.

How you think about Time

Most Tribe Building courses or books advertise like this:
“Five steps to building a 10,000 person email list in 6 months!”
“How I build my blog from scratch to 100,000 unique monthly visitors in less than a year!”

While this is a good recruitment strategy, it can put a wrong picture in your mind of tribe-building. You think, “If I follow the steps, everything will be easy.” Well, building a tribe is not easy. So you follow the steps and don’t see results, and are left believing you did something wrong.

The truth is most people don’t succeed on their first attempt at building a tribe. Others stumble upon it more by circumstance than plan.

This is not to say you can’t build a significant tribe. It just might take longer than you think.

Time is very flexible. It bends with our expectations. If you expect to uncover 100,000 subscribers
in a year, you will be disappointed after 18 months if you only have 100.

Perhaps it is better if you hold time more loosely.

Seth Godin has been blogging for almost 20 years.
Derek Halpern build a blog quickly because he had already done it before.
Jeff Goins didn’t succeed until his seventh blog.
Michael Hyatt was already a successful CEO and New York Times bestseller before he started.

It is fine to make audacious goals. I have mine. But don’t feel like a failure if it takes longer than advertised. Building a tribe is not easy. Wouldn’t you rather slowly build something that will last than to quickly construct a tribe held together by duct tape?

How you think about Tribe Members

Let me just say this up front, “your” tribe is not yours. The people in it are individuals who probably belong to a myriad of other groups. They loan you their time and attention as long as it is beneficial to them. You don’t own them.

As you are building a tribe, it can feel like you are asking a few thousand people to marry you. Then, when they sign up you have huge expectations—they will read everything you publish, they will be loyal until death, they will tell their friends about you.

Then you get the notification. You know what I am talking about, the unsubscribe notice. It feels like a divorce. You go through the cycles of grief—

Denial. They must have unsubscribed on accident.
Anger. How could they leave me?
Remorse. Maybe it was my fault?
Depression. Will I ever find someone else?
Acceptance. We weren’t a match.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. They are not “your” subscribers in the first place. Let them go.

I did something crazy last year, I gave everyone on my email list three reasons to unsubscribe. I told them they could leave the list if they wanted and I wouldn’t have any hard feelings. Afterwards, I knew those who remained really wanted to be there.

Ideally, we can have a mutually beneficial relationship with members of the tribe. We all grow together as we create, consume, and change.

How you think about other Tribe-Builders

This leads us to perhaps the greatest soul-snatching aspect of tribe building—jealousy. Hear me out before you move on.

The internet is full of bloggers trying to build a tribe. I am a part of one Facebook group with 800+ such writers. Tribe-building can start to feel like a competition. Or worse, a war.

“Why are they getting more attention than me?”
“Why is their tribe growing faster?”

Here is a quick litmus test:

What goes through your mind when a fellow blogger . . .
receives a jaw-dropping review for their new e-book?
writes a post that goes viral?
signs a publishing deal?

Is it joy? Or is it something you would rather not say?

[tweet_quote]With a competitive mindset, we undercut our greatest resource in building a tribe—other tribe-builders. [/tweet_quote] When multiple bloggers work in concert to accomplish their goals, their efforts are multiplied.

If you struggle with this, here is an exercise to try. For the next week, do not promote anything you write, only other people’s work. Don’t do this blindly, share and promote work you really like. Take note what happens in your heart.

Building a tribe is hard. The task is more fun if we work together. Find a group of like-minded writers and go for it.

How you think about Yourself

Do you remember why you started writing? Was it because you wanted to be read or because you loved the feel of words on the page?

I started writing because I had a message that needed a voice. I continue writing for the joy of words forming beautiful sentence radiating meaning off of the page. I write because I love to write.

But when building a tribe, it can quickly become about creating for others. Our passion slides to the background as our drive for an audience takes over.

My friend Chris put it this way:
“Tribe building can be deadly to the soul because it often separates us from our heart and passion. We begin writing for others. It is a very different thing to write in order to serve those who need your words, than it is to pander to the masses.”

Ironically, when we start “pandering to the masses” our writing dims and our voice weakens. We lose the sharp edge for fear of offending. It actually makes it harder to build a tribe (or at least the kind of tribe we want).

If you want to build a tribe and keep your soul, you need to remain anchored in your creative purpose. Hold tightly to the reason you write.

For me, I write to inspire and help others become who God made them to be. If you see me publishing posts like “21 celebrities without makeup” and “This man buys a hamburger . . . and you won’t believe what happens next!” then you know I’ve lost my way. Feel free to send me an email and help me get my soul back.

That is why we need tribes. Because we need the loving accountability only a community offers.

Building a tribe is hard. But you don’t have to lose your soul in the process. Write. Create. Be Yourself. And you will be surprised how quickly an audience gathers.

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"I love Josh's writing. Big things to come from him." —Jeff Goins

About Josh

  • Great post, Josh, and something that needed to be said. I know I’ve got off course a time or two and it can cost. But, if we stay true to our purpose, the right ones will come along.

    • Josh

      Thanks Joan. We all need the reminder.

  • That was a darn good reminder, Josh. I hate it when I get that tight feeling of jealousy… I’d much rather focus on generosity and encouragement and suffocate the jealousy. Also, it’s great to hear someone say, “Just be yourself.” I think we all need to hear that daily. Maybe more. 😉

    • Josh

      Amanda I feel it too. We have to beat it then defeat it again and again.

  • Another good post, Josh. One I had to share. I would say that if building a tribe is like a marriage relationship, I would be faulted with abandonment. I start out okay, I go for a while and then I drop off. Maybe too many plates to spin. Thanks for your post.

    • Josh

      I can only handle the pressure of creating, not marriage to a few hundred friends.

  • Chris Malkemes

    Josh, my friend. One good post there. You got into the heart of the blogger and let the cat out of the bag. Good job. We need shaken sometimes. Those in my tribe are in it for encouragement and the joy of doing God’s will. When I get a little upset with myself for the slow drip, drip, drip then I force myself to remember He provides the readers. He can handle an “un-scribe” better than I can. This is how I handle tribe building – I know The Best Builder in town. OH! I just love the photo.

    • Josh

      Thanks Chris. Keep writing.

  • As someone who has built a tribe over the past six years on my motorcop blog and as someone who is trying to build a new tribe for my financial coaching business/blog, I really appreciate the reminder that these things take time. It’s hard to look at my first tribe and see its size and compare it to the new tribe I’m working hard to build. Thanks for the sage words, sir!

    • Josh

      Funny how that works even the second time around. It is all about expectation. Thanks Jason.

  • Thanks Josh 🙂 Needed to hear this today! Sometimes I want to rush things too quickly ~ which pulls me away from why I’m writing in the first place – to help people get through obstacles and give them hope and practical steps to live a better story everyday:) Excellent thoughts… and so helpful!