The moment Radha Agrawal “knew something had to change” was when she found herself returning to the same bar with the same people to drink too much, only to feel the same loneliness. Now that she feels more connected than ever, she’s realised that her alienation was nothing special in a country starved of the sense of belonging that she feels is integral to human happiness.
Agrawal has rewritten Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and she argues that community is central to every aspect of that pyramid: from the sense of belonging to the creativity she prescribes for joy. The manifesto that follows is a persuasive and playful guide to community building, from the preparation you do within yourself to the aesthetics you choose to bond your group together.
At face value, Agrawal’s triumphs seem to testify to her method’s success. Co-founder of THINX, the period panties which took the London tube by storm, as well as Daybreaker, the innovative, teetotal morning-party organisation energising millennials across the globe, Agrawal has certainly made a name for herself and created communities. However, aspects of her dogma can seem overzealously capitalist, reducing friends to fungible assets with whom you should have ‘equal energy exchange.’
Her focus on energy could also be seen as a way to paper over the depression that often engenders or follows social isolation. While a focus on the value of energy could be pragmatic, it could also be problematic in the context of community building, where seeking out exclusively high-energy community members could preclude vulnerable people from accessing the human connection they need.
This seems particularly questionable towards the end of the book, as she emphasises the need to include a diverse age range, citing a number of high-energy ‘master citizens’ in her life without acknowledging the myriad mental health problems rampant among the elderly. The onus is on the individual to make themselves community-worthy, and while her advice to ‘DOSE’ by ensuring sufficient levels of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins could be a useful tool, its dark side has already surfaced in the news.
Last year, for instance, Agrawal’s sister and co-founder of THINX, Miki Agrawal, was mired in scandal after allegations that she created a hostile work environment at their start-up. Belong’s focus on touching community members in the pursuit of oxytocin will forever be haunted by accusations that Miki regularly groped her employee’s breasts without consent in the workplace.
All things considered, Belong does have a rich conceptual toolkit to pick and choose from, replete with adorable illustrations. It is a compelling read, particularly within its cultural and temporal context, aptly addressing American corporate culture by emphasising human factors which can be painful to ignore as well as contemporary issues like binging and ‘ding addiction.’ However, it is more than a self-help book: it is a comprehensive instructional manual focused on community architecture, and anyone with such lofty aims should read this book with a grain of salt and scrutinise the communities Agrawal has created.
Belong by Radha Agrawal
Workman Publishing (2018)
Image: Inf-Lite Teacher via Flickr