7 Clear Signs That Your Coliving is Actually a Cult
My friend Damiano Ramazzotti and I frequently have long discussions about how, if you are not careful, your coliving might turn into a cult—even when you have the best of intentions.
I’ve seen some communities like the Startup Castle I advised go bonkers. I have also experienced as a coliver not fitting into the community and feeling like I was in a cult.
The difference between what makes a coliving healthy, or a Goddamned cult, forced me to spend countless hours researching where the fine line is and if there’s a defined framework that lets us measure how “culty” our community is growing.
The Cambridge dictionary defines a cult as “a religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people.” And its second definition of religion is “an activity that someone is extremely enthusiastic about and does regularly,” which doesn’t necessarily imply the belief or worship of a God.
Notice the “whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people” part. This implies that a cult is an external subjective perception. If you are considered weird by the majority, by the others, you might be viewed as a cult.
In fact, Damiano explained that even my coliving, Startup Embassy, is perceived by some as a cult. Think about it, he said, “a bunch of guys in rooms building technology to become billionaires and change the world. That sounds cultish too, if you think about it.” And when I heard him saying that, it took me time to digest it, but do you know what? He is right.
So, I thought, what’s the common ground? How can we define cult-hood or not? In fact, is it necessarily bad to be perceived as a cult? Well, it depends, I guess.
I don’t care if others consider us a cult. What I’m concerned about is if one of our colivers does.
I once stayed at a coliving where everyone expected all members to be actively involved. All meals were together. You ate whatever was served, mostly a vegetarian diet.
I’m a fucking meat eater, and I’m fine with eating greens—but if you force me to do it during three consecutive days with no steak on the horizon, I’ll start looking at you with the eye of the tiger. Especially if the community would not approve if I bought my own food and enjoyed it separately.
Moreover, that coliving’s founder had carefully scheduled events that took place several times per day. He had put his heart and love into it, and everyone participated in them.
In my case, I did (not because I wanted to) but because I was expected. It got to a point where I felt wrong if I left the space to go for a walk. Every time I returned from a few hours of absence, I had this feeling of a misbehaved child.
When I felt like this as a coliver, it was from a lack of freedom. It’s not only that I was obligated into following a strict code, but I also felt like they didn’t care about my individuality.
Ok so, freedom plays a role in this, but it was also because my expectations were not set right from the beginning. So, expectations also play a role.
Going deeper into this matter, I believe that part of the problem was that the founder had put so much effort into the events that his ego was at stake. It was as he had organized his own birthday party, and his best friend wasn’t coming. He probably felt that his ego, persona, identity, and reputation were at stake.
If that is how you will feel as a founder, you will end up with a cult. Because people won’t always adapt to every practical, objective, logical requirement, and this won’t satisfy your own needs: to feel cool, good, and successful. That will bite you in the ass later on because you are doing it for yourself.
But the thing is that, on the other hand, some people may need exactly that family-like structure. Some people need a family more than just a community. What is the difference between a family and a community? Is it that the family sits for lunch and dinner every day? This might depend on your education, background, emotional and psychological needs: You may need freedom or communion.
And then there are the real cults. I mean the objectively bad ones. The ones that:
- Have a charismatic leader, and things revolve too much around him.
- Questioning and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- A community culture built around the sense of “us against them”: The same attitude that you have towards the outside will slip into the inside of your community.
- Have a moral structure by which they judge certain people to be bad. They induce feelings of shame or guilt to control members.
- They expect members to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
- Judges members and are detrimental. The community behaves as a tribunal.
- The most loyal members feel there can’t be life outside the context of the group.
They disregard someone’s unique authenticity in favor of placing a certain “standard” over them, imparting an incredibly unhealthy atmosphere. Basically, if you value control over celebrating someone’s authentic growth, you’re a cult.
Reading this and considering (I hope) that you don’t want to design a cult, what should you consider when you design your community so that no one in your community feels like they’re living in a cult?
To answer this question, I came up with the following simple framework. Look at the diagram:
Let me please define the concepts involved:
- External Freedom: On the X-axis, you measure the amount of freedom your space objectively provides.
- If you are not expected to be at a specific place at a particular moment and/or don’t have any rules, then you are part of a community that is all the way to the right side of the X-axis.
- If you are taking part in a tight schedule program, then that community is on the far left of the X-axis.
- Internal freedom: On the Y-axis, you measure the perceived (subjective) freedom a coliver has. The higher they are on the Y-axis, the freer they feel in that community, even though they might be attending a program.
As long as their expectations were set right, they will feel comfortable and free. If another coliver is down the Y axis, it will mean that for any reason, they’re feeling trapped. So much that they could feel they’re living inside a cult, even if that space doesn’t impose any schedule or obligation to the community members.
- Types of communities: Considering the two axes, you have the following communities:
- A program: You might be running a program on your coliving, that’s perfect. Programs typically expect community members to be on a tight schedule, and thus we can say that members will have less freedom.
You probably do everything together, from breakfast, lunch, and dinner to traveling. Someone who doesn’t take the program seriously and misses some or most of the events jeopardizes the rest of the community. Therefore, programs require more commitment from the community and thus have less freedom and are on the left part of the X-axis.
- A family: This is a community where some behaviors are expected, like having lunch together and helping to clean up afterward or some particular events.
I am thinking about my actual family. We always eat together; I can’t even consider one of my kids eating at a different time or in his room. This implies that you have more freedom than if you were running a program but still expect some compromise.
- A tribe: It’s the community model that provides the most freedom. You are still part of a like-minded group, but there are no expectations on how you should live your life inside of the space as long as it’s in a healthy way.
All three types of communities, program, family, and tribe, are also ideally subjectively perceived by the coliver as free. They are present because they want to be. They had an expectation before joining, and that expectation has been met. Therefore, they are situated higher on the Y-axis.
But if they had unmet expectations, their perception of freedom will be very low (Y-axis), and then your community will be perceived as:
- A cult: In this case, by cult I don’t mean what we understand in society as an evil-based cult which I defined earlier. I mean what the coliver subjectively feels as something unexpected, and that restricts his perception of freedom. You must avoid this.
- Gravity: This is an aggregation of events and behaviors that will pull down the coliver’s internal freedom perception down the Y-axis. Things like:
- Too much ego from the founder
- Us vs. Them based community values
- Expectations not met: The coliving operator didn’t make a strong effort to set the right expectations for their colivers.
- Rules not known: Situations where a coliver breaks an unknown rule, either because nobody told them that rule existed or because something they did triggered management to impose a new rule and made the coliver accountable for it.
- Lack of diversity: often taken for granted, but diversity must be an integral part of your community’s design process.
- Community acting as a tribunal and judging members: This is a huge gravity force.
The moment that your community takes part in the judging process of a coliver, you will face polarization where some people will stand with the judged coliver and others against him.
This will hurt the energy of your community. Members can be witnesses in a process, but not judges. That’s why there’s a management team (you, the operator).
The House Manager should be the interface between the community and the management team that judges the misbehavior based on the rules (Code of Conduct, culture, etc.). The House Manager should not be part of the judging team to avoid future conflicts with the community members.
- Too much hierarchy: Hierarchy is good if it means that there’s a management team (operator) that is in complete control. The coliving space structure must be established so that this is clear from the beginning (expectations). That includes setting the culture so that the colivers know that rules might change in the future.
But I believe that having hierarchy inside of the community is unhealthy. The more hierarchy there is, the more egos come into place, and that is a breeding ground for potential puneets to show up and polarize your community.
- Too many rules: You need rules; everyone needs rules. But keep the list short. The more you have, the less clear it will be for your colivers to follow them, and the more gravity it will generate in the perception of freedom of your colivers.
- Evil culture: This should be clear.
Gravity is a sum of all these factors. They add weight to the subjective perception of freedom of your coliver, ultimately dragging them into a cult. The more behaviors like these you have, the stronger the gravity will be, and the stronger your coliver will feel trapped by your community.
Having said all this, there’s an additional component to take care of. Look at the extended figure:
Here I’ve considered the perception external people have about your community. You should not care what they think of you as long as your community is healthy and growing.
But the circle represents the filter you have to accept your prospective members. It defines if a person is part of your community or not. The moment someone is inside, you better make sure that you have set the right expectations for them.
Because once they’re inside, if you made a bad choice, gravity will pull them down, and now you have a community member that thinks that you are running a cult. So, in a way, that circle is a shield, defined by your selection process and how well you set the right expectations for future members.
So, in the case of that coliving I previously mentioned where I felt uncomfortable, the problem was that they didn’t offer me enough information to set realistic expectations. It turned out that whether they had designed it that way or not, they ran a program. They wanted to provide an amazing experience to the members, they had great intentions, but I wouldn’t have gone if I had known beforehand.
Mama Carlos Says
It’s impossible to predict all potential problems while operating a coliving, so prepare for sticky situations where you must establish new rules on the fly. People make mistakes, and these should be learning opportunities.
So when you face issues, don’t hold a coliver accountable for breaking a rule you never had before. Even more, if your community acts like a tribunal and judges the coliver, you risk polarizing your space into hostile groups, adding gravity to their senses of freedom and justice.
If a situation like this arises, don’t make the coliver accountable. Set the new rule, communicate it clearly to your community, and let it be. Here are some concrete examples:
- You never mention anything about alcohol consumption in your Code of Conduct, and suddenly, you detect that your community is getting into the habit of drinking too much. One night, things get out of control, so you prohibit alcohol on the premises.
If you expel whoever you decide was responsible, it would be most likely be unpopular and unfair. If you don’t make it clear that your Code is fluid and new rules can be added as necessary, they will rebel against the new addition.
- A new member that fits the profile you look for is friendly with others and, in essence, is a good coliver. However, they’re not involved with your community in the way you expected.
You think they should participate more in communal events, set the table with others, be proactive in offering themselves to take the trash out, and things like that.
One day you tell them that they need to leave because the community has decided that they are not “active enough.” How should they react if you never told them clearly what you expected with community involvement?
They’ll leave thinking that you’re a cult, and you never gave them the chance to prove their value as a community member.
Don’t expect people to arrive knowing what it means to be a good coliver. This depends on your particular case, your community DNA, your culture, and your rules. Design your processes in a way that your coliver can easily understand your cultural expectations before they have even applied to your space. Make sure they understand that rules can change, but don’t make them accountable for things nobody foresaw—including you.
- Don’t make your culture be based around yourself.
- Don’t make your space a tribunal; it’s much easier to accept judgment from an individual than to accept judgment from a group.
- Don’t lack diversity.
- Don’t make your values be based on “us against them.”
- Don’t create hierarchies in your community.
- Don’t have too many rules. Ensure you set the right expectations.
- And, of course, don’t be evil.
All these things will add weighted perceptions on freedom for your colivers and will ultimately make them feel trapped in a miserable cult.