I thoroughly enjoy being on teams. I grew up playing team sports, and an emphasis on teamwork was a constant in my home throughout and beyond my childhood. At the same time, I am a proud introvert. I enjoy and need time to myself. In fact, as I type this I am sitting in the corner by myself at a local coffee shop with my headphones on, thoroughly enjoying my solitude. As much as I enjoy recharging my batteries alone, I enjoy draining them fully engaged with my team(s).

Never one to take my good fortune for granted, I fully recognize that we don’t all benefit from the sense of belonging that comes with being on a team, surrounded by people we trust, respect, and thoroughly enjoy being with. I was reminded of this by a new member of one of my teams. We had a nice talk about his past, present, and future. Having served over 20 years in the military, he spoke of his adventures, contributions, and challenges. He smiled throughout as he recalled his teammates and the feeling that accompanied being part of something so much bigger than himself. As we spoke of the present, his enthusiasm waned. He shared more and it became rather clear that his post-military life, which included many seemingly cool jobs in some exotic locations, was less than fulfilling. I asked him about his plans for the future and he simply said, “Sir, I just want to belong again.”

A simple statement. So powerful. So overlooked by many. Those of us who join the military, whether it be in uniform or as a Department of Defense civilian, do so for varied reasons. Whether we serve for 2 years or 30+ years we grow accustomed to feeling as though we belong. We matter! Some don’t realize that it’s happening, while others are very aware, but regardless of where we fall on this spectrum, we become painfully aware when no longer have that feeling. Some of us will search for that feeling once again, and some of us will be OK with that void. I can honestly state that I am addicted to belonging. I didn’t realize it, but I haven’t had to live a day with that void. Sure, there are other voids, but the feeling that accompanies being part of a team, part of a family, and part of something that matters is something I don’t remember living without. The thought of living a life without that feeling concerns me more than I care to admit.

I recently worked with a teammate who would often say, “work is like a drug for me.” When I first heard him say it, I was a little concerned. He had a great family and a truly remarkable life by all accounts, so why was work so important to him? The reality is that it’s not work at all: it’s the belonging. It’s the being part of a team of amazing people. It’s the fulfillment that comes with doing something that matters with people who matter. It need not be limited to our jobs and it need not be limited to our friendships and family. We can belong anywhere – and some can belong almost everywhere. Whether we choose to admit it, our quest is to belong somewhere. One of a leader’s challenges is to help others know that they belong.

I belong exactly where I am. This corner in the coffee shop suits me just fine for the moment. Batteries recharged and I will belong exactly where I am heading next: home with my family. Come tomorrow, I will belong at work with a team I love. Belonging is a drug, a powerful one. A drug that most of us don’t realize we can’t live without.

  • Where do you belong?
  • Do you help others know that they belong?
  • How important is belonging to you?