Kerry Harding is president of The Talent Bank, a Washington, DC-based executive search firm. He serves on the North Star Leadership Council and is the coordinator for the Voices of Hope Project. He and his wife, Dawn, live in Bethesda, Maryland, and are the parents of four sons and grandparents of three.
In his influential 1989 book, The Great Good Place, author Ray Oldenburg introduced the concept of “the third place” as a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual environments of home and the workplace. In his book, he argued that third places were important for civil society, democracy, civil engagements and establishing feelings of a sense of place.
Oldenburg called one’s “first place” the home and those that one lives with. The “second place” is the workplace—where people may actually spend most of their time. Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs. Oldenburg suggested the following eight hallmarks of a true “third place”:
Occupants of Third Places have little to no obligation to be there. They are not tied down to the area financially, politically, legally, or otherwise and are free to come and go as they please.
Third Places put no importance on an individual’s status in a society. Someone’s economic or social status does not matter in a Third Place, allowing for a sense of commonality among its occupants. There are no prerequisites or requirements that would prevent acceptance or participation in the Third Place.
Conversation is Main Activity
Playful and happy conversation is the main focus of activity in Third Places, although it is not required to be the only activity. The tone of conversation is usually lighthearted and humorous; wit and good-natured playfulness are highly valued.
Accessibility and Accommodation
Third places must be open and readily accessible to those who occupy them. They must also be accommodating, meaning they provide the wants of their inhabitants, and all occupants feel their needs have been fulfilled.
Third Places harbor a number of regulars that help give the space its tone, and help set the mood and characteristics of the area. Regulars to Third Places also attract newcomers, and are there to help someone new to the space feel welcome and accommodated.
A Low Profile
Third Places are characteristically wholesome. The inside of a Third Place is without extravagance or grandiosity, and has a homey feel. Third Places are never snobby or pretentious, and are accepting of all types of individuals, from many different walks of life.
The Mood is Playful
The tone of conversation in Third Places are never marked with tension or hostility. Instead, they have a playful nature, where witty conversation and frivolous banter are not only common, but highly valued.
A Home Away From Home
Occupants of Third Places will often have the same feelings of warmth, possession, and belonging as they would in their own homes. They feel a piece of themselves is rooted in the space, and gain spiritual regeneration by spending time there.
Many strategic business models have been organized around becoming that third place in people’s lives. In 1979, Howard Schultz, became a general manager for Swedish drip coffee maker manufacturer, Hammarplast. In 1981, Schultz visited one of the company’s clients, a fledgling coffee-bean shop called Starbucks Coffee Company in Seattle that he joined as the Director of Marketing a year later. On a buying trip to Milan, Italy for Starbucks, Schultz noted that coffee bars existed on practically every street. He learned that they not only served excellent espresso, they also served as meeting places or public squares and, with 200,000 of them in the country, were a big part of Italy’s societal glue. As CEO, he set out to, and succeeded in, making the corner Starbucks the “third place” for literally hundreds of thousand of people with 20,000 stores in 61 countries. In the annals of sit-com television history, the concept of the third place has been best epitomized by the local neighborhood hangout—with Cheers leading the list, followed by Friends’ Central Perk, The Simpsons’ Moe’s Tavern, Drew Carey’s The Warsaw, and Frazier’s Café Nervosa, to name just a few.
As I have completed my first year as a member of North Star’s Leadership Council, I recently realized while re-reading The Great Good Place that, for me, this year, North Star has become my “third place.” Belonging to and participating in a variety of North Star’s on-line discussion groups, its Facebook group and becoming a driving force, along with Ty Mansfield, to bring the Voices of Hope Project from dream to reality, has provided me with a “home” where I feel an unmatched level of comfort, acceptance and unconditional love. It is a place that I feel safe. It is a place that I feel happy. Through it, I have established friendships with a vastly diverse group of men ranging in age from 18 to 70, publicly shared stories of my personal trials and triumphs in hope that they might help someone going through similar circumstances, and mourned with and encouraged those whose choices and setbacks left them momentarily deflated by and temporarily sidetracked from the journey we had pledged to travel together. As I looked at my own personal growth that occurred this year, it stemmed largely from my involvement in and interaction with the people of this organization.
Looking back, I realize that I am now more confident of my place in the world, better cherish my role as a son of God as well as husband and father, and feel more keenly my duty to uplift and love my fellowman because North Star has become such an integral part of my life. While I am unable to adequately compensate or even thank all of those who went before me to build this organization from merely an idea into what it is today, what I can do is, through the continuing contribution of my talents, skills and friendship, make it better, stronger and more integral into the lives of those who follow.