Nucleus of expertise

Everybody needs an informal network of go-to people


It took a no-frills, off-the-grid camping trip to show me that I need very little to make the most of everything.

The expedition, a five-day camping trip into the Nevada desert, involved a large group—many of whom were good friends, others mere acquaintances I hoped to get to know better.

The first night, we built a fire over the coals and prepared for supper, pulling hot dogs and hamburgers from coolers and opening Tupperware containers filled with colorful salads and side dishes. Someone passed around a tub of fresh corn while another camper made sure every plate received its share of sliced fruit and home-baked oatmeal raisin cookies.

As I nibbled on freshly roasted corn and an amazing broccoli salad, I surveyed the spread with happiness. It hadn’t started out as a potluck, but by the end of the meal we’d all sampled everything. No one went hungry, and looking back, I think that, with its hodgepodge array of home-cooked goodness, it might be the best meal I’d eaten all year.

That generous ethos permeated the rest of the trip. Food and booze were shared. Clothing was given to those who’d forgotten important items (hello, socks!), broken tents were fixed for those in need, and when someone suffered a potentially deadly scorpion bite, we all marveled at our firefighter friend who treated the wound by sucking the venom out with his mouth.

So by the time our rented SUV started lilting and hissing with a flat tire, I didn’t bother to freak out. Indeed, before we could even ask for help, an entire cavalcade of campers had descended upon the tire in question, patching it up with a fix-it kit in a dizzying cloud of dust and efficiency.

Standing there, I realized that, within this group of people, I had everything I needed: chefs and bakers, handymen and car fixers, medics and firefighters—an entire community of assistance, a microcosm of city life.

It occurred to me, too, that I also have access to this same sort of community back home—an informal, loose network of resources and go-to people. Indeed, Tim White, one of the camp’s de facto leaders—the organizer of trips, the coordinator of resources—was, in a sense, our unofficial hub back in “civilization,” too.

Later during the trip, a friend of mine who moved to San Francisco a few years back mused on how much she missed that hub. Although she was slowly building a new network in the Bay Area, she still longed for the “immediate community” that came from years of friendships and trust.

“If anything needs to be done, it pretty much turns into ‘Ask Tim,’” she says. “He’ll help you find the person you need or tell you how to do it, where to get the stuff and what to watch out for. If all else fails, he’s just as likely to take care of it himself.”

In this era of Yelp reviews and Craigslist “services offered,” it’s reassuring to turn to people you know to help you fix a leaky faucet, replace a bathroom floor or figure out the best options for that abandoned puppy you just found.

Of course, not everyone has access to such a system. But with a little creative networking, digging and word-of-mouth referrals, it’s not too difficult to create your own trusted resource center. It won’t necessarily make the Better Business Bureau obsolete or put general contractors out of business, but it can give you an affordable way to help and be helped.

It may seem elementary, but the reality is that, overwhelmed with choices, we tend to overlook our best sources of information as we trudge the aisles of Home Depot or type questions into Google. Taking the time to poll friends and pool resources, however, can save you time, money and headaches.

“It just seems natural to share information,” says White. “Some people have had experiences and gained knowledge that others haven’t, and passing along what you’ve learned can make the process of figuring something out a whole lot easier.”

Personal networking and community in day-to-day life is “huge,” he adds.

“I often think that if I lived somewhere else and had to function, just how much more difficult and less efficient that would be. [I’d] have to put so much effort into verifying information or double-checking to make sure a resource was sound,” he says. “There’s a real benefit to people working together to accomplish things. … Community spirit is timeless.”

Another friend takes a similar approach, sending out short, informal e-mail updates on her Oak Park neighborhood.

“I realized that when I bought [a house] in Oak Park that most of the people I am friends with don’t know what a rad place it is,” explains Guphy Gustafson. Her approach is simple: “Walk around with my dog and check out stuff—if there’s a business, I check it out.

“I like to keep people up to date on what is happening—if it’s a cool business, I want [it] to make money and stay, so I spread the word.”

Gustafson has also created her own two-person home repair, Lady Co-Op—proof that even small groups can make big changes.

“A friend and I bought houses at the same time and decided we would help each other with projects,” Gustafson says. “Every other Wednesday, we … are painting, scraping, using power tools and helping [each other].”

Those not already tapped into a nucleus of expertise and sweat equity can still build team spirit by asking friends for referrals, hosting work parties or checking out local meet-ups and Internet forums. Whatever you do, be sure to offer your own skills and knowledge.

However big or small the effort, the returns can prove enormously rewarding.

“It just seems right to help out, and others will return the favor,” White says. “It makes life better for all—simpler and more fun.”