What Surprised Me About Living in a 38-Person Mansion

I was parked outside the mansion, slumped in my car. Feeling down. Hopeless.

I desperately wanted to live in an intentional community. Hell, I moved to San Francisco for that very reason. But after weeks of searching, I just couldn’t find a good fit. I was starting to give up hope.

And then I came across a Craigslist ad that caught my attention. A bat-shit insane Craigslist ad.

It was for a shared room in a whimsical 38-person mansion (with nearly as many chandeliers as residents).

Um yeah, there’s no way this would work.

Not only was I an incredibly light sleeper already struggling with insomnia and hypothyroidism, but I was known amongst my friends for needing tons of private space and quiet time.

Yet there I was, sitting despondently in my car, waiting for my interview to start.

Five minutes later, I walked through the ornate, French-Victorian doors. Two hours later, I could barely tear myself away.

Swept up in a flurry of exuberant, loving vibes, stimulating conversation, and freshly baked banana bread – I knew that I had no choice in the matter.

I was about to move into a 38-person mansion, sleep be damned!

And just like that, the 2 hour interview turned into a 12 month stay. Some of the most exciting, inspiring, and powerful months of my life.

This intentional community was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Imagine some mix of a college dorm, creative summer camp, and international hostel, with a splash of Burning Man, all wrapped up in love and gratitude.

Oh and cuddles. Lots of cuddles.

Going into this situation, I had a decent idea of what to expect…

Kitchen dance parties? Yup.

Deep, late-night talks around the firepit? Uh-huh.

Jam sessions, creative tomfoolery, laughter, tears, and everything in-between? You betcha.

But there were a few things that I didn’t see coming and was actually surprised by…

The Power of Platonic Touch

The culture we live in has somehow over-sexualized all forms of touch (just as we’ve over-sexualized all forms of nudity) and has left us in a barren, touch-less, oxytocin deprived wasteland.1

Not so at the 38-person mansion. Platonic touch was normal and encouraged here. Coming from a hug deprived childhood, this was a game changer for me. Hugging and holding one another was an everyday part of the culture – even amongst the dudes!

Identifying as a heterosexual male myself, it was actually amazing for me to be in an environment where platonic male touch was normalized. Hugging another dude didn’t mean anything. Only that you wanted to share love and affection with a fellow human being.

Showing affection through human contact shouldn’t be something reserved only for lovers or when on drugs. It’s a natural, beautiful human instinct.

And as hippie as it sounds, it really is a powerful way of opening your heart towards others. In ways that words alone can’t touch (no pun intended).

A Different Kind of Diversity

I used to think of diversity just in terms of race. But at the mansion, I was surrounded by people from all walks of life: techies, hippies, sorority girls, spiritual seekers, carpenters, musicians, the newly graduated, the newly divorced, the polyamorous, the gender non-conforming, the international, and the ex-Mormon.

So many different perspectives, lifestyles, and backgrounds. It was such a richly stimulating environment. Conversation was always guaranteed to be interesting and eye-opening.

Many other communities feel like they attract a certain type of person. The eccentric artists. The spiritual yogis. The eco-friendly advocates.

But here, all of us had only one thing in common: we were the type of person who’d live in a 38-person mansion. That seemed to self-select a certain adventurous spirit.

And resulted in the most dynamic environment I’ve ever lived in.

Sharing (Food) is Caring

When I first heard that the mansion had a shared food program, I begrudgingly accepted it. I kinda liked to do my own thing, ya know?

But now…I don’t ever want to live in a house WITHOUT communal food.

I’m convinced that sharing food is essential to making a community feel like a family. It makes you want to cook extra to share. It lends to teaming up together on meals. It encourages baking little treats to leave out as gifts.

It leads to people feeding each other, taking care of one another, and coming together over the kitchen counter and dining table.

Sharing food makes it feel like one shared community. Family. Home.

(Not to mention, you save tons of time and money by getting everything delivered through services like Imperfect Produce and FruitRollup)

Community of Communities

When I moved in, not only did I instantly gain 37 new friends to connect with – but I also got plugged into an entire network of interconnected SF communities!

Becoming a part of this larger “community of communities” has made San Francisco feel so much smaller (in a good way). I often run into familiar faces wherever I go. Every week, I’m plugged into tons of events, talks, and adventures that I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. Opportunities that continue to open my mind and connect me to interesting, inspiring, and out-of-the-box people.

It’s made SF feel less like an isolating, cold city of tech, and more like a warm, vibrant college campus.

Mansion Time

You know how when you’re traveling, a day can be so action-packed with adventures, chance meetings, and interactions, that it can feel like a week?

Well that’s what each day felt like here.

A day at the mansion was like a week of “normal” time. A week, like a month.

That’s why I’m a bit thrown off when people think my 12 month stay was a short one. In the default world, I guess it can be. But in mansion time, those months were packed with years worth of experiences.

Attitude of Gratitude

Every family meeting, we’d end by giving gratitudes – where you could thank someone for baking you cookies, or for cleaning the kitchen at 3am, or for just being an all-around awesome human being.

It sounds small, but these little gratitudes had a big impact.

Not only did they always get the love and appreciation palpably flowing throughout the room, but they stayed ingrained in the house culture long after family meeting was over.

Studies show that frequently giving and receiving gratitude is crucial to happiness and fulfillment. I got to see that on a firsthand basis every day at the mansion.

Discover Your Gifts

I knew in living here, I’d get to benefit from the unique gifts and skills of my 37 housemates. From woodworking to cooking, music making to sewing – I knew that I’d get to take in so much.

What I didn’t anticipate is how much I’d discover about what I had to give back. The unique gifts I had to offer.

In that little ecosystem, everyone was encouraged to pitch in and co-create the kind of community you wanted to live in. We called it a “do-acracy” – anything you wanted to make happen, just do it – whether that was building a cuddle puddle out of wood pallets, hosting acro yoga classes, or starting monthly Show & Tell nights.

I found myself getting really involved with improving the culture and discovered leadership capabilities that I was previously unaware of. I also discovered a strong desire to help people connect on a more authentic, emotional level (i.e. creating the Jar of Inquisition, a jar filled with vulnerable questions that people could ask each other; or starting Empathy in the Dark, which was basically group therapy with the lights off).

It was amazing to have this self-contained ecosystem where you could come up with ideas, build things, enact changes and then watch as the effects reverberated and shifted throughout the house, affecting the culture in real-time.

I learned so much about myself during this process. My unique gifts. My shortcomings. Where I felt called to serve – in both my communities and the world.

It was illuminating and empowering. And has continued to influence my journey to this day.

But the hardest part…

I could go on and on about how amazing it was to live in that house.2 It really was one of the most special times of my life. (So much so, I even got a tattoo commemorating my time there.)

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any issues. Of course there were.

However the most difficult one – the issue that ended up burning me out after 12 months – was something I didn’t expect at all.

It wasn’t the lack of sleep or privacy.

It wasn’t the lack of cleanliness.

It wasn’t the occasional interpersonal conflict (which happened much less frequently than you’d think).

Or the semi-controlled chaos.

No, it was something far more subtle:

The turnover.

When I first moved in, I remember feeling as if I had found heaven. Connecting with amazing people, staying up late playing music, having heart-to-hearts by the firepit…how could I ever want to leave?

And then my first house heartbreak happened.

One of my closest house friends told me he’d be moving out the next month.

Wait, what?? But we were getting so close! There were so many adventures and conversations still to be had. I thought we’d have more time!

But sadly, his departure wasn’t an anomaly. Quite the opposite, in fact.

That’s the gift and the curse of a house this big. My theory is that the bigger the community, the higher the turnover.

And at the mansion, there was a good amount of it. At least a few people each and every month.

Sure, there were always awesome new people coming in. And that’s part of what makes the house so special. Part of what gives it it’s vibrancy. It’s energy. It’s continual sense of discovery.

But it was also heartbreaking.

Every single month, I found myself saying goodbye to people who I couldn’t imagine the house without.

And after doing that month, after month, after month…something inside me began to shut down.3

I found myself less interested in meeting new people. In giving my energy to the house. And found myself triggered by the things that I once easily overlooked.

It felt like my heart was trying to protect itself. And it couldn’t handle this continual cycle of diving-deep-then-saying-goodbye anymore.

And I wasn’t the only one.

Aside from a few exceptions, almost everyone ended up leaving around the 9-12 month mark.

They cited reasons such as cleanliness, privacy, or burnout (especially if you took on a leadership role). And I’m sure those were significant factors. But I think the high turnover is always the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

And that’s where I found myself 12 months later.

When I first entered the mansion, I couldn’t imagine leaving. But by the end of my time, I couldn’t imagine staying.

I found myself craving a more stable situation. Where I could invest my energy into relationships that would be around for a while.

Where I could spend less energy on others and re-invest it back into myself. Read more. Write more. Take on creative projects. Netflix and chill with myself.

Well luckily, this mansion had a habit of giving birth to smaller offspring communities – including a 12-person co-op by Haight Ashbury, started by some of my favorite former housemates.

And wouldn’t you know it…they had a room open up right as I was moving out. And I was able to take it.

And it was exactly what I needed.

The co-op had everything I loved about the mansion: the same loving, affectionate culture. Housemates that I adored. A vibrant, diverse energy. Freshly baked banana bread.

But without the things I didn’t: it was cleaner, calmer, had more privacy (nearly everyone had their own room), and more space to do you.

Oh yeah, and much, much less turnover.

I still think about the mansion often. And have nothing but gratitude for that place.

Sure, living there wasn’t sustainable long-term. But it wasn’t meant to be that kind of experience.

It was more akin to traveling the world. Or going to Burning Man.

A brief, intense experience that takes you out of your comfort zone, cracks you open, and allows you grow.

Those kinds of experiences don’t need to last a lifetime to leave a life-long impact.

And that was most definitely the case here.

.    .    .

P.S. As an awesome example of the magic of this mansion, a bunch of my former housemates have come together to start their own music festival: Solvana

It’ll be at a 40-acre ranch in Northern California from September 15-17. And will feature the talents and contributions of many of our community members – both from the mansion and the greater SF network of communities.

If you’re around, come join and get a taste of the awesome community vibes that I talk about here! (message me for the password)