Navid started going to November Project workouts—a free, open-to-the-public outdoor exercise group—as a way to get over a broken heart. The 29-year-old chemist and his live-in girlfriend of three years broke up in October 2014. Dark-eyed and gentle, Navid is open-hearted and honest. It’s easy to see how a breakup would knock him off his feet. To make matters worse, Navid fights an often-daily struggle against anxiety and depression. I saw a glimpse of the anxiety when he was late for our meeting. He apologized for being late, and then brought it up again, a few minutes later.
“I’m sorry for being late. I hate being late. Sometimes I’m late. I wish I was better,” he told me.
Navid, which means good news or peace, was born on August 20, 1988 in Iran—the day the Iran-Iraq war ended. As Jews in Iran, Navid and his family experienced constant religious persecution. They were forced to note their religion on their passports, “kind of like a yellow star,” Navid said. Schools wouldn’t sign him up, or they’d suddenly be full when his parents tried register.
It all became too much for the family, and they emigrated to the United States in 1997, when Navid was nine. He didn’t speak any English, but picked up the language quickly and made a few friends. Then, when he was 13, 9/11 happened.
“It was extremely challenging,” Navid said about growing up as an Iranian immigrant post 9/11. “It’s just something you deal with.” His high school friends picked on him, which eroded Navid’s ability to trust other people.
Navid went to college at the University of San Diego, California, and after graduation started working as a group lead in a biotech company, in charge of two product lines and five projects.
After Navid and his girlfriend broke up, he moved in with a friend. Navid started running on his own, and then at his friend’s urging showed up to a November Project workout on a Monday at 6:30 am. He loved it instantly.
“What I love about November Project is nobody has to be there. Ashleigh, Lauren (the tribe leaders in San Diego)—nobody is paying them. It’s not their job,” Navid said.
For Navid, the purity of the experience is essential. He’s not there to find friends, exactly. He doesn’t see it as a social club. He has a large group of friends, but he says he often feels like an outsider.
“I have a relatively large group of friends outside of the November Project. So I didn’t necessarily need the friends. But, it’s the fact that like everyone is just there. And you’re just there,” he said.
As a result, Navid takes the community aspect seriously. He’s picked up a fellow tribe member from the airport, showed up at a marathon to hold signs for November Project tribe members running the race. All for people he had never socialized with outside of the twice-weekly workouts.
“I feel like that’s what needs to be in the community,” Navid said. “It’s the whole point of the community, especially when it’s free.”
A strange thing happened to Navid once he joined the November Project and started helping out fellow tribe members.
“I started feeling closer to my friends after starting,” he said.
Since he began attending November Project workouts, Navid said he allowed himself to fit in with his friends. The good feeling of being so unconditionally and instantly accepted by the November Project tribe had an impact on his other relationships.
“Everyone is welcoming. Nobody is excluded,” Navid told me. “I think it’s called mirroring. My therapist told me about it. You see something somewhere and you can apply it,” he said.
When the depression hits, Navid finds it hard to get out of bed.
“This past Monday I didn’t go (to the November Project workout), because Sunday I wasn’t feeling well. I went to bed at like 7pm. I was just like, I’m done. I woke up, I was just like, no, and I went back to sleep. And I kind of felt shitty about it,” he said.
In an average gym, that would have been the end of the story. Not at the November Project.
A fellow tribe member reached out through Facebook and asked what happened. Navid told her he’d be there on Wednesday.
In the November Project world, that type of comment is called a “verbal” and it’s taken seriously. Tribe members will even say, “I’ll be there on Wednesday. Verbal.”
Breaking a verbal gives other tribe members permission to put your face on social media and in the section of the November Project website labeled “We Missed You.” The guilty party is called out and teased, and embarrassing photos culled from Facebook often accompany the posts.
“That accountability is kind of cool,” Navid said.
The flip side of “verbals” is the November Project cape. This short, yellow cape is passed from tribe member to tribe member as a way to show appreciation. The November Project is all over the country, but this tradition is specific to San Diego, proof that each November Project tribe becomes its own, particular group.
“It’s given from member to member, rather than from the tribe leaders,” Navid said. If he had the cape, Navid said he’d pass it along to his friend who bugged him about not showing up on Monday.
“I liked that she was like, ‘why weren’t you there?’” he said.