creativity

How my life and career prepared me to work on climate change

When people ask me, “what do you do?” my response is always, “have you got a minute?” If they say yes, I say, “I’m a digital product developer / business leader / journalist / author / biomimicry scientist / public historian / tour guide, and I kicked cancer’s ass during a pandemic. Now I’m bundling up all of that experience together to fight climate change and protect the planet. Do you have any questions?”

Some of the most important research on climate change has yet to be done: What happens in a worst-case scenario? This week, an international team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge (where I will start my graduate studies in Sustainability Leadership in September) published a paper about the urgent need to do this work. As I read the piece and considered my experience, I realized my life and career have primed me to be a part of this endeavor.

Cancer during COVID-19
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. You think taking precautions to protect yourself and others from COVID is inconvenient? You think changing your lifestyle so we curb climate change in inconvenient? Trying getting cancer. Now that’s inconvenient. 

Cancer upends every facet of life to battle it. And even if you do everything right, there’s no guarantee you’ll be cancer-free. Having to face that demon and my own mortality (several times thanks to a life-threatening chemo allergy I had and never knew about) changed me. Then to find out that my cancer had a strong environmental component added insult to injury. It also lit a fire under me to change my life and dedicate my career to healing this injured planet. 

Nothing teaches you how to live like having your life on the line. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Since I had to go through it, and have emerged on the other side cancer-free, I’m determined to use what I learned to help make this world a better place for all beings.

Hope for the best; expect the worst
I’ve lived my entire life by this philosophy. At times, it’s exhausting but the tremendous upside is that I’m often prepared and rarely surprised. This thinking gave me a stiff upper lip as I’m not someone who runs from conflict or difficulty. I’m incapable of deluding myself or anyone else with any kind of pollyanna scenarios. Just give me the facts. Tell me what I could be up against and I’ll take it from there. I’ve mastered pro-con list making and I love a good SWOT analysis. Difficulty doesn’t depress me. I can sit with suffering and not be consumed by it. I’m not afraid of the future; I’m here to shape it. 

Product development
All product development, regardless of the product, service, or system being built is anchored in two principles: what problem are you trying to solve and who are you trying to solve it for? I don’t fall in love with anything I build or any idea I have. A long time ago, I fell in love with serving others and making the world a better place. My ego and my fear of rejection hover near zero. Being a product developer requires me to be measured and methodical, to care about the grand vision and every tiny detail. Strategy and tactics are two sides of the same coin and they serve each other. I like both of them equally. 

Business and leadership
I’d love to tell you that well-meaning governments, NGOs, and nonprofits are going to save the planet and humankind from destruction. They aren’t because they aren’t the problem. Business, and how we conduct business, is the problem. Because business is the problem it’s also the solution. 

Business is responsible for climate change because of the way it operates. Change the operations and you see progress toward solving the challenge. It’s not easy work. There are a lot of stakeholders with conflicting interests and priorities. Then you add the whammy of many people in the world being down on business and capitalism, and rightly so. Given all that, it’s easy to see why some businesses toss up their hands with a “I can’t do anything right so I’m just going to soldier on as I always have.” 

Except they can’t. Business and businesses will have to change and evolve. It’s not a choice anymore. Destroy the planet and every business, every person perishes. So business colleagues: buck up, roll up those sleeves, humble yourself, and get to work to make your business sustainable. I’ll be in the trenches with you and I’ll help you.  

Scientific studies in biomimicry and sustainability
Biomimicry begins and ends with the mindset of looking at a problem and asking, “how would nature solve this?” It’s a fascinating, hopeful, and wonderful way to live and work. I feel fortunate to be a biomimicry scientist. I’m excited to begin my studies at Cambridge to extend my work in biomimicry and business through sustainability leadership and bring them together to build a better world. 

Digital media
I’m often asked, “do you make your whole living in biomimicry?” No. I don’t. I have an MBA from the Darden School at the University of Virginia and I’ve worked for years to become a storyteller in a variety of mediums. I make the majority of my income working as a product developer for a media company and from my writing. I also produce and host a podcast about joy called JoyProject, used to manage Broadway shows and national theater tours, and hope to get back to producing and hosting storytelling shows, in-person and on screens large and small.

Science is what I do because I love it and it’s a force for good in the world. With my studies at Cambridge, I’m hoping to work with energy companies to end the production of fossil fuels. You can read more about my career plans here

Being a journalist and a fantasy and science fiction author
Writers make stuff up and write it down. We love playing out scenarios and asking questions like, “What if…?”, “And then what happened?”, and “How did we end up here?”. We research. We interview people. We observe. We dig through historical documents and archives. We create characters and we put them into impossible situations. This is the kind of thinking and acumen the climate change movement needs. 

Public historian and tour guide
Science was my first love. History was my second. I was a history and economics major in college at the University of Pennsylvania. I majored in history because everything has a history. It felt to me like I could do anything if I was a historian. I can happily spend countless hours reading and uncovering history, talking to people about history, showing people history, and imagining what once was, why it impacts what is, and how it will shape what’s yet to be. 

I’ve never been a person who easily fit into a box of any kind. I had no interest in that. When I was interviewing for my first job out of business school, a man interviewing me commented that my resume looked like I had done a lot of exploring. He didn’t mean this as a compliment; he was criticizing me because he thought I lacked focus. I didn’t. My focus just happened to be on anything and everything that interested me, and a lot interests me. 

I got the job, but that guy who called me an explorer was never approved of me. That’s okay. He just couldn’t see what I knew to be true—the solutions to worldwide problems need worldwide views. They need lots of different types of experience to create something that’s never been done before. Turns out all my exploring gave me exactly everything I needed to make the world a better place, and that’s what I will do. 

creativity

How being a writer will help me get my dream job working with fossil fuel companies

In September, I’m starting a Master’s program at University of Cambridge in Sustainability Leadership. It’s my intention to use that degree as a springboard to work with fossil fuel companies — and convince them that it’s in their best and most profitable interest to stop producing fossil fuel and invest everything they’ve got in clean renewable energy. 

I’ve talked to a few people about this dream. Most laugh at me. Some think I’m wasting my time and talents on this dream. Some think I’ll never be able to do it. 

Here’s why it’s worth trying: 89% of CO2 emissions come from fossil fuels and industry

We could do everything else right when it comes to slowing down or, dare we imagine, to reversing climate change and it won’t matter if we don’t quickly and massively reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuel production.

What Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. got wrong about the SCOTUS majority opinion on the EPA
The SCOTUS majority ruling in West Virginia v. EPA removed the ability of the EPA to limit emissions by power plants. The majority opinion is a travesty for many reasons. It also happens to be false, or at least incomplete. “There is little reason to think Congress assigned such decisions to the Agency,” Roberts wrote. “A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself.”

That last bit about Congress isn’t entirely true. The energy industry could make the choice to limit, or eliminate, its emissions.

I know some of you are laughing at that idea. You know what’s even more laughable? Imagining that Congress will get its act together to make it happen.

I understand why people hate on and rail against capitalism. However, it’s the economic paradigm that powers the world. We barely have time to get for-profit businesses to change their behaviors before the planet faces irreversible damage that will compromise life on this planet. We absolutely don’t have time to reinvent and adopt a new world economy before that happens.

Yes, capitalism is deeply flawed and yes, I wish humans were neurologically wired to act in the best interests of the greater community rather than themselves. I can’t change either of those facts and neither can you, not in time to protect the planet.

We have to work with what we have right now. We don’t have time to lament over human selfishness. We have to use it to our advantage; that’s exactly how nature would solve climate change and it’s exactly what we need to do. Now. It’s what I plan to do by working with fossil fuel companies. 

What fossil fuel companies care about
Fossil fuel companies don’t produce fossil fuel because they love it. There is precious little to love about dirty fuel that’s poisoning the planet and poisoning us. Fossil fuel companies love two things: money and power. Their long-term profits and power aren’t in fossil fuel. It’s in renewables for one simple reason — they’re cheaper to produce and are, as the name implies, limitless. Imagine the economics of a business built on inexpensive, infinite raw materials that produces a final product that protects the health of every living being? You don’t have to imagine it. It’s here. It’s renewable energy. 

What West Virginia cares about
Why did West Virginia bring this case against the EPA? Jobs. Plain and simple. Money and income. West Virginia and other fossil fuel producing states have no particular attachment to fossil fuel except history and a large number of jobs. 

If they could preserve jobs, or better yet increase the number of them and the income those jobs generate, they’d do it. With renewables, they can retrain people, preserve their beautiful land, water, and wildlife, protect workers, increase tax revenue, and promote the health of all beings. But they can’t do it alone. We have to work with them. We have to support them. 

The power of legacy
Legacy is a powerful motivator. As Hamilton says, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” In addition to money and power, fossil fuel companies and those who head them care about legacy and how they will be remembered. In 2019, BP spent millions on an advertising campaign about its low-carbon energy and cleaner natural gas when 96% of its annual expenditure is on oil and gas. This was greenwashing to the extreme, and BP isn’t alone. Greenwashing is a fossil fuel industry problem

Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Drax, Equinor, ExxonMobil, INEOS, RWE, and Shell have all done it. The advertising campaign they all need, rooted in truth, that will send their stock prices soaring, generate priceless innovative partnerships, and cause the best and brightest talent around the world to work for and with them is this: “We will reduce the production of fossil fuel by at least 50% by 2030 and completely replace it with renewable energy by the year 2050.”

I’ve been to Saudi Arabia, met with some of the highest officials in Saudi government, and traveled to the Empty Quarter. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors have the geographic space and wealth to be the largest renewable suppliers in the world. Forget greening the desert there. Create the solar fuel farms we need on land that has very little life to disturb. 

Fossil fuel companies are fiercely competitive. Once one company does this, the rest of them will scramble to do the same. There’s a first mover advantage here. With this kind of decision, they will rewrite the history of this planet and forever be remembered as the company that protected and saved life on Earth in its darkest hour. Now that is a legacy.

Why I’m built for this work
I’ve worked inside a number of large multinational matrix for-profit companies. Many are populated with enormous egos and deep pockets. 

Bureaucracy doesn’t grind me down; it sharpens my resolve. 

I love finding out what makes people tick and what they care about most. Then I show them how my projects help them in their pursuits of what matters to them. I learned this skill as a fundraiser and as a product developer who had to internally lobby for project funding. My mentors were the best of the best at this. They showed me how it’s done, and done well.

Being a writer will help
While building a successful business career working with a variety of startups, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies, I also honed my communications and storytelling skills by building a strong portfolio as a writer, author, journalist, editor, interviewer, public speaker, and podcaster. 

This shift from fossil fuels to clean renewables is as much about storytelling as it is about science and business. 

Being a writer means I’m constantly inventing characters with motives. I build worlds with words. Now I will use my words to paint the picture of what a clean, sustainable, and healthy world looks, feels, sounds, smells, and tastes like. 

While the climate change movement has done an excellent job of describing the grim future we’ll face if we don’t shift away from fossil fuels, they haven’t shown us the alternative of a happy, joyful future on this planet. We need to long for that alternative so much that we’re willing to change and endure the transition, which may be painful, expensive, and inconvenient.

My cancer was environmentally-driven
During the COVID-19 pandemic prior to vaccines, I was diagnosed with and treated for early stage breast cancer. My doctors believe my cancer was driven, at least in part, by environmental factors. We can’t prove this definitively, but when we triangulate all the data we know about my case it becomes clear that the environment was at least a major contributor. 

Nothing motivates and activates like nearly dying. My health, your health, and the health of the planet are inextricably linked. And they’re worth fighting for. I’m fighting for all of us, and that means I have to work with fossil fuel companies. 

In the words of the late great Babe Ruth, it’s tough to beat someone who never gives up, and I won’t give up until we get this done. 

Change is an inside job
While change can be driven by outside pressure, I’ve seen change happen quicker and more extensively when pursued on the inside of an organization. Sometimes to get things done, we’ve got to go into the belly of the beast. We have to walk right into the lion’s den armed with the undaunted courage and willful determination to sit with the lion, understand their perspective, and then show them how you can all move forward together for everyone’s benefit. 

I know it’s going to be a steep climb. I know there is a chance it may not work. There is a chance I’ll come home empty-handed with nothing to show for my effort and time. 

There’s also a chance that it could work. There’s a chance that this could be the most meaningful, valuable thing I ever do with my life that will make the world a better place for all beings. And so with that hope and that goal, I’m going to give it my best shot.

Allowing climate change to progress unabated is akin to burning down our own house and wondering why we have no place to live. Nothing survives — not a company, a government, nor a living being — if the planet perishes. With that in mind, there is no work more important than getting fossil fuel companies to stop producing fossil fuel. This work is what matters most.

creativity

Write every day: Advice on achieving goals from Sara Blakely, Founder of SPANX

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SPANX

MasterClass recently had a Q&A on Instagram Live with Sara Blakely, Founder of SPANX. Sara offered up practical, immediately-actionable advice for anyone who is an entrepreneur, freelancer, or has goals they want to meet. I took notes and posted them over on Medium. If you like this post, please hop over to Medium, and give it some claps!

  • Bucket your days of the week by type of work
    Sara tries her best to reserve whole days of her work week for different types of work: marketing, product, future planning, etc. It doesn’t always work out perfectly but bucketing them helps her to make sure she’s hitting every part of the business each week and also giving herself the room to devote her attention to each one.
  • Write down your goals and post them so you see them every day
    There’s so much research about the value of not just having goals but physically writing them down and posting them so that you see them every day. It keeps you accountable and focused no matter how busy life gets.
  • Have one word for the year as an overarching goal
    It doesn’t matter what it is: peace, love, rest, self-care, travel. Have a theme for your year. In 2020, mine is Productivity. It’s posted on my front door so I see it every day.
  • Visualize your goals
    Right down to what you’re wearing when it happens, visualize what you want to happen and then use your waking hours to take that visualization from your imagination into reality.
  • Regularly try to fail
    There’s a lot of talk about celebrating your failures. Many times we’re so busy building ourselves up to succeed that we don’t reach as far as we could. We don’t take risks. We don’t take chances. Sara’s not saying to be reckless; she’s saying to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. The fear of failure is really the fear of embarrassment and the concern about what others will think of you. How can you begin to put that concern aside and go after what you really want, the dreams so big that you’re much more likely to fail than succeed? What would that look like?
  • Own your ideas and don’t be afraid to stay small to be self-sustaining
    Sara owns SPANX 100%, and has from the beginning 20 years ago. She doesn’t have investors. She never took a business class. She never worked in fashion. She just created a product to solve a problem she had: she wanted to wear white pants to a party without having anything show underneath. She never got ahead of herself. She was okay staying small, running the business out of her apartment for two years by herself. She built a great product and then promoted the heck out of it. Once she was profitable, she didn’t need investors. She didn’t waste her time chasing investment money. She went out and got business to support her product.
  • People care much more about the why rather than the what of your product
    Ask yourself “Why is my product or service different? Why did I start this?” That’s the story to tell to customers, partners, collaborators, employees, and to anyone and everyone you meet.

Thank you to Sara and to Masterclass for organizing this Q&A. It’s exactly the shot in the arm I needed today. Sign up for Masterclass at https://www.masterclass.com/ and follow Sara on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/sarablakely/

creativity

Joy today: A big moment for my business

I’m closing out this week on a really wonderful high note! I’ve been put on retainer with one of my fantastic clients in my independent product development consulting practice, DoubleOrNothingMedia.com. In exchange for about one day per week, I’ll be able to fully cover all my expenses plus a little extra. I love this client and the work I do for them is creative, gratifying, and impactful.

This happy news also gives me a huge amount of flexibility and peace of mind to pursue my independent projects over the next few months in my writing, biomimicry practice, and film. I’ll also use this time to seek out other clients as well. So I definitely won’t be resting on my laurels, but instead making hay while the sun shines with the stress of being a business owner subsiding for a bit. I’m so grateful.

I know there are a lot of you out there, slugging it out as independents and trying to establish your own businesses and consulting practices. I want you to know it’s possible; it’s not a pipe dream. It’s hard work and it takes time, but it’s attainable.

Thank you to so many of you who have been cheering me on, especially during this challenging rollercoaster of a year in 2019. I appreciate it more than I can say. Happy weekend, friends.

creativity

Joy Today: Jobs for scientists beyond academia

Last week I had the chance to interview a number of biologists about their work. All of them expressed enthusiasm and passion for their work. And all of them explained that the worst part of their jobs was the funding process. I took some time and looked into this further, and found that this is a pervasive problem. We have many brilliant scientists who have a tough time making a living and remaining joyful about their work because of the tedious, broken, and inefficient funding system in place and the stress it causes.

Platforms like Patreon are great. Merchandise sales are helpful. I use both these outlets to support work that’s important to me, science included. However, the sustainability of these efforts and their ability to support the goal of scientists to be compensated in proportion to the importance of their vital work seems questionable.

So what’s a scientist to do?

That’s the question I’m attempting to answer with the concept for a new product development company that I hope to start when I finish my Masters in biomimicry. I have a BA in Economics and History, an MBA, and a 20-year career in business and product development. Why am I getting this degree in science? Because I believe that all these aspects need to be combined for the sustainability and health of the planet. And as a happy consequence, I want to employ talented scientists in that endeavor so that their research is more widely applied and they are able to generate an income with benefits that helps them live a good quality of life outside of the drudgery of the ever-more-competitive funding cycles.

I understand that this is a very tall order. That it will take a huge amount of work and time to get this right. But I think I can do it, and I’m going to try for all our sakes.

creativity

A Year of Yes: Becoming an entrepreneur again

This week is perfect for establishing goals. This week I’ve been writing a business plan that uses science and biomimicry as a basis to develop sustainable products, systems, and processes while helping at-risk youth, reducing recidivism, and providing training and jobs to people with low incomes. I’m working hard to roll everything I love into one endeavor without compromising and helping as many people as possible. You’d think I’d be scared to start my own company again, to try my hand at entrepreneurship knowing how hard it is and having suffered my fair share of hard knocks the last time. But I’m not. I’m not afraid at all. On the contrary, nothing fills me with more hope.

creativity

A Year of Yes: Heart-centered leadership

I gave the keynote address today at our company meeting of our clients.

My message: care for your team members, clients, and partners as people first and employees second. Watch how your business transforms from being transaction-based to relationship-based.

Leadership as service and heart-centered is the most potent superpower I know in the world of business. And yes, that is 100% THE hill I will live, work, and die on.

(Hat tip to Bob Giampietro who first said those words to me 11 years ago. They changed my life and career, and I’ve never looked back.)

creativity

A Year of Yes: Give a damn

“It’s business, not personal” is BS. Businesses are made of people; they’re inherently personal. I recently got very emotional over a business issue because I care. Some people took issue with that. I’d do it again. Leaders need to see their team members as people first, employees second.

Being a heart-centered, empathic leader is what helps teams grow healthy and strong. Take care of your people and they will take care of your customers who will take care of your investors and shareholders. It’s that simple—give a damn and show it through your actions and words.

 

creativity

A Year of Yes: Marrying writing, storytelling, business, product development, and science through biomimicry

Some news. Shark mucus sounds like an odd inspiration. Stay with me. After the podcast Ologies released its shark episode, I re-examined biomimicry as a way to marry my product development, business, and storytelling experience with my love for science. I owe host Alie Ward and Chris Lowe, who was the shark expert on the episode a million thanks. Here’s why:

I always loved science and actually started college in the engineering school. After a professor told me I didn’t “have a mind of physics”, I believed him and left all my dreams of working in science behind. I changed majors entirely and have always wondered what might have been if I hadn’t let this professor get into my head.

Fast forward a number of years. I’ve continued to learn about science and its applications. Over the years, I’ve thought about different ways that I could have a career that combined science with all my other experience & interests. Enter Ologies and sharks…

Shark mucus acts as a built-in antibiotic bandaid that allows sharks to rapidly heal. This may contribute to their long life spans of – wait for it – up to 470 yrs! We should apply this to our own medical research, right? We do! In the field of biomimicry.

Biomimicry is an applied science field in which the wisdom of the natural world plants and animals is studied and applied to the human-built world of products & environments in a sustainable way that benefits all beings.

After some research, I learned there’s a Masters of Science in Biomimicry through   that’s a dream program. Multidisciplinary, online, created for working professionals, and with a travel research cohort component. Best of all, it leverages ALL my prior experience.

I’ve been a fan of Janine Benyus‘s work since reading about her 10 yrs ago. She founded this program. It’s exciting how much the field has grown & how vital it will be to use design + business + science to build a better world for all beings as we grapple w/our changing planet.

I’m now in application and scholarship hunting mode, hoping to begin the program in 2019. Finding the work we’re meant to do is a long and winding road. I hope my story inspires you to stay curious and to keep reaching for a life fueled by passion and goodness. The world needs us.

 

 

creativity

A Year of Yes: Why a career in the arts is the best business training you can get

About two years ago, I went to the Kennedy Center’s Arts Summit. It was a gathering of about 150 arts professionals, hosted by Yo-Yo Ma, and focused on Citizen Artistry, the idea of using the arts to influence positive change in people’s lives. I was one of the only people there who had worked in an industry other than the arts, and one of exactly two people who had an MBA. Several people asked me why I ever thought about pairing my artistic interest with business training. I told them that art and business are equal partners, not adversaries. In an artistic organization, you need business skills just as much as you need artistic talent. And in all organizations, business people have a lot to learn from artists.

This was puzzling to a lot of people, and that’s when a lightbulb went off for me. How could I bring the arts and business, and more specifically people who work in both disciplines, together to learn from one another? At the end of the Summit, everyone had to create a card to describe their career goal for the year. Here I am with my card:

“I commit to helping artists find the business people within them, and to helping business people find the artists within them.”

My life and my career have never been a binary choice between the arts and business. They’ve always been a package deal for me. And I wanted to find a way to work that mission into my career. I started my career twenty years ago in company management of Broadway shows and national theater tours. It has been a long and winding road since then. In all of these experiences, I say without hesitation that my work in theater has been the best business training I’ve ever had.

I so fervently believe this that when people ask me “how can I enhance my business skills?”, I tell them to go produce a live performance.

Why?

Here are the business skills we wield to produce a live show:

  • Meeting a preset, non-negotiable deadline (that curtain is going up on time no matter what—the show always goes on)
  • Staying below a strict budget, and likely a very small or non-existent budget to start with
  • Intense collaboration with a motley crew of colorful characters who all have different needs wants, and goals—hello competing priorities!
  • Publicity, marketing, media planning, and content creation
  • Financial management and accounting
  • Operations and logistics
  • In-person customer service
  • Bargaining and negotiation, as well as legal contracting
  • Impeccable time, people, and stress management
  • Recruitment and staffing
  • Oh, and then there’s that little matter of the show actually being high-quality
  • And, lest we forget, if any one of those balls drops, you bear all of the responsibility because you don’t have any backup

Are you kidding me? What other industry requires that much of a single person? No other industry. The production of a live show is the epitome of deft business skills in action.

I was beyond fortunate to have this kind of experience in the arts in my early twenties. It has informed and shaped my career and life as an adult, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. These skills are transferable to so many other industries, and a variety of roles within organizations and companies. The arts, and our active engagement with them, have many more gifts to give us than we realize.

My great hope and purpose in coming to work at PatronManager is to help arts managers create an environment of financial sustainability that allow your art and artists to shine, and to make your work accessible to as wide an audience as possible. The arts have never been more important than they are today, and our responsibility to produce them has never been greater. If you have ideas for us, please don’t be shy. I want to hear them so that we can help each other bring them to life.