#015: How To Be Alive – Author Colin Beavan
Colin Beavan is a man of impact. Or no impact. Author, transformational coach, and instigator of thought and action, Colin lived in New York City for a year with a net zero impact on the environment. He joins host Fran Racioppi on this episode to discuss his mission in life to drive people to take action for what they believe in, even if at first it doesn’t seem important. He shows us that we should become Lifequester’s and drive ourselves towards personal change before we can try to change others.
Colin challenges us to break through the limiting beliefs and the standard life approach that society has defined for us. He also explains the importance of servant leadership, the pressure fame puts on your voice and podium, and how Zen philosophy can help us to understand that we may not be able to change the world, but we can certainly try.
Colin is the author of How to Be Alive: A Guide To The Kind Of Happiness That Helps The World, No Impact Man, and one of the best historical accounts of Operation Jedburgh. Colin has been named one of MSN’s Ten Most Influential men and one of Elle Magazine’s Eco-Illuminators.
Listen to the podcast here:
Colin, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Fran. It’s nice to be here.
I am excited about this episode because it brings together some core elements of the Jedburgh Podcast itself and much about being a leader in this world. I started this show because my vision was to tell a story. To talk about transformative leaders, visionaries, drivers of change, those dedicated to winning no matter the challenge, which meant that the guests had to do something. They couldn’t just talk about it. Not only did they dream big, but they had to take steps to execute their vision. Also, at times get knocked down along the way, learn from it, get back up, and keep going. You and I spoke in preparation for this and I spoke to you a little bit about why I called this the Jedburgh Podcast because of my personal history as Green Beret in the US Army Special Forces.
Telling this lineage back to the first special operators in the Jedburgh teams of WWII, which you wrote a book on which we’re going to talk about. The reality is that in May 1943, the war was lost. In order to win, we, being the Allied, had to invade France. The only way to invade France was to do the Normandy invasion of Operation Overlord, but we knew we were up against a superior German defense. The Allied commanders determined that they needed a new thought process. They needed a transformative leader, a transformative organization that could come together and disrupt the Germans. They built operation Jedburgh. They recruited 100 personnel from each of the French, British, and US militaries. They trained them on a core set of tasks. They recruited them on these nine SOF, Special Operations Forces characteristics of elite performance that we use nowadays. We talk about those in every Jedburgh Podcast episode.
They brought these folks together and trained them. A few weeks after D-Day, they sent the teams behind enemy lines and they conducted sabotage and subversion operations on the German defenses and they turned the tide of the war with little direction, little guidance, and little resources. Your grandfather was a Jedburgh. He was one of the founders of the CIA. Your book was a phenomenal account of what those operators went through. During that writing, you had realizations about the military, the drivers behind global conflicts, and the effect that people were having on the environment primarily.
This led you to the No Impact Project and you became No Impact Man and is almost with this superhero allure behind it. There was a book, a documentary where your family lived with a net-zero impact on the environment for a year in New York City. You drove change through your personal doing and showing that you can change the world with small changes of yourself and those around you that can have a lasting impact.
That led to what you call your greatest work, the book How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World. This is a how-to book. How do you look internally to find yourself a will to drive change and take the small incremental steps to live a better life for yourself and those around you? I’m drawn to you. I know that was a lot. You’re a doer. You’re not a sayer. You see a challenge. That, to me, defines a transformative leader. I’m ready to talk about all these things.
I feel like we could start in a lot of different places and I named a whole bunch of them. The natural tendency would certainly be to start with a discussion of one of the books. I don’t think that the books are the foundation of you. The books are the medium. They’re the venue through which you inform, educate, and advocate for what defines you both. In your work, I’m brought to two concepts and they come up in a lot of conversations here on the show and in my work. That’s vision and mission and the difference between the two. Vision is defined as a thought, a concept, an object formed by the imagination. A manifestation of the senses of something in the material. The act or power of imagination. The mission is defined as a specific task on which a person or group is charged. A pre-establish an often-self-imposed objective or purpose.
Many people have ideas. They have visions. I call it a vision, a requirement for a leader in any organization because you have to know where you’re going to take the organization. Organizations likewise have to have missions. It’s one of the critical pieces of designing sustainable and resilient organizations. It’s why we are here. That is often more important than what we do because if you don’t know why you’re doing something, then it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. You have a documented mission. I’m going to read it and it’s, “To purposely engage individuals, businesses, politicians, educators, and religious leaders in the quest for human and value-centered adaptations to lifestyles and organizational and societal systems that make people happier and the whole world safer.” A mission is an action. I’m interested in your thoughts on mission versus vision and how defining your mission has allowed you to take action and take a stand when the easier path would be to sit back and talk about it.
When you fly, it is going to be like, “What’s he talking about?” I live in Brooklyn, New York. When you’re coming in for a landing, most times, you come in over the ocean. You look down and you can see boats. When you look down at the boats, you can see their wake behind them. They’re dots at that stage. You are high up there. They’re dots. You can’t see what direction they’re going in. The only way you can tell what direction they’re going in is by seeing what direction they’ve come from through their wake. My mission has been defined pretty much by looking at my wake. What have I, in all these years, been drawn to? What do I do? As supposed to say coming up with this idea, “I’m going to accomplish this.” I, more or less, asked the question like, “What is it that I choose to accomplish? How has that iterated and become more specific? When I see that, how do I want to iterate it forward? The big question for me is who am I? What am I? What’s my job here?”
My mission is largely about helping people see that a lot of what we chase after as human beings doesn’t make us happy and that there are some things that can make us happy. Largely, what makes us happy is to be ourselves in service of others, assuming that we have food, assuming we have shelter, and all of that. That mission that you read talks about organizations, and religious leaders, and societies, and whatnot. The big question for me is, how can we align our lives? How can we align the operation of our organizations, our societies, and our religious institutions? How can we align those things with true human purpose? That’s my mission ultimately. The vision is the way that I choose when I vision something. I vision a way that I choose to fulfill my mission. I hope that answers your question on the difference between vision and mission for me.
It does. I like this analogy used about the wake and looking in the past and understanding where you came from to start to dictate how you’re going to move forward. In your book How to Be Alive, you introduced two concepts. One was the concept of life questor, which you defined as people who define and live according to new facts of life. You spoke about the standard life approach. This concept is the foundation of what drives personal and societal change because it starts with understanding ourselves and where we come from and how we react? How do we interpret the world around us? The first step of becoming a transformative leader means that we must transform ourselves first by looking internal.
There are four tenets to being a life questor. You’ve identified them as someone who tries to understand their true nature and uses that understanding to make a better life for herself and others. A person who attempts to live his values rather than what society dictates and is excited by what he might discover. Third, someone who has faith that letting go of limiting stories about herself in the world will allow something wonderful to open up. Fourth, being a fun, wicked cool person. I like the word wicked because I’m from Boston. The coined phrase there was wicked cool. You’re a wicked cool person. I’m interested in defining a little bit more on what a life questor is and why is it the first step to change? What is the standard life approach? Why do we need to challenge that?
At the beginning of that, we talked about the first definition that I put to the word life questor is somebody who understands themselves. Somebody who comes to understand themselves and then uses that to help the world. It takes us back to that whole wake idea. There’s this element of who we should be as opposed to examining our natures and asking ourselves who we are. What are we? I was joking with somebody. We were making some plans and they said they’re not good a planner. I said, “Me either.” They said something like, “You seem to have much confidence about it.” I said, “It’s not that I have confidence about it. It’s that I understand that I have to accept certain things about the world, the world has to accept certain things about me.”
What does it mean to be human? That’s the first thing. That sounds off topic but it’s on the topic because we have what I’ve called the standard life approach. The standard life approach is something that may be used to work at least for a certain segment of the population. This standard life approach goes like this. You go to school. You get good grades. You get yourself into a good college. You take out whatever student loans are necessary to get into that college because you’ll be able to pay them back because you’re going to be making a lot of money later on.
I’m still paying for my undergrad, by the way. I graduated many years ago.
This is why it’s a little bit of a myth. You get the best job you can. Pay the most amount you can. You get to be expressive and creative in some ways in ways that are important to you. Most of all, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to make enough money to support your family. To buy your home, that’s part of the standard life approach, which will go up in value. That’s how you’re supposed to build your wealth for the average person. You don’t have to worry too much about whether you’re helpful to the world because when you pay taxes, that goes towards social services, and fire trucks, and all of that, everything we need in society. By doing your job and paying taxes, you’re helping the world. Meanwhile, you buy stuff. That keeps people employed and keeps the factories running. You keep along that way until you get your kids educated. Hopefully, you have a lovely retirement. That’s the standard life approach.
To some extent, in a certain part of our history, it worked. For the last twenty years or so, that hasn’t worked. It never worked for a big segment of the population. Over the years, that myth has broken down. You said you’re still paying your undergrad student loans many years later. Lots of people who are in debt for college, that dream of college paying for itself because we’d get such a good job doesn’t come true. That dream that our houses will rocket ship up in value doesn’t necessarily come true. That idea of by paying our taxes and buying things will turn the wheels of the economy and, therefore will be productive. Helpful members, good worker bees, good worker ants. Many of us are waking up to the fact that the standard way that our society operates isn’t dignified and isn’t equitable for people. It also destroys the habitat that we depend upon for our health, our happiness, and our security. There’s a way in which this mythology of living the great American dream, the standard life approach, is breaking down.
It’s not easy to break away from that. Think about what one has to deal with one’s parents if one decides to become an artist. The way that our parents will worry about will you make a living? Breaking away from that is hard and there isn’t a new path forward laid down for young people. There isn’t a new way of being. What I call people that break away from that standard life approach is life questers. People that are questing after a high-quality life, a life of contentment, a life of happiness, a life where they get to feel as though they’re useful and not harmful to others.
There is no new standard way to move forward that fulfills those things. Each person who chooses to divert from the standard approach to life is, in a way, of bushwhacker. Going out and trying new things and creating a path for other people to follow and creating their path. That’s one of the cool things about being a life questor. Each time one of us dares to ask ourselves, “Who am I? What am I? How does that connect to this suffering world in which I operate? How do my particular gifts and talents connect to the needs of this world?” Each time one of us asks that question sincerely, as opposed to following the standard life approach, we ask that question sincerely. What am I as a person? What is this world and what does it mean for me sincerely? We lay down our path, and it gives permission to others to follow in a similar path.
They’re building that community that you’ve talked about and by building that community, then you create traction in these initiatives.
One thing that happens is that when we live by a certain set of values, we attract other people that share those values. All the work on group shows that if you hang around with drug addicts and alcoholics, chances are you’re going to end up being a drug addict and alcoholic. If you hang around with sincere value-based people who are moving forward in ways that help themselves and help the world, chances are you are too. Community forms and in community, that’s a case where the rising tide does float all boats, unlike the economy. In the community, when one of us moves up, we pull other people up with us.
You introduced the life questor concept in the most recent book, but I would argue and you’ll probably agree that you defined life questor and were a life questor as the No Impact Man. This was a project in which you and your family had that community around you, aim to live with zero carbon, zero waste in the ground, zero pollution in the air, zero resources sucked from the earth. Zero toxins in the water, no environmental impact. You did this for a year. Can you describe the No Impact Project and what I call your ascension to the No Impact Man?
You were talking about the standard ways of life and life questers and stuff like that. You mentioned Operation Jedburgh, my previous work. It might be good to introduce the concept of No Impact Man by talking about the life path that led to me being a No Impact Man. All my life, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know anybody who was a writer. I didn’t know how you made a living as a writer and all of that. I studied electrical engineering. I got a PhD in it. It made me miserable. I was good at it, but it made me miserable. I had the opportunity to move into public relations for a bunch of reasons because I had been writing as a hobby. Public relations, at least I was moving towards being a writer. I was using my skills as a writer. This is important because what we’re talking about is understanding who we are and moving towards the truth of who we are.
I moved into public relations. I worked for nonprofits and organizations with social good. Finally, at the age of around 30, I had the courage to finally decide I’m going to be a writer, not a PR person, which for me was a halfway thing. I’m going to try and be a writer. I wrote two history books, one’s called Fingerprints and is about the origins of forensic science. Operation Jedburgh is about the guys who jumped into occupied France to arm and mobilize the French resistance against the Germans, as you mentioned. In some ways, I was at the top of my game. I was in my young 30s, I wrote two books that were well-received critically and I was doing fine.
On a topic that few people have written about, I do want to add that there are few people who met the folks that you did and have been able to tell that story with the clarity and the detail that you did.
It was a wicked book to write because retelling a tale that somebody else has told before, that’s not a hard book to write. This was a tale that hadn’t been told before. When I was researching that book, Fran, I’m not a soldier. I’ve never been to war. I talked to around 80 veterans of WWII. These were not frontline veterans. These were old men who when they were young, had been running around behind the lines, where the rules of war didn’t apply. They had seen and experienced horrors beyond what an everyday soldier sees and experiences, which in itself can be a horror. It sensitized me to what wars do to people. Around that time, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars started. Shortly after that, the story of Abu Ghraib came out.
If you remember Abu Ghraib, it was a big thing in the press. It was about how American soldiers had tortured Iraqi prisoners. Whilst everybody else was outraged because the American soldiers had tortured those prisoners, what I was outraged at was the surprise. I was outraged that people thought that we went to war and acted like perfect gentlemen and gentlewomen when our comrades were getting shot at and killed. People were naive about the war that they didn’t understand and that they would take our country into a war for oil without understanding what we were subjecting our men and young women to, not to mention the Iraqi and Afghanistan citizens too. That sensitivity came from having talked to those 80 veterans.
There I was, I arrived in New York as a writer. I’ve written two books. I was doing great. I was like, “It’s not enough just to be successful.” It felt somehow empty. What I wanted to do is I wanted to do something about the fact that we were destroying ourselves and our habitat for oil and fossil fuels. How could we change? The fact that we were destroying ourselves and our world for these fossil fuels without necessarily having a party, meaning we were doing what we had to do to keep fueling this standard way of life. Meanwhile, the standard way of life wasn’t working for people.
The middle-class kids who went to college and got student loans, it wasn’t working for them. It certainly wasn’t working for the people who are less well-off than them. I was like, “What do I do? I can’t go on just writing history books that people enjoy reading.” That’s when I came up with this idea of No Impact Man. At first, I thought I was going to write a book about how all you people should stop driving SUVs and using air conditioners.
I still remember to this day it was a hot August day. The hallway of the apartment building I live was not ventilated and it was sweltering. I went into my apartment and I opened the door to the apartment. No one was home. The apartment was frigid cold because I had left the air conditioner all day long. Waiting ten minutes for our home to cool down when we get home is too much. It’s so inconvenient, but because of what’s been on my mind when I stepped in was, “I left the air conditioners on all day long.” I wasted fossil fuels all day long because I didn’t want to wait ten minutes for the apartment to cool down.
What does it take to get these fossil fuels and at the moment, it takes a lot of young men and women shooting and being shot at, and dying, and experience intense cruelty, and perpetrating intense cruelty because people carry the scars of what they’ve done as well as what has been done to them? Young men and women are dying for energy and I’m the type of person that leaves my air conditioners on all day long with no one home. If I’m wasting that energy, what does that say about me and those young men and women? Me and those soldiers that are losing their lives so I could run my air conditioner. At that point, I realized I don’t want to write a book about how all you people should change. I should write a book about me changing.
I came up with this concept called No Impact Man. The idea was that my family and I consisted of my then-wife, Michelle, my daughter, Isabel, and my dog, Frankie. We would live together in New York City, creating as little environmental impact as possible. When I say that, I don’t mean that we recycled better. If it created something that needs to be recycled, we didn’t do it. We bought nothing new. We bought nothing in packaging, we didn’t use air conditioners. We didn’t go anywhere if it meant that we would have to use fossil fuels to get there. We only biked and walked for a year. We only ate food that was grown within 100 miles because of the environmental impact of food transportation, etc. It was an experiment.
I went into it thinking more or less like a penitence like I was serving penance for being a rich consumerist American and I was going to martyr myself on the cross of the environment sort of thing. It turned into a year-long quest and musing into the question of what is important in life. When my sister got married, she already had an oven in her kitchen in the house that she and her fiancé had. She had a microwave. She had a toaster oven. When she got married, somebody gave her a chicken oven. A chicken oven is an individual oven. The only thing you can cook in it is a whole chicken. It sits on the countertop and it will cook a whole chicken for you.
My point is that we’ve gotten to the point where you already have an oven. You already have a toaster oven. You already have a microwave and we’re like, “I need a chicken oven.” Not to say my sister needed it. It was a wedding gift. There’s something about that, that we had moved to the obscene where this standard life approach was taking us places that didn’t make us happy. No Impact Man was about living as environmentally as possible. It was also about questioning this consumer society that we live in and asking whether this constant resource extraction is molded into a product, bury it, and then buy the same thing over again economy that we worked in. Does it make people happy or is there something better for us?
Taking the first step is hard. You said that when you first put this concept together, you were going to be the person who stood up and told everyone. I want to read a quote from the project because it sums up the moment that you or even a leader or a person sits there and says, “I’ve had enough.” I don’t think enough people are able to stop for a moment and internalize that. I want to put this out there. Your quote is, “I have occasionally tried to make a difference in the world, but I was coming to think my political views had too often been about changing other people and too seldom about changing myself. I made the mistake of thinking that condemning other people’s misdeeds somehow made me virtuous. My problem was my inaction. I was worried sick about something and doing nothing about it. I wasn’t sick of the world. I was sick of myself. I was sick of my comfortable and easy pretension of helplessness. If I was still a student, I’d have marched against myself.” I laughed out loud when I read that one. That sums up this moment.
In How To Be Alive, as we blend a little bit of these concepts, you bring up what you call three limiting beliefs which stop people from driving change and they stop people from driving change in themselves, others, and systems. Those three limiting beliefs become that people are too selfish, dumb, evolve, flawed. There’s nothing anyone can do to change human nature. Trying to help the world is pointless.
The second one is that government corporations are wealthy, political parties are too strong. There’s nothing anyone can do to change them. If there’s going to change and it has to come from those groups. Individual efforts are irrelevant. There’s a third that technology, God evolving consciousness, the planet systems, the government free market, the perfect oneness of the universe will save us. Those powers of goodwill take care of us. Our individual efforts are irrelevant anyway. You have internalized these things and say, “I’m going to do one thing to start this train moving forward.” I’m wondering if in the context of these barriers to action, can you talk about those first steps that you took?
We talked about how I came to do the No Impact Man project. There’s a way in which you can talk about it as somebody who’s coming to live as environmentally as possible. There is a way in which you can talk about it as a human being who came to understand, who’s come to have a sense of purpose and mission and vision as you talked about and stepped off and started doing it. The nature of what we’re talking about leadership and the heart of leadership, which is self-leadership. Being able to have the courage to envision and follow through in a person’s convictions. It’s important to know that there’s this meta-story going on, which is about a person choosing to understand who they are and what they care about and moving forward into it. When you talk about limiting beliefs, what happens is we start to have some idea that they could do something to help the world and one limiting belief is that they’re too small.
Another limiting belief is that it’s somebody else’s responsibility. Another limiting belief is that something else is going to fix it anyway. Those limiting beliefs are there in our society. They’re standard limiting beliefs. What they do is they block us if we think to ourselves that we want to achieve some result. I want to save the world. That’s not possible. You’re too small, it’s somebody else’s responsibility and there’s something already bigger than you that’s going to fix it anyway. Ipso facto, me saving the world can’t happen. In my work with my clients and the work with myself, I’ve discovered that it’s not about some big external result. It’s about becoming yourself and following your nature. Let go of the question of whether or not you’re going to achieve something big. The question that I always hear from people is, “Am I the type of person who can change the world?” I always say, “That’s not the question. The question is, do you want to be the person who tries?”
Trying is part of what I call the life questor. That’s part of what the life questers find within themselves that they want to try in the world. I’ve done that a few times. I wanted to try to be a writer. I wanted to try No Impact Man. The limiting stories, first of all, they’re not true, of course. There are plenty of stories of individuals who have made the gigantic change. The story about how God, society, or technology is going to fix the world is also not true because all of those things require participation by individuals in them. The stories are not true, but they’re also moot. They don’t matter if what you’re trying to do is manifest the truth of yourself. If what you’re trying to do is bring out your gifts into the world, offer them to the world, then that’s an end in itself.
No Impact Man somehow hit the public imagination and it was controversial. There was so much TV coverage, newspaper coverage, and radio coverage. When I launched the No Impact Man Project, when you are a nonfiction writer, you sell the book before you write it. You sell the idea to the publisher and then come up with the idea. You sell it to a publisher. They pay you to turn the idea into a book. I had sold No Impact Man as a book before the No Impact year. I sold it for three times less money than my previous book Operation Jedburgh. It was important to me to try bringing forth what was inside me. I assumed, Fran, it was going to be this tiny little book that didn’t make much of a difference because the market told me it was three times less popular than Operation Jedburgh. It turned around. It was the opposite. My point is that all these limiting stories that we see outside of ourselves can be cut through if we learn to do the work to trust ourselves.
I call these limiting beliefs a course of action of hopefully. “Hopefully, someone’s going to deal with it. Hopefully, someone’s going to intervene. Hopefully, something’s going to happen.” That is a concept. That’s a word that in military planning is stricken from the discussion. I went to a school as a young officer where if you in your mission briefing said the word, hopefully, it was an immediate failure. People would say it’s subconscious. They would say, “We’re going to go do this. One element is going to the left, one’s going to go to the right, and then, hopefully, the enemy is going to do this.” It was an immediate stop. You fail. You’re done.
You cannot bank on someone else or something else intervening to make a change that is then going to make you move forward. That concept applies in life. It applies to what you’re doing. It applies in leadership. If we are driven to change a thing, a plan, or model, a method, a team, something that is going to take us from here to there, to drive an organization ourselves, teams, individuals forward, we have to understand that we can make an impact and our actions are going to make that impact. If we sit back and say, “Something else might happen where it’s going to work,” we’re failing from the start.
First of all, your tasks can fail if you take that approach, like in the case of when you’re prosecuting a battle. The other thing about it is that when you believe that something else is going to take care of it hopefully, then you lose that would make you human in your life purposeful and meaningful, which is agency. Sitting back and saying that it’s going to be taken care of by something outside of ourselves means that we don’t get to use who we are and to feel empowered. That’s a terrific loss.
You brought up the success of the No Impact Project and No Impact Man. This project gave you a voice, it gave you a podium and I listened to a bunch of your interviews as I prepared for this conversation and I read the books. You are humble about how you approach that. You didn’t expect it to take off the way it did. Something that every writer, author, the journalist seeks is to have that voice for the point in time in which somebody looks at them and says, “Tell me what you think.” All of a sudden, you’re the expert. We do it as leaders. We do it all the time. We wait until somebody comes in and says, “You’re the boss now. Go stand up in front of the room and tell him what you think.” You stand up in front of the room and you look around and go, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to say right now. Am I confident that what I’m about to say is real, that they’re going to respect what I have to say and they’re going to believe in it?”
You said in a few interviews that the biggest gift we can give is accepting the possibility of being wrong. To drive the change, we must advocate for what we believe in and trust that our experiences will give us the knowledge and ability to inform others. My question is, how does a leader broadly embrace that pulpit when it comes without assuming arrogance or remaining grounded in the experiences that got them there? You contextualize from Operation Jedburgh and writing that impactful story, that personal story of something that changed the lives of these men and women who fought that war, to doing something that all of a sudden became impactful across the world with a lot of eyes on it. How do you sit and have those conversations without losing that sense of humility and the integrity behind what you did to get you to that point where then somebody looks at you and says, “They did it for show?”
The concept of leadership is changing at the moment, Fran. The old-fashioned concept of leadership conflated leadership and status. As you described it, you can’t wait to be in the front of the room. You can’t wait to be the one whose ideas people listen to. You can’t be the one who waits to be the one who decides. In some ways, I would say that’s not leadership. That’s having status. That’s being the top King of the Mountain sort of thing.
Real leadership, especially these days, especially as times change, as people change, as the concerns of our society change, real leadership is based on listening, in my view. We have personal experience, and we have the expertise, and we have things that we bring, but the real expertise of a leader is to listen to the concerns of their various stakeholders and then to balance those concerns in a way that moves the interests of all stakeholders forward together. When you say, “How one stays humble while leading?” I would say, “How does one lead if they’re not humble?”
This is a challenge specifically for a certain set of our society, for certain sets of old-fashioned leaders, sometimes white men like myself have had leadership modeled in a whole different way in the past. We had to adapt if we wanted to still be relevant in society. We have to learn to listen and not force our energies upon the communities that we seek to serve but to help those communities channel their energies whether that’s in a society or an organization. You say, “How do you stay humble once you’re at the forefront?” It’s a question of, if you do want to be at the forefront, and forefront is the wrong word for a leader these days, you have to be humble. Humble means to be grounded. Humble has the same root as the word who, miss, or ground.
You have to be grounded in what’s happening, what people care about, what they need, and what your stakeholders need. That requires humility to hear. One thing that I want to say, to blow my horn a little bit, when I did No Impact Man, I ran a blog, which meant that I had the privilege of being in constant conversation with my readers. Not to mention the mainstream press. I received every criticism you could imagine. The weird thing is, and this goes to your question of how do you self-manage. To some people, I was like a guru. I remember being in France when the French version of No Impact Man was launching. This journalist asked me through an interpreter. He said, “What is the meaning of life?” I understood a little bit of it. My friends have offered me something like, “Who’s that? The guru? You’re a guru. Aren’t you a guru?” Some people thought I was a guru and some people then thought I was the devil.
Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report called me an Eco Manson trying to serially murder our consumerist society. There are these two sides. What happened through all of that was that I listened to the criticism and I listened to the praise. I synthesized it. I don’t mean to say that I swallowed it whole without digesting it for myself. I paid attention. A big thing at that time in the environmental movement was the question of whether environmentalism was the domain of the privileged. It was okay for white middle-class people.
What about poor people of color who can’t afford to live environmentally and who are disproportionately the victims of environmental catastrophe? That was a new idea to me at the time. I had to synthesize that and realize that environmentalism and social justice couldn’t be separate. They had to come together. I had to write about that. I had to admit when I was wrong and that’s where this idea comes from, that sometimes the most generous act we can do is to accept the possibility of being publicly wrong. To be a leader means to listen. It means to accept when you’re wrong. If you do listen, if your ears are open, it’s pretty hard to be arrogant. You’re getting a lot of crap.
I think of the term servant leadership when you speak about this concept. That’s the term that comes to the back of my mind. Servant leadership was introduced in the early ‘70s by a gentleman named Robert Greenleaf. Servant leadership focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people in the communities to which they belong. Whereas traditional leadership involves this power or accumulation of this power that looks like a pyramid and you call it status. There’s a difference between these two because the servant leader has to share power and has to put the needs of others first. They have to help people develop and perform at their highest capacity. You talked about empowerment.
There are some principles that live in this theory of servant leadership. Principles such as listening, empathy, healing, self-awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to people, and community building. The primary driver of change in servant leadership is leading from the front. It’s something that we in the military always spoke about. We use it a lot in terms of speaking about the guests who come on the show are this need to lead from the front.
We have the Ranger Organization in the military. Their phrase, “Rangers lead the way.” In the infantry, it’s, “Follow me,” that’s their tagline. In Special Forces, “De oppresso liber,” or free the oppressed. To free the oppressed, we’re the ones who are going to do that. We’re going to build a foreign indigenous force to come behind us and alongside us and eventually put them forward to empower them to be that freer of the oppressed.
It’s the show me how verses tell me how the style of leadership. Do as I do, not as I say. You call that engaged citizenship. There’s a quote that you have and I want to read it because this ties well into what we’re discussing. “We know we have to change the system. We must remember that the system is only a collection of individuals. What the system does is the aggregation of all of our actions as citizens, as shareholders, as CEOs, as product designers, as customers, as friends, as family members, and as voters. We have to stop waiting for the system to change. Remember that every decision we make in our homes and our workplaces accounts for the system.”
You speak with business leaders. You consult with individuals, teams, organizations. You build these organizations to be stronger, more resilient to find their meaning and then spread that meaning through this engaged citizenship model, that can be in society, can be in an organization, can be in a team. I’m interested in knowing as you had to be that first person or the only person through No Impact Man to then say, “I’m going to go drive this change and I’m going to build this community around me. I’m going to show you what engaged citizenship is.” What have you learned from that? How do we commit to it? How do we get others to commit to it? I know that was probably a lot out there. I tend to do that.
There’s a way in which you don’t have to get others to commit to it. We talked about the two different types of leadership. The traditional leadership model is status and power base and the servant leadership model which you talked about. What you need to do to change an organization is you have to get the traditional leader to commit to servant leadership. There’s another approach which is to get people to commit to human inquiry. This type of inquiry is an inquiry that’s at the foundation of spiritual practice. It’s at the foundation of existential therapy. It’s not something that needs to be given to us because we’re born with it. It’s this question of what am I? Many of us were brought up to say that, “We will be safe when we can control our circumstances and our environment.” In some ways, anyone could be president or I could be CEO. In some ways, that lust for that power, that status is about being in control or making oneself safe. In some ways, making oneself safe from pain, whether it be physical pain or emotional pain.
If we can engage in this question, what am I? If we can truly come to know ourselves. If we can truly feel who we are and feel our pains and therefore, not need to protect ourselves. If we can come to terms with our humanity by becoming familiar with it and no longer have to put it at bay, then we are automatically listening. We automatically can hear. We automatically want to serve because we’re not driven by this need to protect ourselves all the time and to protect our environments all the time. How we get people to commit to this idea of engaged citizenship to this understanding, I’ll paraphrase a Martin Luther King quote where he says, “It’s an inalienable fact that we are so connected that I cannot be everything I can be until you are everything you can be.”
If we examine our natures, if we ask ourselves not to be trying to push our emotional lives away from us by controlling our environment. If we come to know who we are as human beings, then truths like that become apparent. We don’t have to force a commitment upon ourselves. It’s just a natural course of everyday life. It’s a nuanced and a difference in approach to what you asked me. I am hoping I’m making myself clear. You tell me if it doesn’t quite land where I want to land.
There’s another aspect of this, too, when you’re asking leaders to change. You’re asking somebody to go from this pyramid status leadership to engaged leadership. There’s probably a fear that comes from leaders where they think, “What happens if I do that? Will I be weak? Will I lose? Will people not believe in me anymore?” The reality is it’s not a single jump. We can change, whether we make a change in ourselves, make a change in organizations. It happens incrementally over time.
When I work with companies and even people, I call it turning an aircraft carrier. If you think about an aircraft carrier, aircraft carriers are massive. It turns slowly. If you’re sitting in the bridge or on the death of an aircraft carrier and you’re guiding this organization and you look at the compass, you’re going to watch every degree of that compass as the bow of that organization comes around. One moment, you’re going to look up and you’re going to be going in a different direction. That is how you change organizations. That’s how you change people. It’s this incremental approach.
When you became No Impact Man, when you started No Impact Project, you didn’t start on day one and say, “That’s it today. We have no electricity, no waste, no transportation, no processed foods. That’s it.” What we ask people and leaders, I talk a lot about type A personality leaders like myself, you live in the extremes. You live on this dial of 1 or 10. There’s little middle ground. There is a middle ground in this incremental process that takes time. You have to accept that it’s going to take a long time to get to where you want to go. We take a step back and we say, “It’s in the too-hard box. I’m not going to do it. I can’t make these big changes.” If you break it down into these small bits then you can get there.
You talked about this in No Impact Man. You said that the hardest part was the habit change, was getting yourself out of that rut, fighting that desire to jump back in because it was easy. You spoke about some timelines that habits take a month. The timeline that you put on takes a month to break certain habits. It’s not an easy road to making these changes. We talked a bit about it but I’m wondering if you can talk about some of the difficulties you faced. Some of these things were small and tangible. No electricity, no processed foods, no waste. On a macro scale, they drove massive change. How do you look at those things, commit to it and say, “I’m going to do this? It’s going to be painful. I’m still going to make it happen.” What happens when you fail? You call it cheat a little in the book, but that’s going to happen. How do you get back up on it and start again?
You’re talking about how leaders are scared to change. They’re at the top of the pyramid. You talked about, “Don’t worry, change is incremental. It’s not like everything’s going to change all at once like an aircraft carrier.” That’s true. I was on a call with a friend of mine named Jennifer Brown, who does diversity inclusion, consulting for corporations. Somebody was asking like, “If you’re a leader of an organization and suddenly you’re supposed to be talking about race and race equity and stuff like that, that’s scary. How are you supposed to start that conversation?” Jennifer said, “It’s going to be scarier for your organization if you don’t start the conversation.”
When the leaders are saying, “I’m scared to move away from this pyramid structure.” It’s going to be scarier if you don’t in the book after No Impact Man, How to Be Alive. I tell a story called the ukulele approach. This is to your question about incremental change. How do you get started? You said 0 or 10, we have this all or nothing thing, either I’m already there. I’m No Impact Man. I make no impact or I’m nowhere. Doing How to Be Alive, I tell a story about this guy called Jonathan. All his life, he played guitar. He listens to Eric Clapton, “What’s the point of me playing guitar? There’s Eric Clapton. I’m never going to be like Eric Clapton.” Playing guitar is hard.
One day in the park, he sees some people chilling around the park playing the ukulele. His friend plays the ukulele. There are only four strings on the ukulele. He wants to be a musician. He’s like, “Chances are, I’m never going to be a great guitar player. I’ll try this little ukulele thing.” He tries it. He learns to play the ukulele. From there, he’s learned enough to take the step to the guitar. He’s made the step to where he ends up in a band. I call that the ukulele approach, starting with what you can, like what you’re talking about incremental change. Something else that I want to talk about that is important for leaders. The big thing in an organization that can be hard when you’re starting to make change is that to make change, you first have to measure where you are. For many leaders, what’s scary is that if they measure where they are on some of the new cultural indicators. They’re going to be like, “We suck.”
You don’t even want to accept it. You start looking for all the reasons why the data is wrong.
That’s right. Not to change the data, an approach that some leaders take is to be completely transparent about the process where they start by being, “I’m an old-fashioned leader. This is an old-fashioned organization. We realized we’ve had to change. We’re going to start by measuring where we are. We’re scared about what it’s going to look like.” After that, they get the data and they say, “We got the data. We were right to be scared.” A lot of times, what’s scary is the change in the optics because it’s a messy process. Learning to be a new style of communication as an organization or as a person.
On an individual level, we’re talking about what Brené Brown talks about, which is vulnerability, which is saying, “I’m not good at this, but I’m going to try.” It’s a combination of the iterative approach, allowing yourself to move forward step by step. Also, learning to be able to communicate and be transparent about your process because people can be more forgiving than you think if you’re sincere about making a change.
We interviewed a journalist and author by the name of Cleo Stiller. Cleo wrote a book called Modern Manhood about how to be what she termed a good man in the MeToo environment. The context of that conversation is much about what you discuss here. Being comfortable having uncomfortable conversations was one part of it and then the second part was about being introspective. You introduced both these topics here and that’s why I want to dig in a little bit deeper. The first step to having an uncomfortable conversation is the acceptance of, “We’re not good enough.” The introspection to say, “We may have acted. I may have acted. The behavior that I may have displayed that got us to this point is not the behavior that we need to exhibit to move ourselves, our teams, or organizations forward.”
There’s this acceptance that, “I wasn’t good enough. I’m going to tell you that I’m not good enough.” From here, we can have difficult and uncomfortable conversations in the workplace, in our relationships, with our significant others, with our friends and families because we’re accepting that we’re all owning, “It wasn’t good enough to be here.” How do we come together and collectively talk about it and have that transparency and then build a community to be better in the future?
I’m going to add in there also not being fragile in the process. You’ve probably heard the term white fragility. I’m going to talk about it not just in terms of being white but being male or being an old-fashioned organization or something. It’s natural, but what we want when we decide to change and we make ourselves vulnerable is for everybody to pat us on the back and be like, “That’s great. You’re changing.” It’s true. It is good if you’re trying to change, but we also can’t insist that we are praised.
We have to accept that something allowed us to get into the stage where we weren’t as good as we could be already. We have to be able to face up to the pain that’s going to come when people do say critical things and then to engage. “I hear you,” is a good answer. We talked a little bit about new leadership. We used to think leadership was about talking, spouting, lecturing, and bossing. Now, leadership is about listening, synthesizing, hearing, and being able to accept criticism also.
I want to ask you about the philosophy of Zen. This is fascinating to me because a lot of what you do, speak about, and write about is grounded in this philosophy. You’re a senior Dharma teacher in Zen. I brought it up because I’m not familiar with it. I cannot speak from any position of knowledge, which is why my curiosity is behind this, and speaking with you is a reason why I want to ask you a couple of questions. I’ve had a few guests who’ve come on and they’ve spoken about meditation.
I looked up the definition of Zen, which is meditation. That’s the definition of the word. I’ve gotten into yoga. Physically, it’s done a lot for me to improve injuries that I’ve had in the past and made me feel better. Mentally, it’s been a nice way in this COVID era to step out and put your body through these routines where you are looking inward and it’s very soothing. It’s a big part of what you’ve talked about. There is a story about a hot tub approach. The reason why I wanted to speak about Zen in the context of the hot tub approach is that it is about trying. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about that and how that story about the Pope and the hot tub makes a person sit there and say, “If we just try, we can get there.”
First of all, I’m going to answer your question about Zen. Zen means understanding yourself. You’ve heard this question a few times before. What am I? If you ask that question sincerely, “What am I?” You come to a place of not knowing. Not knowing is a place before ideas and opinions. It’s a place where your mind and my mind are the same before our ideas and our opinions. There’s a fundamental faith in Zen that if we allow ourselves to not know and if we can become comfortable with not knowing, then clear answers and ways forward will arise that are both good for you and me without separation.
Ultimately, Zen is a way of being that allows us to live in line with our true nature. It’s not that when we ask this question, “What am I?” That we come up with an answer. When we ask the question, “What am I,” and throw away our assumptions about what we are, then we naturally line up with the truth. You and I function together with the world when we put down our ideas and our opinions about what we are and what the world should be. I come from a particular tradition of Zen Buddhism, which comes down from Korea. I’m a senior Dharma teacher in what’s called The Kwan Um School of Zen. We have Asangas all around the country in Europe and Asia.
The founder of The Kwan Um School of Zen was a Korean Zen master who was a monk named Zen Master Seung Sahn. He was a charismatic guy. That’s why our school is big because he kept telling students, “Start a Zen center.” They did. Now, we have many Zen centers. He got it into his head that the way to world peace, the problems in the world had to do with different religious understandings. We were fighting over our different philosophies. If we wanted world peace, what was required is that we got the world’s religious leaders together in one hot tub. If the world’s religious leaders could have a hot tub together, there would be peace.
The heat and the bubbles solve all the problems.
I’m not saying, by the way, this is not a crazy idea. Zen Master Seung Sahn asked himself a lot of times whether his ideas were crazy or not. That’s why he got so much done. He just went for it. He decided that the way to get all the world’s religious leaders in the hot tub together would be to get the Pope in the hot tub. If the Pope invited everybody to have a hot tub, they all would do it. He decided he had to get the Pope to launch this idea. He flew to Rome. He walked up to the front gates of the Vatican and said that he wanted to see the Pope.
Eventually, the guard took him to talk to a priest. He said to the priest that he needed to see the Pope. The priest eventually took him to a bishop. He told the bishop that he needed to see the Pope. The bishop eventually took him to see the cardinal. The cardinal was one step away from the Pope. The cardinal is like, “Why do you want to see the Pope?” He explained his idea. He’s like, “We need to get all the world’s religious leaders in the hot tub together.” The cardinal was like, “You’re not going to see the Pope.”
This story is about what we call try mind, keep trying mind. The saying goes, “Try for 10,000 years non-stop.” That means you’re never asking about results. We talked about this before. You’re following your true nature in trying. Sometimes people say, “I don’t like that story. That’s not a good story. That’s a story of failure. He tried and tried and he failed.” He didn’t fail. However many, a thousand or so people who read this show are going to read this story about this crazy Zen master who tried. He thought he could save the world and he tried.
This story has been told over and over again. Many people have heard it and laughed at it but been inspired. It’s okay to be crazy if you’re trying to help people. It’s okay to try. It’s a story about two things. It’s a story about, one, just try. Do it. It’s also a story about the good side of the doctrine of unintended consequences. Sometimes when we try, when we put the energy into the world, we might not get what we envision, but we still might fulfill our mission. That story continues to be told. That’s helped a lot of people to be crazy and try, to have a crazy mind in a good way.
It’s not all that crazy. Going through COVID and you think about this thought of, “If we get everyone together, they’re going to have a conversation.” You think about the value of personal contact. It’s something we’ve all had to go through in 2020. What have we not achieved? We speak a lot about COVID. We’ve achieved so much. We’ve done so many things remotely. We’ve maintained our friendships. We’ve maintained our relationships. We maintained forward progress. However, we forget about the opportunity cost that we don’t know if we can quantify.
What are the things that we didn’t get done because we weren’t in the room together? Is that a metric that we want to look at? I don’t know. That may fall into that box that you talked about when we evaluate ourselves. First, we wanted to look at that data and say, “Okay. Yes.” We may well look at that data and say, “We didn’t do anything. We did some stuff, but we didn’t achieve as much as we needed to.” I like that story for that context, too. Something comes from being in the room with others that is not replicable in other venues.
Before we started talking, I was on with a client. This client has a particular issue in their marriage. I asked the client, “Have you talked to your partner about this? Have you talked to your spouse?” They said, “No. I need to figure out what to do about it first.” To this particular client, I said, “There are those words again. Figure it out.” My client laughed. The conversation itself about the problem is generative. You don’t have to have a solution before you come together in a room with the people like you’re talking about. Coming together is in itself generative. Not even knowing 100%, not even having a clear definition of the problem is generative. We’re back to this question of vulnerability, which is not necessarily having it figured out but willing to come together and be in the mix about it.
It will drive it forward in one way, maybe positive or negative. It will start traction and traction in those times is a good thing. We got to close out. We close every show by having a conversation about the Jedburghs, which I’m excited to have with you because you understood these folks at such a foundational level through your research. The Jedburghs had to do three things every day to be successful. These three things where they had to be able to shoot, they had to be able to move, and they had to be able to communicate. If they did those three things well every day at a foundational level, it didn’t matter what challenges came their way and other things. They could find a solution because that was the core of what they did. My question to you is, what are the three things that you do every day to be successful in your world upon which any other challenge can be tackled?
It’s an interesting question because I’m not sure that these things make me successful or not successful. I’m going to tell you some things that feel important to me to do no matter what. In my Zen tradition, sometimes people say, “Why do we practice? Why do we meditate?” One Zen Master I know says, “Stop meditating and you’ll know why.” That’s true of me. I don’t mind admitting this. It’s an important thing to admit. Constitutionally, when I wake up in the morning, I wake up slightly anxious, tense, or worried. I don’t want to run my life in order to make that feeling of anxiety or worry go away. The first thing that I do in the morning when I get up is to meditate. Sometimes, during the meditation, that mild discomfort in my body alleviates. More importantly, it sets me up for the day. It makes me clear and ready to move on.
The next thing that I do is I do this combination of vision and prayer. After meditation is complete, I spend a little while envisioning what the world would be like if it was loving and kind and safe and equitable where people got to pursue what feels most important. They get to grow to their full potential and that’s available to everyone. I hold that image in my head for a little while. After that, I start to introduce how I can be part of bringing that about. I’m not selfish. I also introduce and how I will personally be rewarded besides the fact that I would get to live in that world. I think about fiduciary rewards. I vision some other things about life as I would like it to be and then I move on to my day.
I ask for guidance to whatever. I say, “Whatever.” I don’t mean that as a disparaging whatever. I ask for guidance. I ask to be reminded to ask for guidance later in the day, too, when I get confused. I do that. The fourth thing is I look for the next opportunity to talk to my daughter, “When am I going to get to talk to Bella and have a good conversation with my little girl?” I love her more than life itself. I’d give anything to have a good conversation with her.
Thank you for sharing that. I look at all of these things that you’ve done in your career. I think about this discussion that we’ve had about leadership, impact, changing the world. The demonstration of the fact that one person, one man, one woman, someone who commits their mind to doing something and shows others that they can also do it creates lasting change and impact. I tie it back to the nine characteristics of elite performance in Special Operations, or as defined by Special Operations, which started with the Jedburgh organization. The nine being drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, effective intelligence, team ability, curiosity, and emotional strength. I think about you in this context.
Elite performers, as you have, demonstrates all nine of these at various times, depending on the situation that they’re in. I like to put one on everybody that I speak with. When I think about you, I think about curiosity, exploring the unknown, questioning the status quo in pursuit of a better continuous growth attitude. That’s something that you’ve committed to, this constant curiosity to drive organizations, teams, people, the world forward. In the Talent War Group, we want everybody to be a disruptive leader. You’ve done that in so many different ways.
John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire people to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” You demonstrate that every day because you’re making us think about things that we can do and have the confidence to do to then change us, those around us and society by sticking to it. There’s a quote you have that I want to end on and it’s, “The most amazing news is that when you become yourself, you respond with the utmost appropriateness to the world around you. You stop fighting what is inside of you and start trusting your real needs in ways of doing things.”
Colin, transformative leaders, visionaries, drivers of change, those dedicated to winning, they never stop trying. They live no-fail missions and they have to achieve their vision. They understand their mission. They drive forward. They define the Jedburgh lineage that you wrote about and you understand better than all of us and they’re changing the world. You’re changing the world by empowering us. I thank you so much for joining me. I truly do look forward to our next conversation.
Thanks. Me too. I enjoyed talking to you.
- Colin Beavan
- How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World
- Operation Jedburgh
- No Impact Man
- Jennifer Brown
- Cleo Stiller – Previous episode
- Modern Manhood
- The Kwan Um School of Zen
About Colin Beavan
Colin Beavan helps his clients live up to their full potential as leaders, entrepreneurs, and people. In addition to his coaching, advising and mentoring work, his is the founder of the No Impact Project, the author of the book and the subject of the documentary No Impact Man, a 350.org “Messenger,” and a dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen. Colin is a prominent spokesperson on happiness, quality of life, and environmental and social justice issues. His work has been the subject of stories in the New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and many other national and international news outlets.
Colin has appeared on The Colbert Report, Good Morning America, Nightline and all the major NPR shows. He was named one of MSN’s Ten Most Influential Men, one of Elle Magazine’s Eco-Illuminators, and his blog NoImpactMan.com was named one of the world’s top 15 environmental websites by Time Magazine. He is a visiting scholar at NYU, sits on the board of directors of New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, and is on the advisory councils of Just Food and 350.org. He earned his PhD at the University of Liverpool. He speaks and consults around the world to businesses, universities, non-profits and community groups. His most recent book is How To Be Alive.