Monday, May 18, 2009
It was in my oncologist’s office that I realized the connection between breast cancer and sustainable enterprise. As an unemployed GreenMBA diagnosed with Stage III Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, I had understandably bigger fish to fry: my house was a month away from foreclosure; I had just gotten a $27,000 bill from the hospital that did my lumpectomy, and it had only been two weeks since I moved my life 3,000 miles back home to California. The truth is, it was a miracle that I’d even found an oncologist who took my insurance and was accepting new patients. I wasn’t exactly looking for life-changing truths.
“With triple negative cases like yours,” Dr. Kuan was saying, “I like to recommend clinical trials, because there isn’t a drug you can take after chemo and radiation….” I looked at her blankly. “To keep your cancer from coming back,” she clarified. To keep it from coming back? It had never even occurred to me that my cancer could come back. I’d had two surgeries to cut it out; I was dumping petrochemicals into my body (despite my green values) so that any remaining cells were destroyed. When chemo was over, I was shooting radioactive isotopes into my chest. Why on earth would my cancer come back? For the first time since my diagnosis, I realized I should be doing everything I possibly can to survive. If not, I was in danger of only surviving this round.
Walking out of her office, it hit me that businesses can think the same way when faced with a crisis resulting from unsustainable practices. A carpet company realizes that everything it produces is made from a finite resource that is running out. A public utility is faced with the impossible expense of building a new power plant because of needs that only exist for two hours a day. Suddenly, something that has been working fine for years and years faces a challenge that threatens to undo it completely.
Most companies’ first instinct is the same as mine was: let’s just get through this. Let’s just solve this problem, recover, and get back on track. What no one ever asks is, could the track we’re on be what led us straight to this crisis? It never occurs to most businesses that the crisis isn’t an accident at all; that it is the inevitable progression of their operational systems and priorities. We focus on just fixing the problem, and five years later, we are in a different crisis, with another fire to put out.
I spoke with a woman a few days after seeing my doctor whose best friend was fighting the same cancer I had. It had spread to her friend’s bones, then her liver, then her brain, and she was looking for an oncologist who specialized in liver cancer. The woman was distraught at the thought of someone so close to her having months to live. “I’m just trying to do everything I can to help her,” she said, and I asked if her friend had thought of changing her diet. “We can’t even get her to stop smoking!” she said. I thought, but didn’t say, then I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but your friend wants to die.
What fighting cancer and operating a business sustainably have in common is that both endeavors are about ensuring longevity. And to ensure longevity, you have to do certain things: you have to be designed right from the beginning, you have to have a foundation of support, you have to have a sense of purpose, and you have to focus your attention on the longview.
Being designed right isn’t always within your control, unfortunately. As humans, we are susceptible to our genetic makeup; we may be predisposed to cancer, or heart disease, or alcoholism. What’s important to remember is, we can still make smart choices. We can defy our odds. When you take over or inherit a business, it may have a design flaw, but if you can’t start from scratch, you can at least do your best to work around it. People born without sight or hearing learn to live without eyes or ears; soldiers who lose legs learn to walk without feet. They may not function as perfectly as someone blessed with ideal genes, but they may have enough resilience and persistence to outlive them. Even well-designed businesses can fall prey to employee theft or an owner’s ridiculously inflated ego. The lesson is, if the odds are against you, recognize your handicaps and don’t be defined or limited by them. If the odds are in your favor, don’t be undone by avoidable mistakes.
Take a lesson from Mother Nature: having an unshakeable foundation enables you to bend and not break in a storm. If your business can be destroyed by a three month recession or one bad customer, it won’t last 50 years. If your physical health can be destroyed by a broken leg, or your mental health by a miscarriage, you won’t last 50 years either. It’s not to say that change isn’t challenging or painful. Adapting to change is not easy – and businesses and species have gone extinct trying – but if you want to survive, you must not only adapt, you must reach out. Don’t take every hard knock on by yourself. Many individuals and business owners confuse resilience with adaptability; in fact, adaptability can mean changing direction every time the wind blows a different way. Resilience, on the other hand, means being able to stand your ground no matter which way the wind blows, and that comes from having strong roots in the form of a solid base of friends, family members, coworkers and customers to support you through those big storms. People need people. If you want to make it past the curveballs life throws your way, build a web of roots around you so you can call in the troops and regain your footing.
I’ve always believed that a sense of purpose can only develop from a life of service. Feeling needed and valued gives you a reason to stick around, and when a business serves a purpose in a community, its customers need and value it as well. It sounds dreary, but as long as there are deaths and taxes, mortuaries and accountants will always have job security! So take a lesson from businesses and people that have seen the fly-by-nighters come and go. Longevity belongs to those who are fixtures in a community they serve. When you see yourself as an integral, invaluable contributor to a cause, you have a reason to fight for your life, because you’re not just living for you.
Lastly, if you want to make it through a crisis and still be around when other businesses are failing or other people with your prognosis are dying, you need to take the longview. I’m not saying, “Don’t listen to economists or doctors!” On the contrary, take any information under consideration, but more importantly, consider what you need to do to stick around. We often get forecasting wrong, investing our efforts in daydreams of a “future self” that is thinner, richer, or more successful than our present self, without actually outlining a plan and taking action to get there. Instead, we eat junk and overspend, putting off the day when we’ll finally take care of ourselves or finally take care of our business. Even now, with scientists all over the planet agreeing that we are running out of oil, people are still driving gas-guzzling cars on 2-hour commutes. We’re building hybrid cars, but the dashboards and headlamps are still made of plastic! Because most people in the working world are 30-50 years old, it’s understandable that we tend to only think 20 or 30 years ahead, but we have to be thinking much, much farther into the future. Seven generations ahead, if you take the Iroquois Nation’s advice.
Had I been thinking, from birth, about living as long as I possibly could, I would have never developed a sweet tooth; I would have exercised regularly and managed stress better, reduced my exposure to toxics and gotten regular checkups. If we ran our businesses (and our planet) looking seven generations ahead, there would not be a gigantic trash dump floating in the Pacific Ocean. NASA would not even be entertaining the idea of colonizing Mars (seriously, why is no one talking about the amount of steel and oil we would have to dig out of our already resource-stripped planet to accomplish such a goal? Not to mention the megatons of toxic construction waste that would be produced by such an endeavor?!). We are acting as if we just have to get through this generation alive. We are not doing everything we possibly can to ensure the survival of our species. We’re like a breast cancer patient who wants to beat cancer, but refuses to give up her cigarettes.
Before I met with my new oncologist, I would indulge in root beer floats to cheer myself up after chemo. Organic root beer sweetened with cane sugar, non-RBGH-containing, all natural vanilla ice cream. I would finish a bottle of root beer and a pint of ice cream over maybe a week, flooding my bloodstream the kind of food that cancer cells love, immediately after dumping petrochemicals into my body to kill them. Within a week of realizing the futility (and irony) of this “feel-good” indulgence, I radically changed my diet and immediately set a five year goal for my fortieth birthday, five years being the benchmark for remission. If I can be cancer-free in five years, my long-term survival odds go up radically. In short, if I live to 40, I have a better chance of living to 80. Where other diets have failed, this one has succeeded, because I am no longer fighting to make it through this quarter, through this year, or even through the next five years. I am fighting so that I can be around for the rest of my life, for years I can’t even imagine yet, because I want to do everything I can to make sure I get the chance to live them.
There is great value in investing in our longevity, and a terrible price to pay for instant gratification. Maybe, if we start taking care of our businesses and our planet and our bodies like we want them around forever, and not just for the next 10 or 20 or even 100 years, we might actually achieve true sustainability.