Thanks to my struggle with the time zone change after flying back from the West coast, I have found myself awake at 1 AM here in the Midwest. Perfect time to write a LinkedIn article. Although, I likely won’t post the article until people are actually awake.
I want to share with you an event that unfolded this morning, that is far more than coincidence. Shortly after being awaken by one of the twins who couldn’t sleep, my mind turned on. Normally, I just flip the switch and turn it back off, but today, something told me to use this time to write.
Like any good writer, I grabbed my computer, and immediately started to procrastinate. And the first thing I saw in my mind-numbing exercise of surfing the internet was a Webinar invite to learn more about a circular economy, right there at the top of my newsfeed. Which is exactly the thought that got me out of bed.
Okay, you are probably thinking, “nerd alert”. I get it, not that many people get out of bed to write an article on economic theory at 1 in the morning. But allow me to share my excitement. This (explicit four letter word) is super cool, and who knows, it might awaken your inner nerd too.
Back to the original thought. Wait, no, backstory. Yes, backstory first. The time zone change, I mentioned at the start of this article. I need to give you that backstory.
This past week I was in California helping to launch a Lean Six Sigma program for a public service agency. Yes, yes… “nerd alert #2”. Not only do I love economics, I love process improvement. Part of the curriculum I delivered this past week included an introduction to Lean, Six Sigma, and change management. The culmination of the training is to use the tools and theories from the classroom to identify and complete a real-world project.
On the last day of training, the participants select and discuss their project ideas. As the group started to share their improvement ideas, I learned something interesting about the organization. Their purpose statement is basically to inspire love for one’s city, so that the city can endure. These aren’t their words, per se. Their mission statement and vision are way more polished than that. But what it all boiled down to is that the organization is trying to not just maintain and service the community today, it is trying to create a healthier community for those that will depend on it in the future.
Wait. Hold up. This was completely unexpected. I seriously did a double take once I heard the project ideas. You mean caring for the trees and vegetation in a community isn’t just about making the place look nice? I am really going to have to learn to quick being such a dirt bag.
On the surface, it looked like this agency’s work was mostly transactional. Street is dirty, sweep it. Water line is broke, fix it. Tree is overgrown, trim it. What I didn’t realize was that each of these exchanges between the agency and the local community is transformative. The agency is literally out there, every day, instilling pride in the local community. Why you ask? Because they believe that if they can create pride in the local community, the local community members will help to maintain the city, and advance it, not for their own self-interest, but for the benefit of future generations. And queue the drum roll. This is by definition, a circular economy.
Let me elaborate. A circular economy is meant to be regenerative. Which means that it is perpetual. Whatever value is created by the economic model is reinvested back into the model in order to evolve the model so that it can have greater impact, and thus greater returns for future reinvestment. Now, to really capture my excited, I am going to need to you to picture me talking a lot with my hands, and frantically searching for a wooden milk box to stand on – so that this soapbox speech can be, more soapboxy. Apparently, this model is cool amongst millennials nowadays. So, let me be the first to say, “You didn’t come up with it, millennials, you just hashtagged it, get your heads out of your buttocks.” I can say that, because, spoiler alert. I am a millennial. In fact, the oxygen you are breathing right now is a result of a circular economy. Why I am soapboxing you ask? It is because circular economies are everywhere. And like the millennials are saying, these models are wicked cool.
Let me give you another example of a circular economy. Which is yet a further backstory to the previous backstory I gave. But first, I have a question. What does anxiety, the National Parks, and Lean Six Sigma have in common? They are all circular economies. Two of the examples, the Parks and Lean Six Sigma flow in a positive manner, called a positive feedback loop, or virtuous cycle. Anxiety, on the other hand flows in a negative manner, called a negative feedback loop, or vicious cycle. So why do I bring up anxiety, The National Parks, and Lean Six Sigma you ask. Because they are part of my backstory dammit. Now shush and let me tell my story.
In April, I quit a job I liked, in order to start my own business. The day after I gave my notice, I found myself having a panic attack. I was convinced I was having a heart attack, things were simply spinning out of control. I had never experience anxiety before, and I sorely lacked the tools and coping mechanisms to break the cycle and to stop the sensation of “spinning out.”
Once anxiety starts, the tendency is for it to grow and worsen as fears become compounded, refer to the picture below, which highlights the vicious cycle. To curtail this vicious cycle, you have to change its flow form negative reinforcement, to positive reinforcement. Which is a lot harder than it sounds. When experiencing anxiety, you have to intentionally slow down and assess how you are thinking. When feeling anxious I set aside time to meditate in order to comb through each individual thought.
Thought by thought, I assess if the thought I am having is causing me to spiral downward. If it is just a thought, I let it pass. However, if it is a source of anxiety, I write it down and I work on it. What I often do is restate that thought in a more positive manner. Then repeat that thought until it becomes true. This is only one of many tactics for coping with anxiety, so if you experience anxiety, don’t just hang your hat on this one tactic. Instead, try a variety of tactics, and see what works for you. For me, my coping tactics include mindfulness, positive thinking, meditation, family, writing, and the National Parks (being amongst nature).
To cope, someone had told me that taking time away from my busy life and spending time in nature might help me sort through some of my anxiety. This someone was my wife, so, wisely I agreed. One of my first clients, was not too far from Yosemite Valley National Park, so I extended my business trip through the weekend. Reluctantly, I reserved my wife and I a room at the Lodge at Yosemite Valley. To be honest, I was super skeptical about the trip. My wife and I train for Ironman races, so we are outside a lot, riding, running, and swimming. When we are in season, we are amongst nature all the time. So how would this nature be any different?
If you have been to Yosemite, you have probably guessed it. I ate my own words. The place cannot be described. As soon as you enter the Valley, the grandeur of the place awakens you to the fact that you are insignificant and that there are larger powers at works that are cosmic in nature. One look at Tunnel View at dusk as the stars start to appear overhead, and you will be washed over with peace and a warm embrace that this is really living. Everything you thought was important up to that point will fade into the background and you will likely, for the first time be present where your feet are. That day I became a park enthusiast.
For the next few weeks I watched Ken “Sleepy Time” Burns’ National Parks documentary on repeat. Please note, his nickname is not “Sleepy Time” that is just what we call him in our house because of the calming nature of the storytelling. Whenever one of our three kids are restless, we que up the National Parks documentary and within minutes it is lights out.
As a result of watching the documentary, I became more and more excited about visiting more parks, which has become a personal goal. I was like a crazed lunatic, determined to see has many parks as I could over summer vacation. Every park we visited made me feel more complete, more whole. I started to feel more connected with my emotions, and oddly enough, I started to feel connected with my past, and more excited about my future. And then it hit me. The Parks. They are a circular economy.
The whole vision of the Parks was to purposefully set aside and protect land, places of divine beauty, from self-interest, so that all could experience it. Ownership of the parks is allocated to everyone, and no one at the same time. The Parks are meant to be experienced, enjoyed, and celebrated. They are meant to make us whole, to help us reconnect, so that we understand the importance of paying things forward and protecting the Parks for future generations. Again, this is a circular economy.
Now let’s discuss how Lean and Six Sigma are both circular economies or cycles. With the primary goal of creating value. Don’t worry, for this one I am going to use the idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. In this case, you get two pictures. Notice how both Lean and Six Sigma are closed loops? These improvement frameworks are intended to drive value by continuously seeking perfection and superior quality and service for customers.
These models aren’t meant to be a magic pill. They are meant to be a new way of thinking, in which every action taken is done so with a hyper-focus on creating value for the greater good. Did I already say that? Lean Six Sigma is all about value.
To tie everything together, allow me a chance to summarize.
1. Today, I woke up excited about this idea of circular economies.
2. I was reminded that circular economies are everywhere – often experienced as virtuous or vicious cycles.
3. I recounted my journey of how I have found myself on my current path back to my true self, sharing how anxiety, the National Pars, and Lean Six Sigma are all circular economies.
4. I am sharing these stories, because I hope that you will start to slow down and start to observe the circular flow of things in your life. Whenever you find yourself in a vicious cycle, I hope you can reverse the flow.
5. Lastly, I want you to ask yourself if you make more withdrawals than deposits to whatever economy you belong to. Marriage, nature, your local community, your circle of friends, your health – start to think of them as economic engines. If you want to get value from those networks, you have to invest and reinvest more than you withdraw. You have to think more long-term. I am not saying never withdraw, just be more mindful in how you give and take, and ultimately what you stand to gain.
In closing, I want to share a picture I drew nearly 7 years ago. At the time, I didn’t realize the impact or importance of the idea. I was just trying to explain what my role was as a change agent within my organization. Reflecting back on this picture, I realize now that it has been a touchstone for me. Today, this picture serves as my business model.
I hope this picture and the ideas behind it can be a touchstone for you too. In this picture, the overarching theme is that transformation is a team sport. The idea is that by investing in others, and by giving them purpose, they can bring their best selves to any situation. The idea is that empower people make empowered teams, and empowered teams make empowered organizations, and empowered organizations make empowered communities. This again, is circularity.