[This article was originally published at The Interview Portal, where you can find more “offbeat, unusual, unconventional and interesting” career interviews! Oriented towards students from 8th grade to graduate, I’ve tried to ‘unpack’ my journey in way that might be useful to any young person considering a career in sustainability!]
Becoming A Sustainability Problem Solver
Just as my work on food security and participatory governance ended, COVID-19 broke. The world changed overnight, with the future looking more uncertain than ever.
Despite this, I have been lucky to experience a period of incredible growth, discovery and richly rewarding work collaborations. From April 2020, I started working independently with startup companies on a range of challenges including communications, media and storytelling for sustainability; derisking industries from the water crisis; applying data and artificial intelligence for sustainable development; developing remote management systems for sustainability applications; and many more.
While financing non-profit initiatives remains a challenge, the for-profit world of sustainable solutions is thriving globally and in India. This is the realm of solutions that improve or increase sustainability, while making (or saving) money for businesses, investors and even the government! The profits generated by these businesses allow them to grow in the marketplace, creating the scalable sustainability impact that top-down funding lacks the financial capacity to deliver. Many of my engagements are with these for-profit startup companies.
I also continue to work on several fronts in the nonprofit world; there remain many critical areas of sustainable development that cannot be tackled by the business model approach. With the Initiative for Climate Action, for example, I co-design concepts based on “systems thinking” for climate action.
I’m also deeply engaged with another “for-impact” (non-profit) organization – The Sustainability Mafia, a group of over 3 dozen top entrepreneurs and practitioners in sustainability and climate action in India. I’m currently working with the community to design and deliver the Corporado program – “to make sustainability the default choice” for industries in India, by applying the solutions in a “marketplace” that connects demand and supply. I’ve also taken an active role in advocacy by the community.
Finally, I have recently (May 2021) incorporated my own company, Sustainability Problem Solver – motivated by the simple (but not easy) questions that have given my life so much meaning and vibrance over the past years –
What does it mean to ‘achieve sustainability’?
How can we practically do this?
How can we have a lot of fun working collaboratively in “networks” to address the complexity of the nexus challenges of sustainable development?!
Going forward, I would certainly love to work with a great number of enthusiastic, talented and motivated young people from all over the world on the challenges of sustainable development, seeking practical action and answers for these and other questions! I really do think that most of the hope in the world lives in the youth and comes from them.
Further, the thousands of pleasant hours I have spent “sustainability problem solving” with folks of different ages and diverse cultural backgrounds have, I believe, given me something worth sharing, in terms of skills, mindsets, access to opportunities and interesting challenges…
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work in collaborative teams solving problems across domains like clean energy, water, corporate sustainability, applying data science for sustainable development, etc.
I work towards sustainable development, on market research, design, business model development, technology development, policy advocacy, systems thinking, communications, and more, across the nonprofit and for-profit worlds.
Through the Sustainability Problem Solver, a company I recently incorporated, I look to engage others into the process of “network problem solving” on some of the most challenging and interesting “nexus problems” in sustainable development.
What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?
Every problem needs different skills. I apply skills across design, technology, policy advocacy, research, etc. The technical skills (e.g. programming, design, research etc) are straightforward to pick up given enough time, effort and dedication, working on actual projects.
Below, I have highlighted some of the other skills/traits which are important to having a successful career.
The “master skill” is the ability to learn new skills.
Be coachable! Most of my focus nowadays is to “solve problems with others”, especially those in early career. I’ve worked with several talented young people who have told me they have had an accelerated learning experience working with me.
I’m a big fan of “ready, fire, aim”. Learning by doing. Taking the risk. Being vulnerable. But it is also important to have an enabling environment where you can learn.
Adopt the learning or growth mindset, and discard the fixed mindset. Whether it is a ‘failure’ or a ‘learning experience’ depends on how you think of it. Read Carol Dweck on mindset.
The highest value skill is the ability to create new narratives that change people’s perceptions and ideas about the world.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Here’s some advice and suggestions I can give based on my experience:
Give yourself time to experiment. It’s OK to not have all the answers when you start off, even to take several years to find your path and purpose.
Be a student of ‘mastery’. Recognise when life has put you in an ‘apprenticeship’. Robert Greene has fascinating insights on this.
Define success for yourself, after adequate contemplation and research on how your role models define success. Don’t equate textbook or examination success with life success. There are plenty of well-qualified people out there who consider themselves failures. There are plenty of “failures” who made it big. Keep re-evaluating your definition every now and then.
Have a diversity of role models and mentors. Develop a critical understanding of your role models, living and dead. It’s more important to learn from their thought process than to ape their behaviours. If you blindly follow the external form of what they did without an independent and searching thought process, you may set yourself up for failure.
Connect to the bigger picture. Recognise situations for what they are trying to teach you. Situations will recur until you learn what you need in order to transcend them through changed mindsets and behaviour.
Every time you ‘fail’ – ask yourself – What did I do well? What did I learn? What will I do differently next time?
Be cognizant that the world is not always a fair place, especially for young people, women, minorities, etc. Navigate power structures carefully and strategically.
Question everything ceaselessly, at least in your own mind, for the purposes of learning and growth. (Be careful when questioning others though, it can sometimes be misinterpreted and backfire!)
Develop an appreciation for your “onliness”. What is it only you could do? Given your unique mix of talents, advantages and interests?
Ikigai. Try to create the map between what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs and what you can get paid for.
Find your mission statement. Be aware that this can evolve over time. The mission statement you have today might very well change in the next couple of years. But write it down and look at it every day.
Every day, one step closer. Start every day by writing down the ‘one thing’ which if accomplished today, will take you closer to your mission statement. Execute relentlessly on this.
If you are having trouble finding your mission statement, follow your effort instead. Cal Newport lays this out well.
Don’t burn out. Learn what your safe limits are in terms of work and rest. And operate well within them. A worthy life-task will stretch you constantly, and you should learn your rhythms so you take the rest and recovery you need to.
Match passion with perseverance, but know when to fold. Try, try, try and try again. Still, recognize when you have to fold your hand for strategic reasons. This was one of the hardest, but most valuable lessons I have had to learn.
Focus on process, not outcome. I cannot stress this enough. This must-read book by Scott Adams lays out the approach. In short, your mission statement defines your goals or targeted outcomes. Which should then define your process, which is what you should focus on executing and improving day by day. Excessively outcome-driven people are curiously fragile!
Upgrade yourself constantly. I have bought hundreds of books on self-actualization, leadership, etc. If you can’t afford to buy many books then get a subscription to Optimize by Brian Johnson, it is the best resource on the web to ‘optimize’ every facet of your life and highly recommended for anyone seeking to find their purpose.
Recognise the “reverse indicators” of growth. When things are hard or difficult it means you are, by definition, outside your comfort zone. This could be healthy and a sign of growth! Read Phil Stutz and Barry Michels on this.
Fall down seven times, get up eight. With a smile on your face if possible! Interestingly, this idea is found both in the Bible and in Japanese martial arts!