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Stress-Free Sustainability: 7 Questions with Adam Hammes

Stress-Free Sustainability: 7 Questions with Adam Hammes

An independent sustainability consultant, Adam Hammes has traveled the world as an environmental educator and leadership trainer, living and working in seven countries on four continents. Now based in America's heartland, he helps businesses from local restaurant chains to international media companies tackle sustainability issues. He also coaches sustainability professionals around the world and speaks at conferences on stress-free sustainability.

He writes about that in his book, too, suggesting an approach to taking social and environmental action without that "vicious cycle of frustration and burnout." His book, Stress-Free Sustainability: Leverage Your Emotions, Avoid Burnout and Influence Anyone is now available in paperback, and we caught up with him recently to get his top tips.

1. You lay the groundwork in your book for a solid understanding of the emotions often at work in people passionate about creating change. What kind of emotional shift do people most often need to make in order to be more effective?
The biggest experiential shift is to build the skill of honoring and learning from all of our emotions. Every emotion is a valuable message, and if we can find healthy ways to acknowledge and express them all, they will dissipate and we can further develop as human beings. It’s only when we make them “wrong” and suppress them, or make them “right” and dump them on other people without permission that we stifle our own personal growth and effectiveness.
There is also a healthy emotional shift that occurs for advocates over time. Our effectiveness grows as we move our center of gravity through three stages. The least effective stage I refer to as a Polar Bear, which is a threatened species and associated with fear and sadness. I encourage polar bears to find safe, trusted people and groups to express their feelings with and ask for feedback and encouragement. A more effective stage I refer to as a Killer Bee, which is an invasive species and associated with anger and pride. I encourage killer bees to seek critical mass and align themselves with an “insider” group that has local credibility and authority. The most effective stage I refer to as a Sea Otter, which is a keystone species and associated with courage and acceptance. I encourage sea otters to master difficult dialogue with opposing views and identify key levers for change.
2. You write in the book about the vicious cycle of frustration and burnout. What's the most important skill for escaping or avoiding that cycle?
The most important skill is knowing yourself. Emotional intelligence is invaluable. Without the soft skills of dealing with interpersonal struggles, the hard skills will never be put to use. You will get overwhelmed and burn out. Once you have developed emotional intelligence and soft skills, it is also helpful to then know your strategy – to save time and energy – and know your audience – to frame your approach in ways that make it well-received.
3. Now that more people are becoming active in sustainablity issues, what's the most encouraging trend you're seeing as the field grows?
The most encouraging trend that I see are social and environmental organizations around the world beginning to balance the hard-skills of sustainability with the soft-skills training required for implementation of these solutions. Pulling from the fields of psychology, sociology, marketing, organizational change, social capitalism, and transformation is shifting what is possible in the overall sustainability movement and its various segments.
4. Which of your recommendations do people seem to have the most trouble implementing?
All of them! It’s easy to look outside ourselves and assign blame, get angry, and fight against perceived enemies. It’s difficult (emotionally) to look inside ourselves and take responsibility, accept the way things are, and find the courage to work with current circumstances in ways that will create a brighter future. That is a real personal growth challenge – getting outside of our comfort zones. But it's a challenge, if accepted, that can transform the world.
5. What advice do you give to college students and recent grads to find a career that inspires them?
In the words of Lewis Carroll, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” I have definitely worked some jobs that taught me what I did not want to do in life. I have also had the good fortune of a wealth of unique and exciting job opportunities. The latter always came from me being willing to clearly state and then ask for what I wanted. I wanted to scuba dive, so I searched specifically for that and found an internship where I taught marine science in the Florida Keys as a master diver. I fell in love with marine science, so I searched specifically for that. I found my next job on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, where I also got to facilitate adventure ropes courses and leadership training. Everything great I did came from the willingness to tell people what I really wanted. The more specific you are, the easier and more likely it is people can help you find what you’re looking for. The more vague you are, the harder it is (and less likely) for people to help you. Make yourself memorable by asking for what you want. It’s the only way to get it. 

6. Were you working on sustainability issues early in your career?

Yes, in ways that I think we all are in life. I was raised on a small acreage in southeast Iowa, so I spent a lot of my time outside playing in and exploring the South Skunk River, the forest, and miles of fence rows and stream beds. Watching my mom, who worked with adults with disabilities, I learned to treat people with love and respect. Watching my dad, who raised horses, I learned to treat animals in a similar fashion. Helping raise my younger brother, who struggled with a brain injury, I volunteered with the Special Olympics and learned that happiness and kindness are choices beyond our circumstances. In college, I led outdoor adventure trips and taught leadership and environmental education.
7. Who inspires you?
My parents, my sister, and my brother, who have worked hard to build a life, build a family, and be of service to others. In graduate school, the late Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, was a huge inspiration to me – reading his books and even bringing him to speak in Des Moines, Iowa. His personal leadership inside his own company and around the world helped me see what was possible in business and industry. Today, I’m equally inspired by Ray’s regional vice president, Joyce LaValle, who placed Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce on his desk, which started his transformation. And Joyce’s daughter, Melissa Gildersleeve, who was an environmental regulator and shared the book with her mother, telling her that she could make a difference inside the company. All over the world, millions of people are advocating for a future where there is enough for everyone to thrive. Without all the little things, none of the big things would be possible.

The paperback of Adam's book is now available on Amazon, and he's donating $1 from every paperback sold to Net Impact (thanks, Adam!).