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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Fear and happiness in Music City

The price of excellence can be very high—if you let it...
By Dave Newport

If you are too stressed out and/or overbooked to read this, that’s a sign.

Of course, if you are sick of my six-cent sendups of otherwise significant subjects, I get it.

And yes, class, this week’s lesson was derived from hours of, er, “research” in Nashville’s finest honky-tonks rocking with the best musicians in the world. Sure, AASHE 2013 helped.

So what can juke joint musicians teach a convention full of sustainablistas?

Answer: the price of excellence can be very high—if you let it.

Indeed, sustainabilistas and the best musicians in the business have one thing in common: passion for the work. And that passion can add harmony or dissonance to your life; it’s your choice.

A fear of happiness?

For me, Music City laid down a groove of happiness so catchy I got tired of grinning, whistling, singing, humming and hooting.

I had to ask myself how is that possible? How could my happiness muscles be so out of shape?

Worse, I seem to have a lot of company.

At the sustainability professionals’ workshop that preceded the AASHE conference, 60-70 of us shared our biggest professional development challenges.

Work-life balance was the loudest tune we all sang. We’re stressed out.

We are also frustrated at the low influence over sustainability we have on our campuses. Many feel professionally unfulfilled because our sphere of influence is insufficient to fully create what we know must happen. Yet we are so passionate about that mission we will work countless hours, not make time to have a life, and find ourselves in frustrated, unhappy places.

You know who I am talking about. You. Me. Indeed, my frustration has made me do/not-do some things that didn’t need to/needed to happen. Lousy sentence. Long story.

Short story: being effective at sustainability can be a trap.

Listening to these gifted musicians playing just for tips in Nashville’s many honky-tonks really brought it home for me. These guys are so passionate about their music that many of their personal lives are way off key.  

This is a lesson about the music of life.

The best guitar picker of the many soul-searing players we heard has two kids, no wife, two jobs, rode a crappy Honda 360 motorcycle with his Telecaster and amp on the back (what a sight), and took home ~$150 in tips from four hours of A-list virtuosity in a Broadway juke joint.  He alternately channeled and matched the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Tony Rice, and Chet Atkins before the night was over. A sickly talented guy—in every sense of the word—and a wreck looking for a place to have one.

Singing a different tune

It doesn’t have to be that way, says musician John Lennon:

“When I was 5 years old, my mother told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

The Dali Lama put it a little more directly:

“I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.”

So this may be a hard tune for sustainabilistas to sing, but unless we want to argue with the Dali Lama and John Lennon we have to consider that saving the planet might need to take a back seat to being happy. And pragmatically we have to consider that if we burn out we’re useless on the whole planet-saving thing. On the other hand, if we go for happiness maybe we’re more effective at averting Armageddon.

Just saying.

So Music City provided sustainabilistas with a bridge linking together the melody and the chorus of our lives. We just need to play it.

For instance, a couple of great sessions at the conference focused on happiness programs that are increasingly—or should be—a part of sustainability’s focus.

A bright-light grad student from the University of Michigan illuminated their happiness program to a packed room. The goal of the Happiness Initiative at UM is to spark conversations on what makes life worth living and what makes you happy.

Hard to fault that.

Bottom line: your happiness comes 25% from what life does to you and 75% from how you think about it.

So, lots of room for happiness initiatives to crank up because we must not be thinking about it very well. 

For instance, the average US “Gross National Happiness” index is at 67%--a D.  We need a GNH to monitor our happiness because, as Robert F. Kennedy once noted:

“[GDP] measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

And of the GNH’s ten domains that break down peoples’ happiness drivers, work-life balance scores the lowest at 50%--a F. And it’s worse for students.

Likewise, sustainability professionals may be more challenged than most to get their GNH up—given that we’re all faklempt about the end of the world and other such nonsense.

We’re buzzkills at parties for sure. And I don't want to forget all my inner angst; it helps drive me.

However, in Nashville for a few days--and at great personal sacrifice-- we managed to have extraordinarily good times partying with our peeps. Maybe when we know everyone around us is down with the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh thing we can let it flow.

Or maybe we just started thinking about it right.

Taking it home

In the final stanza of AASHE’s best conference ever—been to them all (props to AASHE staff!)—Interface’s George Bandy scored a sonata for the future.

First he sang a positive, hopeful tune as charted by the late Ray Anderson, who keynoted previous AASHE conferences, and should be the first inductee into the yet to be established Sustainability Hall of Fame.

Bandy’s key notes came from the 75/25 happiness song in full throat. Highlighting the improvisation of an impoverished community built on top of a landfill, he played a video that resolved the dissonance and tension of unsettling minor chords literally into a beautiful symphony. Sorry for mashing a metaphor—but watch the “LandFillHarmonic” video and it all becomes clear. And fear not: this video will make you happy.

Walking through the Country Music Hall of Fame, I was struck by how unhappy some stars’ lives had been. They were super on stage—but lived otherwise sad, unhappy days. George Jones’ life of drugs is well chronicled. Gram Parsons’ drug abuse terminated his totally talented body at age 26. And then there’s the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis. The list goes on.

Sustainability professionals are no good to the world dead, depressed, or dependent.  We have too much life to affirm, too many lives to help. Life is good. Let's get some.

My take-home is to play my git-box more, turn down some of the bad habits, turn up the volume on compassion, remember I can’t fix everything—and kick serious ass on the problems I can. Tune in and turn up the music of life.

Best quote in the above video: “my life would be worthless without music.”

Coda: me too.



  1. Well said...Hope and spite of ourselves...I'm in.

  2. You were already there Kevin. Stay well.

  3. A little perspective is doing me well...only wish I knew the way to downshift while on the highway. It seems so easy to know and so hard to do. I tried, believe me. So far, though, this path is showing me there are lots of ways and lots of places to do our important work, and not all of them involve masochism, what a surprise! I miss you all...maybe Ill find my way back on a path less traveled.

    1. Miss you too Anna. You are making the right choices from what I see. Stay well.

  4. It made me very happy to read this today! I have been focusing on a more personalized approach as I speak to people on campus about sustainability, including doing things that make you happy. This is very reaffirming that I am heading in the right direction.

  5. I am the Sustainability Studies Librarian at UMass Amherst and also attended AASHE in Nashville. I heard this refrain from Sustainability Officers in various sessions, especially as it relates to well-meaning person who want THIS or THAT green project happen on campus. And those requests often come through their offices. Well, how about sending that person to a campus librarian who can help them gather literature (studies, statistics, reports, models, etc.) to form a feasibility study for a proposed project? We can help! --Madeleine Charney, UMass Amherst Libraries

  6. For 10 years now I have been working in the sustainability field with a personal conviction that we need to reach a point where people can meet their own needs in order to realize sustainability in our natural, built and social environments. People today ask me why I made the "jump" from sustainability to happiness. I tell them I see the two as sides of the same coin, and if we do not understand and work towards happiness for people- meeting our needs - we will end up in a world where the rich have really nice back yards full of biodiversity and the such, while the rest of us "adapt" to a life we do not even want to imagine, yet some on this planet already are living. I deeply believe that we all use some sort of metric to guide us and that measuring happiness in terms of affect - how you feel - as well as the domains of happiness - or a holistic approach to sustainability - is much needed now. So, for this reason and others, this part of my life is dedicated to working - mostly on a volunteer basis which is hard as I am now under poverty line in income - on The Happiness Initiative and providing a subjective measure of wellbeing that anyone can use: The Gross National Happiness Index. To this, while the scores are important, I think what is just as important is understanding the need for happiness as a metric, a guide, a goal, an inalienable right to pursue. Laura, ED of The Happiness Initiative

  7. Great article. I was wondering where you were going with that in the beginning. You're exactly right. We need to do a better job of balancing work and life (even though we are lucky to be doing jobs that we are passionate about, fusing our work and life together) and being happy!

    Good reminder today. Thank you.