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Thoughts on Launching a Social Startup, Listening to Inner Voices, and How Not to Get Annihilated

What follows is a free write I did on the third day of launch for my new social business project, Basin : Great Lakes. This is:

  • Some path notes
  • Some reflections on anxiety, clarity, and purpose
  • My thoughts on how and why social entrepreneurship works

Also: how not to roll over for belly scratches from the warm hand of Total Annihilation.

Don’t do it.

A conversation with the Kid

“What do you mean, ‘This is what we need’?”

Somehow, the tone of his assertion had caught me. What was this kid asking me exactly—and why was I responding the way I was? There was an emotion here that I hadn’t qualified yet. A visceral response that was… sneaking up on me.

“I think this is a great way to get people together and to really make a difference. You know, people are sick of being preached at. This is a really positive thing you’re doing. It’s going to be really important.”

Huh. The friends and family email I had sent (and that he had read) purposefully de-emphasized the tree hugging nature of our new project. And yet here was this 23-year-old talking to me like I was launching an environmental non-profit.

I did a self-check: this is a for-profit that we’re launching. Our goal is to make money. To be clear: this is primarily an entrepreneurial project.

I asked, “What part of my email gave you that impression?” I was being cautious.

But the kid was already onto a story about being a senior in high school and working on an environmental art project that used only reclaimed materials. It was a tree of some sort, mostly plastic… something about cigarette butts… He was excited, they were all excited at the time, they had a big plan… But the school—uh-huh—revised their expectations.

“They wanted to stop us before we got too out of hand.” That last part was delivered with a twinge of resentment.

Once I was alone, I pulled up the email. “We’re launching…” blah blah blah. Reading my own words, I came to this sentence:

Our long-term vision is to mobilize positive change around creativity and environment in the most important freshwater region on the planet.

I paused. When I was 23, I was pissed. I could see the environmental and social injustice of the world around me with 20/20 vision. Or at least I thought I could. Now that I’m 36, I realize: I could. The fucker’s do have to pay—the day of reckoning is on us—etc. etc.

And then that emotion hit me square in the solar plexus: pride, happiness, excitement. My chest swelled.

When the kid had said the thing about “It’s going to be really important”, it was as if my inner 23-year-old was delivering the message—and was proud of me. Surprised even: I was going to be alright. I’d made it through my twenties and was still engaged with meaningful work set to change the world.

To be sure, Total Annihilation had knocked on my door from time to time, but at no point did I roll over and let it scratch my belly. I was still here.

The social imperative of business and creativity

In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, poet-philosopher David Whyte said:

I remember reading Ted Hughes when I was young — and he must’ve been young then, too — and having that feeling, a very powerful feeling, that this was language that adults had written who had not forgotten the primary visions and insights of childhood.

Any good work is this way: it seeks to express the sacred visions of youth with the resources of adulthood.

Therefore, it is imperative that we stay bullheaded in seeking answers to the question: “what can I do to make a living for myself and also to maximize benefit for nature and society around me?” There is no such thing, it seems, as a partial answer.

Answer only the first part of the question, you lose your soul. Answer only the second, you lose material and social autonomy.

I believe we can have both. We are a smart monkey—clever, resourceful, creative. What I don’t believe is that answering this question has to be hard for any of us. But it does require us to ask it, to stay bullheaded, curious, and, most importantly, to stay courageous when Total Annihilation comes a-knocking.

You can start by paying attention to an inner voice and end with a gift to the world that you think might just have a chance to change things for the better.

This is not a plug for Basin : Great Lakes, but if you enjoyed this article, I’d love to have you check it out.

For now, we’re launching a simple newsletter with interesting Great Lakes-region stuff from around the internet + a special offer from our community of creators.

If it sounds like something you’d be into, feel free to check it out. If, after reading the newsletter, you still love it, please forward it to friends/family/coworkers.

This is how we grow and this is how we make a difference in the Great Lakes.

Click here for details and to sign up for the newsletter: www.basingreatlakes.com.