My sustainability failure story, and why to tell yours

Working on behavior change is hard – “yada yada yada”, we’ve all heard this before.  But how hard?  Do you even know?  Before trying to find stats on last years’ resolution-makers, check in with your own life.

There’s something so captivating about failure – more than just the bloopers of a feature film, stories of what didn’t work maybe engage us at our most core selves.  Failure conveys vulnerability, weakness, some inherent hypocrisy, but most importantly one’s humanity.  I guess this is why I was advised to begin any behavior change presentation with a story about a behavior that I had tried and failed.

It was an effective way to share something about myself – introduced the personal nature of behavior change, placed myself as a victim of the influences I was about to describe, and showing the magnitude of the challenge of what we, as practitioners, are trying to do.

I share the story on this blog now, because I’m simultaneously writing a story about some successful behavior changes (sustainable and healthy) I’ve recently made.  Here is my failure story – please enjoy, revel even…and consider sharing your own next time you want to convey the difficulty of realizing the behavior change you’re working toward:

When I worked at CERTs, we often had lunch together at a central table. A couple years ago, we were having one of these lunches and Katie, a new member to our team, interrupted us to ask, “Why don’t you compost? You’re all trying to be sustainable, right? You could be composting your lunch food waste.” We were confused – compost? Here? In our office? She said we could do vermiculture composting, to which we replied: Isn’t that worms? Since Katie was new, we told her “we simply don’t do that, it’s dirty, it could be smelly, it could be hard to maintain, the janitors wouldn’t understand, and it’s probably breaking some very important office hygiene rule” (I don’t remember all of the reasons we came up with, but the list became extensive). Katie was adamant that we tried it though and we gave in under the condition that she’d take full responsibility for it.
Soon after, Katie brought it a small red bin and placed it next to our garbage, and recycling, and instructed us to simply place our food waste on the top of the soil inside. For a month or two, Katie took care of the compost bin, and it didn’t create a stench or mess. Soon, I became curious and asked Katie to show me what she was doing to take care of the compost. We got down on our knees and Katie showed me how she buried the food with the big serving spoon we kept nearby, and she explained how turning it regulated the dryness or wetness of the compost bin. Soon after, I was taking care of the worms in our office.  Before I knew it, the worms were multiplying, and she invited me to take some worms home to begin composting on my own!
For months, even after Katie left for her Fulbright (this is how smart she is), our office and I continued composting. The CERTs office still composts (though they now can take advantage of organic collection on campus). I, on the other hand, have stopped. I moved to a new apartment, and maybe it was the stress of the move, the new roommate or the new kitchen, but I stopped and gave my worms away. I could have started composting outside at my new place – there was a patio and backyard, but didn’t know how and didn’t take the time to figure it out.
After all the work and support I had to compost, I failed to re-apply those lessons and knowledge to continue this sustainable practice. I stopped composting and haven’t started again. To the individual advocating for greater organic composting, I have failed.

At this point in the presentation, I switch modes to show how even the most curated behavior can still fail due to a number of unpredictable factors.  If I, someone motivated, knowledgeable, and even invested in sustainability professionally, can’t do it – think of the magnitude of the challenge for the average person.  This is why it’s important to tell your failure story.  

Behavior change isn’t a wand to wave over a problem, it’s something with which we all struggle…we’re all in it together.  Once we realize that, we can approach our initiatives with a fresh understanding of the challenge, open ourselves to any barriers that could exist, and practice the empathy that is necessary to design a program that reaches us where we need it.  Tell your story, realize that you’re part of it too…and you’ll find that’s precisely where you need to be to nudge that change.

Coming soon…my success story…!

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Presenting…!

Over the last four weeks, I’ve really taken a leap in terms of talking about community-based social marketing and how this framework can help our organizations meet robust and real outcomes.  I am talking with organizations, practitioners, and community members about how community-based work can help us change our behaviors and lifestyles.  I’ve done presentations in the past, but the nature and content of this type of presentation also makes it a valuable and interactive experience for me. Continue reading