Martin Melaver  @  ChelseaGreen

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Accelerating Toward Embarrassment

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 3:34 pm by Martin Melaver

Raquel Colby sat down next to me on the plane the other day as I was returning home to Savannah, GA. You don't know Raquel. Neither did I. But she captivated me with her story, which focused on a serious illness she had almost a decade ago, the need to create a circle of friends that would help her with the daily challenges of raising her three kids, and the evolution of this expanded "family" of parents and kids all of whom created this informal collaborative routine of babysitting and carpooling and cooking and cleaning. Raquel's overarching philosophy? Accelerate toward embarrassment. Which she explained as a confluence of thoughts and actions having to do with overcoming the fear of asking help from neighbors, learning the skill of taking as well as providing, being completely at ease with who you are as opposed to the person others expect you to be, putting it all "out there" as it were.

I could not think of a better and more timely concept for the present. Or for running a sustainable business. Or for providing the background for Living Above the Store, which is about leveraging a business to promote stewardship of land and community.

As a kid growing up in a family-run grocery business in Savannah, I used to hate the fact that whenever my family went out to eat on occasion at Williams Seafood, dinner was an ongoing meet-and-greet affair with neighbors and friends and business acquaintances. I think my dad's outgoing, easy, loud manner was matched only by my own desire to crawl under the table and hide. Today? While I will never match my dad's extroverted style, I think his approach to life generally and business particularly has resulted in our real-estate company's embracing principles and practices that — at least until recently — were viewed as being "out there."

The story of our evolution into becoming a more sustainable business is a long one. But it basically comes down to conquering our own fears. Over the years, my colleagues and I have wrestled with being labeled tree-huggers, with taking a strong stance about not building in greenfield areas and focusing on urban core development, with signing on to the 2030 Challenge to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our buildings, with slow, deliberate growth. How would we be viewed by others in our profession, by the community at large? Would we seem polly-annish in the eyes of others, feel embarrassed by ideals that just didn’t seem to be “business-like”?

Warren Bennis, in one of my favorite books on business leadership (On Becoming a Leader) writes brilliantly about the need for us to un-learn what we have been taught, in order to re-learn what we have always known intuitively to be true. We know, I think, that we have substituted lives of consumption for the more meaningful activity of celebrating the type of community Raquel Colby describes. We know, I think, that business has a purpose beyond a financial bottom line. We know, I think, that Einstein and Bucky Fuller and others were right in saying that the same type of thinking that got us into our current financial and environmental crises is not what will restore us to who we are, who we can be.

A different direction, a different sort of growth, a different sort of acceleration is called for. One that embraces the collaborative, communal ethos that my seat mate so generously shared with me the other day. One that accelerates us in the direction of being the type of company we have always known ourselves to be. One that accelerates us past the point of being constrained by the odd looks we get from others, as we move beyond conventions that no longer work or that never worked. One that moves us to share our stories with total strangers ─ as Racquel did, as I am doing here, perhaps as you will do as well.

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