Reframing Sustainability: Don't Be 'Less Bad', Aspire To Flourish

22/10/2015 8:34 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Growing up, I was an avid watcher of television, much to the chagrin of my parents. I still vaguely remember the days when cable television wasn't widely available, and even when it was we were laggards in its adoption. But once we were plugged in (sometime in the early 90s I'm guessing), I was struck by the variety in programming and in particular the various social, political and existential perspectives that were beamed in to our living room. Of note, were the television series Law and Order and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart OBE, was my role model and the kind of man I aspired to be.

As my lexicon of television programmes grew, I discovered the original Star Trek (from the late 60s). The Vulcan salute popularised by Spock (played by the late Leonard Nimoy) is something I still use with childhood friends. The gesture in the series was accompanied by the words "Live long and prosper". I don't say that to friends, but maybe I should!

"I googled the phrase 'flourish meaning in Hindi' and the words that came up included vikas (development, growth, evolution, rise), unnati karna (to make way, prosper) and phalna-phoolna (to burst forth, bloom)."

This kind of expression of social goodwill -- of living long, of prospering, of flourishing -- is no alien (pun intended) concept in India. I googled the phrase "flourish meaning in Hindi" and the words that came up included vikas (development, growth, evolution, rise), unnati karna (to make way, prosper) and phalna-phoolna (to burst forth, bloom). The last phrase is particularly notable since phal means fruit and phool means flower. Many of these words are often uttered by Hindi-speaking elders to young'uns as blessings during festivals, celebrations (like birthdays) and important life events (like marriages and starting a business).

While these words are said with genuine love and goodwill, somewhere along the way, living them has become a little obscured. Somewhere along the way vikas (development) became a one-dimensional concept for many, focused primarily on individual or organisational progress (profit) and the inherent interconnectedness of all things, of life, was forgotten. We are meant to be living in the age of sustainability, and in this regard, India is certainly in its infancy. In conversations I have had with business leaders in the private sector, it appears that the word sustainability is not fully understood, has been misused and over time, has lost its meaning. To many, it has come to mean being less bad.

By no means is this mischaracterisation unique to India. In their recent book Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business, authors Chris Laszlo and Judy Sorum Brown (and additional contributing authors) state that "[Sustainability] inspires not an inkling of understanding of the nature of the commitment needed to move reality toward the vision -- indeed, for many it subtly suggests that the costs will be great and the eventual reality quite uninspiring." This echoes the sentiment in my many conversations.

The book redefines sustainability as flourishing. "Flourishing -- at all levels -- individual, team, organizational, global." It becomes not just about being or doing less bad, or just about surviving. It becomes about thriving, and prospering.

This reframing, which places at its core the aspects of personal value, spirituality, and living a meaningful life, unleashes a vision of something amazing, something that distils our (over)thinking down to fundamental values. It invites us to a place of greater self-awareness and at the same time a deeper and fuller appreciation of our interconnectedness with the cosmic whole. The vision of a flourishing reality flows from there, from our innate goodness, of wanting to do well and wanting the same for all things in creation. It invokes a sense of optimism, freedom and joy that enables us to reimagine our world and break free from the shackles of old thinking that carries with it, immense weight and apathy.

I do grave injustice to the authors of the book by picking just a couple of sentences from it. It is very well researched, cites significant amounts of credible evidence and is thoughtfully written. It holistically addresses the concerns that may arise by invoking words like spirituality in the business context and provides practical guidance on reorienting ourselves -- at the individual, team, organisational and system levels -- towards a perspective of greater meaning. In its first few pages, the book even mentions the Tata Group, a household name in India, as an example of an organisation that embodies the idea of flourishing and is doing well by doing good. In Hindi, "Accha karo" is also often uttered as an expression of good wishes offered at the beginning of a new endeavour and is an exhortation to "do well" and to "do good".

I invite you to consider this paradigm and leave you with two quotes from (you guessed it) Captain Jean-Luc Picard:

"Seize the time... - live now! Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again."


"Things are only impossible until they're not!"

Accha karo. Phalo-phoolo. Live long and prosper.

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