Jean M Russell is a social ecosystem designer, culture hacker, and facilitator. As a founder of the thrivability movement and expert on collective thriving, Jean speaks to and with change agents, innovators, builders, and edge-riders around the world. Her work on thrivability, innovation, philanthropy, and cultural shifts has been highlighted in the Economist, Harvard Business Review, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Worldchanging. She received an honorable mention on the enrichlist, as one of the top 200 people of all time “whose contributions enrich paths to sustainable futures.”
Dear Jean, tell is about your pre-thrivable days and how you came to think about this topic and approach?
Thank you Michel. There are a several important elements of my history that brought me to this work.
Childhood: Much of what I have seen people move to in the last dozen years was already my everyday experience as a kid. I don’t think we did it to save the environment or anything like that. We just lived frugally, in harmony with nature as much as we could.
I grew up in the country on 93 acres of hilly prairie and woodlands in the 70s and 80s. The property was divided into 9 lots of 3 acres each, and then the remainder of the property was a shared commons for everyone who owned a lot to use and enjoy. This was my early sense of how property worked. Also, we grew much of our own food, including an orchard for fruit. My Mom made yogurt or bread, she canned food from the garden or from berries we picked. She made some of our clothes too. Being in the country without garbage service, we composted our kitchen scraps, recycled (in the 70s even) our glass and metals, and we burned what we could not re-use or re-cycle. Most of our heating came from wood burning stove, which meant we were carefully and selectively harvesting firewood from our forests each year. We use a lot of passive techniques to heat and cool the house, which my Dad had built for us. We closed window treatments at the right times to keep heat in or let it out, for example. There was always, for me, a sense of care about food, waste, energy, and experience.
Education: My academic work started in biology, leading me to ask some questions about what our future might be and how ethical our work was. So I switched into philosophy to ask those questions more deeply. I ended up with a double major in Philosophy and English with a focus on Critical Theory. I was very interested in the way we create and express identity and how we signify that identity, individually and culturally. I continued to be strongly guided by a sense of what being ethical meant to me.
I explored the performance of identity in everyday life through some theater classes. I also worked in the art museum on campus and studied art as a way of creating and troubling meaning. I was very engaged around transformation even then, with an interest in post-colonial studies, art for social change, and the notion of hybridity. I was always bouncing between a critical and theoretical understanding and desire to do something – to be in practice informed by that position.
Economics: In academia, my core mentor was a marxist and a significant partner of mine at that time was at least an anti-capitalist (if not an all out marxist). So I was trained to think about the flows of capital and systems of oppression. What I longed for was a way for society to function that worked better. I found the position of resistance to be pretty depressing. So I went to work in Chicago for an international finance company that had recently gone public – into the belly of the beast you might say. What I found there was that good people get trapped by the incentives of the system – the corporate need for growth – and the performances the organization did to attempt to control wall street perceptions. People tend to be good, but organizations that lose their connection to humanity and start to perform on the stage of wall street focus only on the measure of financial returns on not on the measure of humanity. Ethics get lost in scale.
Transformation: My husband and I were clear we didn’t want to be in the rat race. We sold our Chicago house for a hefty profit, moved to central Illinois where our money went further, and set up a way of simple living with minimal needs so we could focus on raising our children. I started my own consulting company and worked as a ghostwriter for a financial advisor/philanthropic advisor on books about creating meaningful life. I read a lot about concepts like positive deviance, tipping points, positive and negative feedback loops, and other aspects of systemic change. I was trained as a life coach. I was getting the skills I needed to be an agent of transformation in practice – in my own life and in the world at large.
I also was working and playing a lot on the internet learning about social entrepreneurship. I had never had a specific cause that was my own (always seeing the value of many causes) but I also saw how inter-related issues were and sought the biggest and best lever for transformation. That was when, in February of 2007, someone mentioned the word “thrivability” to me, and I knew I found the term that described what I wanted to create in the world. At that time, according to google searches then, there were only 2 people talking about it, one of which set me on my path.
Could you outline for beginners what thrivability means for you, why you think it is important and how it differs from other approaches? I’m thinking of approaches like degrowth or steady-state, which seem to have a quite different connotation. What are you reacting to in particular when you are diffusing your own proposals.
Sure. Thrivability is simple the ability to thrive – to flourish. To me, one of the ways we can contribute to that is if we are generating more value than we consume. How that can happen and what needs to be considered is very lengthy, and I have been working on exploring that for nearly a decade now. For example, my own thriving doesn’t happen at the expense of someone else’s thriving. So I can’t really say I have the ability to thrive if it means that someone else is suffering for me to do so. We can’t look at individual thriving without considering others, communities, ecosystems, and the planet.
When I look at the major movements today, most of them react against what is. Reactionary. The story they tell is about what we have done wrong and need to fix. Thrivability doesn’t do that. For me thrivability invites us to what is great. It accepts what has come before as best-efforts given the conditions and knowledge at the time. It doesn’t shame or ask for sacrifice through guilt. Thrivability invites us to contribute our best selves toward the best world we can imagine. Thrivability encourages us to be proactive.
As I have explored, I keep finding a deep resonance between thrivability and a sense of peer to peer. I think we need massive collective intelligence with everyone contributing their gifts and being treated as peers in the effort, so for me there is a deep alignment of peer to peer as the tools and processes for a more thrivable world.
As for Degrowth and steady state, those are terms used before the word economy. Degrowth Economy. Steady-state Economy. Thrivability is not about the economy. It is about something much bigger than that. It is about aliveness and the flows of life. If degrowth or steady state create more value than they consume and get us to thriving, then great! They each could be tools to get us there, and I am not the best person to say which is a better approach. But I can say, they are about the mechanism of the economy, and they tend to attract people who are interested in how economies work (and get very technical pretty fast).
Thrivability is something anyone can access and consider. What would make my household more thrivable? What would make my life more thrivable? What would make my relationship more thrivable? What would make my community more thrivable? The answers to those questions extend way beyond what economic structures we use. And, they may not be the same over time. Maybe capitalism was a more thrivable economic approach in response to feudalism – at that time.
I am resistant to approaches that tell us what we need to get away from without telling us what we might have, do, or be instead. Furthermore, my interest is in asking the question that collective wisdom can explore – what is thrivable here and what helps us become more thrivable together?
I want everyone asking that question, no matter what your politics or economic position is. I am trying to create and share an aspiration that helps us bridge our divides and gets us all to the table to lend our best ability toward that shared goal. I want a story of a future so compelling and yet possible that we all contribute toward making it happen. I want to be drawn into that future because it is so compelling and alive.
I am focusing a lot now on the science of awe, the effects of playfulness, and the conditions that enable creativity.
You are an active facilitator, why do you think this is an important function today ?
I think the age of modernism was about finding fixed and static answers to our questions about ourselves and our world. We since have learned that the answers evolve. This new era is about asking better and better questions. Also, as knowledge has expanded, so has specialization. Yeah! And, the problem with specialization is that it gets too isolated from the whole and integration. My work is often about weaving disparate knowledge and perspectives together to form an integrated understanding. To do that, I need to facilitate a process for people to come together to share and communicate.
Thrivability is so complex, no single person can understand all the layers. For example, we have to consider thriving for individuals, organizations, communities, societies, and the planet, which are all interlocking. Next we have to consider different dimension of thriving such as purpose, passion, profit (value generation), planet (or context), and the well being of people. My colleague, Kathryn Ananda, calls those the 5 Ps of Thrivability. Then we have to think through time. Maybe something doesn’t seem thrivable for us in the short term but is in the long term – how do we weigh the present with the future? I can’t know all of that, so facilitating a conversation among people who can bring value to that exploration is crucial.
And finally, I think facilitation is a practice of helping individuals and collective organisms to discover and practice their own quest and practice of thrivability. It is one of my personal ways of supporting thrivability in practice.
How has your more recent work evolved, after writing and editing the thrivability books?
The first book, The Thrivability Sketch, really encouraged me. I had been writing about this idea, feeling it out, seeing what was emerging in the world that seemed a right fit for generating thrivability. Two of my advisors independently suggested I do a collaborative book project. I really came alive in the process. The first essay was something almost antithetical to what I would have said, so I knew at that early point that the whole thing would be better for showing diverse perspectives. I was blissed out connecting and facilitating the emergence of that work for three months, working 12-16 hour days, and I am so proud of what we were able to do together. It really grounded me in this work of co-creating together. And it led me onto an international stage, speaking about thrivability and methods of co-creation. The Thrivability: Breaking Through book was my cry of possibility into the darkness of fear out there. I wanted to share the ways I think we are creating antidotes to the catastrophes of our time, weaving together insights and approaches from coaching, neuroscience, organizational development, systems science, and so much more to say, “This is possible!”
Now I feel like I have laid out the possibility in broad strokes, my work has turned toward very practical efforts to get the “how to” out there. I have two books coming out soon that are both more workbook like and directed toward practitioners. The first is on social designs that create flow (and leverage human agency and autonomy). It is grounded in research and conversations with 20+ edge-practitioners on their projects to foster compelling complex adaptive systems. And then Action Spectrum, which is the final chapter of the Breaking Through book, expanded out into a full length workbook for social change agents to create and act upon their theory of change using systems science (but written for people who don’t speak systems language).
From there I want to weave between our organizational cultures and microcultures and our (transformation) strategies so we can better make tangible the thrivability we aspire to. I am currently gathering materials and designing workshops around that.
Tell us a bit about the p2p/commons scene in Chicagoland ?
To be clear, while I have lived in Chicago about a decade of my life in total, I am currently a bi-coastal resident of Central Illinois and San Francisco. I am excited to see Chicago engage around P2P. There is something at the heart of Chicago culture and history that lends itself to working shoulder to shoulder together for something that matters. Daniel Burham, said “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” He was instrumental in the urban planning of much of Chicago in the early 1900s, created the parks along the lakefront (and others in the city) believing that everyone should be within walking distance of a park. (Parks are a commons, right?) I have long believed that there is something magical about art and theater in Chicago, because there is such a culture of doing the work for the work and not for the glory. When I lived in Pilsen, a history professor explained that we lived within a few blocks of the birthplaces of three unions. (I don’t know your position on unions, but in my mind, historically, it is the work of coming together to create a shared infrastructure strong enough to assert and then co-manage our shared interest.) And there is a lot of history around civil rights and the need to work together for our shared interest to address them. Today, I see a lot of amazing work for social innovation in Illinois. So I see a lot of threads that I think can make Chicago a strong place for the practice of a P2P society. (Answering this question thoroughly would probably be an essay in itself, if not a book!)
Chicago also faces some tough challenges. Education in the city is a huge issue hotly debated. Neighborhoods have tended to be rooted in one nationality or another with few genuine examples of integration. The South side of Chicago feels more dangerous than Detroit, but since we can balance that with affluence of downtown and Lincoln Park it doesn’t get as much visibility. But I also hear of efforts to work on addressing the food desert issues, and again, very grassroots, shoulder to shoulder efforts to solve these challenges.
Where do you see the world, and yourself, in say, ten years ?
I have a sense that there are several crucial moments in our near future that will act like a phase change – creating a different way of organizing ourselves that we sort of just jump to wholy. Think about how fast the change to mobile phone and then to smart mobile phones cascaded through the world changing behaviors and beliefs globally. I think we are on the edge of a massive leap toward thrivability.
The movement for thrivability will extend, by that point, far beyond my reach or ability to track. I will be grateful for planting the seed and tending it while others harvest from the fruit it bears in their areas of knowledge and practice.
In 10 years, I hope my partner and I are consulting on thrivable futures from a little cabin in the woods where we live simply and playfully in a tiny house or cabin as part of a local maker culture. All our children will be independent then. My partner is a creator-type, and I know he will be making mischief for the good of the world in his way.
I will continue writing books that describe the practices of thrivability (and I have two more outlined and several more at the germ idea stage). This next phase for me focuses on organization aliveness and creativity. After that, I want to write more about personal thriving, how we communicate with each other, how we create meaningful lives, and how we create living structures for governance of a commons at various scales, for example.