Stepping Into Your Courage - In Conversation with Andy Middleton

Andy Middleton | The TYF Group

In conversation with Sabina Enéa Téari (Foresta Collective:

S.E.T.: Andy, what was your intention back when you started TYF? And how did you see it develop over the years?

A.M.: With TYF we went through a number of phases that were not planned, but were an evolution, as my own thinking and the nature and thinking of the people in the business changed. I was 24 when I started and at that time just doing cool adventures close to nature was enough for me - we were not trying to be agents of change in anything more than reclaiming the meaning of adventure in a world that already seemed to be forgetting what it meant.

Pretty soon we started working with businesses and teams and it didn’t take long to realise the scale of disconnection between work and meaning and the dire implications of working in an economy where four out five people are not actively engaged in the work they do. So the early work we did in consulting was reconnecting people to purpose at work - we got good at asking simple, powerful questions about what mattered. I saw that connection between people, work and personal impact was unexplored in most leadership programmes, so spent time learning and teaching at Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainable Leadership and Schumacher College to calibrate my thinking against the then-leading thinkers in this space - and realised that almost nobody in the environmental sector had the skill set to make change in business. 

It was clear which hat I needed to put on - because few others were wearing it - so I started working on questions on how to reconnect people and purpose at work and the environment in ways that make sense in business. Gradually as our ideas got bolder and braver I realised that they have a potential to change a good chunk of the world. 

We started working more deeply in education with young people and what felt important on that journey was helping people move away from the trap of thinking “we are not good enough, someone else can do this better” as a way to never fully commit to making change happen. I’m sure that a belief that you can make change actually makes you more responsive to the signals you get from people around, and you notice very quickly whether your ideas are genuinely inspirational and whether they hit the ground where it most matters. Gradually we got better at pitching and practicing and stitching different areas together (forestry, biodiversity, education, health etc) - into a single tapestry that people can understand. Today, most of my work is about connecting people who can recognise and share their parts of that jigsaw, together building a picture of a shared future. On our website we say that our mission is to help people fall in love with nature and we do that by offering people better stories. By using our business to build community, we help people grow and then act on their desire to build, and be the teller of better stories. And here I think it’s important to stop being scared about the difficulty of joining things together.

S.E.T.: Can you give an example?

A.M.: We’re increasingly aware that buying more things isn't the answer to sustainability and at the same time, most of us don't live in either a society or a climate where it's okay to have no clothes. At the simplest level, let’s make sure that if buying clothes, we're buying ones that are not stitched together with child labour, that are fair trade, organic, etc because each of those garments are also part of a story. We end up wearing other people’s stories as well as using clothes to tell a story about ourselves. TYF’s retail business’ purpose is to make people more conscious shoppers, regardless of whether or not they buy anything from us. The relationship with the customers is much more about seeing our customers as partners on the journey, rather than people who've just come into a shop to maybe buy something. When you take two products, how would you ever know that one is made of slave labour and one isn't? The only way of knowing is by learning to read the labels, ask questions and have conversations that deepen our knowledge. We are working on better ways to help customers compare the buzz of buying a cheap T-shirt made by a 12-year-old with the warm glow of buying an alternative made with organic cotton and certified Fair Trade stitching.

S.E.T.: And then there are the costs of damaged nature that aren't included in the description of a product…

A.M.: Nearly all the damage done to nature so far is legal. Brazil is being deforested now with its forest being cut by companies acting lawfully and encouraged by Bolsonaro. The biomass power stations in south Wales are processing shiploads of wood from Canadian forests and are doing it legally but it doesn’t seem to make ‘Future Generations Sense’ to ship firewood 3000 miles to burn for steam. 

Compliance with legal standards is the floor level compliance goal for most governments and businesses but the problem is that if every business in the world just complied with legal standards we will disappear as a species because complying with legal standards was never intended to create conditions for any species to thrive. Nearly all of the emissions of carbon, or damage to our land, soil, or biodiversity have been done within the law, according to legal standards. We need to respond to kind of a shared reality and a shared awareness of what's happening in the world. People in academia, for instance, might have really good insights, but they're not geared up to make change happen. Public sector is hampered by short term thinking, misunderstanding risk and tick-box culture. Charities are often funded in really limited ways that don't allow them to do imaginative things. Businesses are usually successful at money-making but hitting the wrong goals everywhere else. So we are looking at a new kind of agent, that catalyses radical collaboration, that is leading towards regeneration of natural systems and ‘good ancestor’ action. 

S.E.T.: I know you've been working on educational projects using planetary health approach and connection to nature. Could you share more about that?

A.M.: TYF are working with health boards (the public organisations that run hospitals and healthcare in Wales) to find ways of scaling up the use of nature and outdoor time as a preventative, effective approach for those who need support with mental health or general well-being. We are doing a global search for the best stories of what's working, how nature contributes to people’s health, and we bring them back to Wales, put them on a big table, and then ask - “if this works really well and we did it at scale, what difference would it make to well-being outcomes?”

As part of this work we are designing a new Future Generations Practitioners programme for 12- to 18-year-olds, who know that they want to work in healthcare, medicine or wellbeing. The programme will teach them everything about elements of wellbeing that medical schools don’t generally cover in sufficient depth - diet, nutrition, forest bathing, mindfulness, yoga, the relationship between purpose and wellbeing. Our goal is that by the time they enter the world of work, they'll have deep understanding and experience of the key determinants around planetary health. 

S.E.T.: What impact from your work, intended or unintended, stayed in your memory most vividly? 

A.M.: In my 20s I worked as a a beach lifeguard and, while the majority of our time was spent stopping people getting into difficulty, we also trained hard to deal with emergencies. The most serious of those were ‘after hours’ when I happened to be at the beach windsurfing or surfing and being in the right place at the right time meant that I was able to save two people from drowning. A lovely touch was that a couple of years back, someone came to the TYF shop and asked for me. It happened to be the wife of the guy I saved, saying that he was only here today because I was on the beach then. They’d come back in the area and wanted to come and say thank you. 

With TYF we’re certain that what we do changes people’s lives and often get emails from people saying that what we did changed their career or mindset trajectory, or it offered a glimpse of the future they could have. On one lovely occasion, we received a letter of complaint - something that’s pretty rare, saying that we’d let him down, we should have known how powerful our adventures are and should never let him book for just one day. Coasteering changed his life, he said, and the most important thing was that he learned how to play and let go. 

Experiences in the ocean feel particularly powerful and help people realise they don’t need to be in control all the time, and can’t be. There is something elemental about the power of the moving sea and its physical energy, that makes you feel very small and insignificant in a non-threatening way. Coasteering shows through play that while we cannot overcome the waves, we can learn to think and react differently to challenges that swirl around us and to gain a different perspective that helps us turn potentially dangerous energy or events into opportunity

S.E.T.: When you think back to moments where you had to call upon your courage doing the work you do - what comes to mind? 

A.M.: One of the things that you've got to be pretty good at if you want to do adventure at any serious level and stay safe, is to be good at noticing the patterns of change around you in the ocean, the winds, the waves, the people you're with, and permanently be adjusting to the meaning of those, noticing the interplay between those factors. And then, based on your interpretation, understand what they might mean in terms of different choices that you need to make going forwards. 

When we are kayaking in a rough sea next to the rocks, the timing of our passage between two islands will be completely determined by the capacity of the people who are in the kayaks and how big the waves are. If you get the timing right, you can go through an incredibly exciting journey between a gap in the rocks, and if you get it wrong you might get hurt. Judging risk and making choices is something that people that are good at adventure learn how to do. Understanding this helped me a lot when faced with tough challenges or big questions in business, to be able to stand back from those and look at them from a perspective of risk and say what’s the risk of me doing this versus not doing it. 

One example of this was working with TYF’s very first corporate client, British Aerospace, a company who make aeroplanes and aeroplane parts. And they also make weapons. They don’t sell weapons, but they make them, and they say ‘but we're in the game of making peace’ - and while there may be peaceful outcomes sometimes as a result of weapons existing, for much of the time that's clearly not the case. We ended up being increasingly uncomfortable with this paradox; even though the people we were working with were good people and they were our biggest client at the time, we ended up saying sorry, we really love you as humans and we wish you well but we can't work with you anymore and we’re sacking you as a client. Making that decision was a really important stage of our development. We knew that it was a business risk but there’s no point in saying your values are important then not acting on what you say. Making that decision gave me and colleagues courage to start following our path with more confidence and a stronger voice. What was the real risk? If we hadn't made that decision, we would have lost some of the rights to talk about change and following your heart. Losing that was too big a risk to take. 

S.E.T.: It reminds me also about how you once said, that everything you do becomes part of your DNA. Something that you pass on to future generations. Things are not only on the idea level but are really in this kind of action and commitment.

A.M.: I've just been reading a great book called How to Be a Good Ancestor, by Roman Krznaric. And it's one of the points that he makes is that as a species, we are just too young to be able to think longterm - in generations rather than just years or decades.

S.E.T.: In a way, it's no wonder. If many of us have been in parent-child relational dynamics, not only in our families, but also in learning institutions, at work, in all kinds of constellations, we haven’t really had a chance to mature, to learn to take responsibility, think of consequences, learn to face things...

A.M.: Completely. Working with investors it’s vital that we help them look at the timelines of their decisions in relation to their consequences they have on their children and grandchildren. All too often, people seem to disconnect themselves from those thoughts and emotions by just not thinking far enough ahead. It’s good to remember the importance of connecting our hearts and soul to the important decisions we make and remember the consequences or regret of not doing that.

S.E.T.: You have been engaging with sustainability subjects in many different ways, and if you were to talk to people who are just starting, where would you encourage them to focus their efforts? 

A.M.: Part of the problem that we’ve got to overcome is that most of our education is focused on achieving other people’s dreams about what we’re capable of. Whether it’s your parents who want you to be a good girl so they can look like they are good parents, or schools who want you to achieve good grades so that they get more good students, we are conditioned to chase other people’s dreams, not our own. 

It’s very easy in this broken model to step back from the ambition of making real change happen. My take is that the most valuable thing for anyone interested in sustainability is to take time to ask yourself this question - “If I took stock of what’s happening around me and had the most powerful network, skills and knowledge imaginable to help me deliver, what would I set out to make happen, knowing that I couldn’t fail?” Get really clear, on your answer to that question - write it down in full colour, and embody it. Imagine yourself inside it, living it, regardless of how much money or qualification you have now. Whatever point you are starting from, never let the fire of that ambition go out. Hold that spark of an idea like a burning amber, wrapped in a protective cloth and carry it with you wherever you go. You might need to work today in communications, PR or finances or something you are not really interested in, but never lose the feeling and the sight of that goal that you set out to do. Remember to stay confident in the glare of other people’s pretend greatness, remembering that the people who are really great will always help you, and never make you feel small - so never let your dreams be watered down by people who are scared that you might succeed. That compass needs to be set by what your heart and head together tell you is the right thing to do. And the more you share this dream with others, the more you’ll believe in it. When you are bold, clear and practiced, people start understanding and being interested in your dreams and they’ll come and ask how they can help you. That’s when you’ll start to climb your chosen ladder, faster and together. 

S.E.T.: What helped you keep this fire burning?

A.M.: Paying attention to it. Meaning this - even if I can’t work with total alignment with it all of the time, and need to do another job to live, I never lose sight of my goal. And if it’s a true goal I will still find a way and share it in a non-ego way with other people, and will have the bravery to ask questions, or ask for help, to keep it alive. Letting go of the fear of failure is crucial in this process. It’s the people who know why the world needs change and drive that shift with their heart, head and hands connected who make the best things happen. 

S.E.T.: Thanks so much, Andy, really appreciated talking to you! 

To read the full magazine from Foresta Collective follow the link below. 

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