How will the right education to the future generations solve the sustainability-related issues facing the world now?
Andy is Executive Director of the TYF Group, an employee-owned social enterprise, in St. David’s, Pembrokeshire. TYF’s mission is to help children, students and adults develop the confidence & skills they need the way they play, think and work.
He’s a Founding Partner of the ‘Do Lectures’ and through the ‘Do Collective’, orchestrates the impact of a virtual team of hundreds of the world’s best thinkers and doers, and through the Innovation Advisory Council for Wales, advises Welsh Government on innovation strategy.
Andy is a strategic advisor, facilitator and speaker to business and government, working with organisations to accelerate speed and scale of change to build resilience, drawing on 25 years’ experience in risk, action learning, biomimicry and sustainability.
Sustainability as a driver
Andy was born on the coast of west Wales and has lived there his entire life. This was the place that he learnt to walk, learnt to breathe, run and swim. It was some of the most pristine natural environments in the UK and in a national park. That time spent in nature; getting sand, salt and sea into his blood probably affected his DNA at that time more than he thought.
That continued through his education where he did a degree in Geography. He travelled for a couple of years and then came back home. As part of his travelling, he worked in a gold mine in the desert of Western Australia. This is not what anyone who has any kind of environmental conscience would want to do! When he was out in the desert he saw tyre-tracks from single vehicle which had been made 10 years before and still marked the earth. It was a powerful reminder to him of how fragile the ecosystems are and how much negative impact humans can have on the earth.
After his travelling, Andy had a strong sense that he wanted to return to Pembrokeshire, as that is where his heart wanted to be. He had no experience in business, but he decided to see if he could really make something work there. So Andy set up a business, thinking that if it does not work he would go away again. However, 30 years later, he is still there.
Facing challenges in business
Andy felt that if he was to talk about reducing environmental impact it was critical that as a business they did that. They became the first organic hotel in Wales because they wanted to know what the journey was like in establishing something like that. As regards offsetting carbon; it was a natural step to do.
The challenges that they came up against early on was that the outdoor industry particularly is ultra-conservative. Ironically it gets outdoors much, but doesn’t get out much. It doesn’t connect with people who are in pop-ups and start-ups and a lot of other hyphenated things where interesting things happen.
As a result, the outdoor industry was a very hard space in which to try and breed new ideas. But they did they make progress, and now they have a team of people who really understand what they are trying to do. The conversations now are multiple times easier than they were 20 years ago.
Now TYF get invited to talk on platforms along with national NGOs, talking about the same things. There is no longer any suspicion about what their motives are, since they have enough experience behind them for people believe they are serious about what they are talking about. It was a long journey, but investing in the thousands and thousands of small steps, and proving that they could make it work, is the key part of that.
Part of their business at TYF is the retail operation. They sell the clothing that people take out and need to wear for activities they run. TYF is the largest retailer in the UK for Patagonia clothing and equipment. With Patagonia there is lifetime guarantee, so TYF use retail as a way to tell people the story about why it is important to buy less and buy better in the first place. It took them five years from the first decision to do that to be able to translate all of their stock in the right way and get customers on board.
Andy’s advice to those who are facing challenges when trying to get a sustainability message across is;
– It is important to remember the metaphor of the mountain climb; it is a thousand steps and it is OK that it is a thousand steps. Do not be put off by the fact that it is a long journey. Sometimes people think that it is easy and quit when they see it is not.
– Get a support group, or a mastermind group, of people you can turn to and who are going through the same things. This way you can remind yourself time and again that you are not alone in doing this. Having people you can hang out with, go for walk with etc. and to be able to recognise there is a whole tribe – that there are tens of thousands of people doing this and that it is hard for all of them. The difficulties faced shouldn’t detract from the joy of what you are doing.
– Andy built his own eco-house on the coast of west Wales and as a result is acutely aware of the idea of the question of ‘what is enough?’ For example; TYF are a retailer and sell products, but they try to sell things that have a lifetime guarantee, so that they never need to be replaced. It is a part of that journey.
Andy also thinks that something that really helps is for individuals to pay attention to their own practices. For example, their views on flying, on eating good food, on taking time and not rushing, cycling and using public transport without becoming some sort of martyr to the cause; someone who is pious.
The more individuals be the change they want to see, the more it feels natural and the more it makes sense. It is a combination of building networks, recognising that this is for the long term and paying attention to personal practice. This is what really inspires other people and gives them permission to do the same sort of things.
Educating children to face future challenges
Andy believes that how you educate children to cope with the challenges of the future, make them more resilient and have the confidence to achieve what they need to achieve, is a really important question that anyone connected to business and Government needs to be asking.
The way that TYF view this is that if the journey ahead was an outdoors experience it would not be a trip on a boating lake. The journey ahead is one that needs to reduce carbon emissions by 90%, to restore biodiversity, address inequality, effectively utilize resources etc.
This journey is the equivalence of an extreme mountain trip in winter or a 15,000 mile bike ride – it’s not just a trip to the supermarket. When taking journeys like that in the outdoors, each member of the team needs to be capable of looking after the other members and themselves. They also need to be capable of noticing what is going on around them and responding to it, and be equipped in first aid, lifesaving and all other rescue techniques.
An equivalent of this in education would be having everyone leaving school having banked around 500 hours of impact learning; where they have learnt how to solve real issues out in the world – around energy, water, resources, food, waste, transport and so on – while applying rigorous problem solving techniques.
This would be coupled with the development of emotional resilience – so they can get over the idea that just because it doesn’t work you’re a failure. At the same time becoming really playful about gaining experiences, so that things that don’t work are simply information to help get it right next time.
TYF are taking this into schools at a county scale right now. To Andy this feels as though they are on the cusp of being able to do something remarkable. Not only by teaching kids to change themselves, but also to change their parents’ behaviour. As anyone who has been a child, has a child or has comes across them knows they are second to none in changing adult behaviour!
Ken Robinson talks on TED (https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity) about how kids are born with the ability to do all of this and then it is educated out of them. This is because that unshakable confidence in the ability to change the world is exactly what people who want the world to stay the way it is don’t want to see developing. Yet, this is what will create a stable future.
Andy thinks that it is about the really practical things around; how do we become playful about learning, so that mistakes literally stop happening? Things work or don’t work they are not a mistake; they are not failures; they are not something to shy away from. There are proven techniques that are already working elsewhere in the world to make this happen, as well as the work TYF are doing.
As a result there is no reinvention needed, so it is about having that confidence to take this ambition to scale and say what would it take for every kid, every school to spend hundreds of hours solving real problems so that:
a) when they enter employment they can start making a difference on day one, and
b) they shape their parents behaviour since they’ve been taught how to do it through love rather than criticism – e.g. understanding that saying ‘mum, mum why won’t you do this? I hate you.’ is not the best way to change your parents’ behaviour.
There is a huge potential there for millions and millions of hours of problem solving, of which a tiny proportion could help to create solutions to the problems of the world today.
There are teachers in schools all over the world doing things like this already. Andy thinks that it would be great having an equivalent of the Guinness book of records which looks for all the ‘cool shit’ going on in schools already; looking in places like Chile, Tunisia, North Carolina and everywhere else.
Most of the ideas would not translate like for like into a school in Cardiff or Edinburgh for example, but it would be possible to take the ideas from it and go ‘right I’m going to adopt this and adapt that right now and do something better and different.’ There is no need to reinvent all of this.
A tiny example Andy came across was that some schools in USA give a t-shirt to children when they first start school, which has the year in which they are going to graduate from school on it. As a result from the day they start school they are focused on the year they will leave it – thinking 15, 18, 20 years ahead through their education. This is a great way of thinking about how the world is going to be different in the future and how are they going to shape it.
The flip side of this is that Government and business need to realise there are a lot of resources they can tap into. By blurring the boundaries between business and Government more could be achieved; recognizing that, generally speaking, it is in the world of business that people get really good at getting things done. That their ability to get stuff out of the door quickly, at high quality, far exceeds most government programmes. However, it is Government has the public interest at heart.
For example: regionally mapping the resources, the potential of how to create jobs and opportunities, improve well-being, along with everything else with things that make sense for all the stakeholders.
This links into another significant part of TYF’s business – how do you get people healthy outdoors, at scale? How can the skills of the outdoor industry, the NGO sector, the communities, cycling groups etc. be linked to everything else that is needed to allow ministers to reduced health budgets by 20% and the country be applauding them rather than voting them out?
Developing Super Senses
A couple of years ago Andy met, and became friends with, Andy Shipley who is visually impaired. Over the course of their conversation it became beautifully clear that, for people who are heavily visually impaired or blind, their entire experience of the word is one that no one else can see or experience. However, the visually impaired still live perfectly enjoyable lives; they do different things and they have different experiences.
As a result TYF created a programme where people who couldn’t see taught people with full sight how to see the world in different ways. It was a really powerful way of having them realise, and experience, what they had never noticed before; smells, the touch of the wind on their faces, the sun on their skin, the feel of the ground under their feet etc. It helped them realise that they are so bombarded with visual clues, they never notice the information from their other senses. This programme provides a way of gently helping people recognise that maybe they don’t know everything yet and maybe they don’t see everything yet.
In school not as much work is done as could be to help people understand that how they think shapes the world. For example; Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets is about showing people that if they think they’ll never be able to do it, then they won’t. Learning to think differently is as fundamental as being able to process information differently and to notice more.
The different facets of this big shift are; becoming more independent, more conscious and more action orientated individuals. Individuals who know how to work, either by ourselves or with others, to create that seismic shift and not be scared of things not working the first time. This is why playfulness is so important.
Impact on Daily Life
It’s hugely important for Andy to live by the principles he is integrating into business. In Andy’s opinion actions speak louder than words; he don’t rant on about not flying for example but when asked points out to people that he don’t fly since talking about sustainability and how to impact climate change and jumping on planes doesn’t make sense! It can’t be reconciled, so he doesn’t fly.
He has noticed at conferences that people often don’t stop to think about living their principles. Andy believes that how we dress, how we shop, how we live our lives, needs to embody the change that we want to make.
The more we do this the less dissonance there is between what we are trying to do and going ‘Oh well I do this, I do that…’ By being the change it becomes much easier.
The memories that stand out for Andy are:
Being in a desert in an Australia where he was working in a gold mine as an exploration geologist. Andy’s job was to go and find potential gold mines. He would be driving by himself, in 4-wheel drive, out in the middle of nowhere. At times he would find himself standing on the border of a landmass the size of Wales that had never been stepped on by white people. It was massive virgin territory. He just remembers thinking how sensitive the earth was to his footstep, the fact of how much we just took for granted about the way that it didn’t matter what we did, and that it was sacred ground – with not a sight and not a sound, no vapour trails, that there was nothing but him and his footsteps. That was really special.
The other times are when Andy has been out doing adventures around the coast of Wales and on the oceans. For him it was that wonderful feeling of realizing how small and insignificant he was in relation to nature. It is that realisation that in that feeling of smallness it is about learning the power of walking the talk and being part of that change. Also, it’s a really good way of making sure the ego doesn’t survive; as it’s has no place where the waves are bigger than you, and where it doesn’t matter how expensive your kit is, if you don’t know what you are doing in that space.
Takeaway from this Episode
Take a few minutes to ask the question simple, but uncomfortable, question; ‘If I knew for certain that I would succeed; what is it that I would set out to do? What’s the change that I would spend my time working on? What’s the ladder against I would lean in my effort and set out to change? If I knew I wouldn’t fail; how high dare I dream?’
Spending time doing that tells you what you really want to be doing. Sometimes that would be so much bolder than anything other people would dare do. So take time, sit back and say ‘If I knew I couldn’t fail how high would I reach – with the effort, skills and talents and insights that I’ve now got?’
Andy Most Admires
Early on in business Andy really enjoyed the stories of people like Ricardo Semler, documented in ‘Maverick’ which is about shaping a business in South America against the odds, while doing what was the right thing to do.
As a certified B corp TYF are now part of an amazing growing UK community of businesses, and Global community of businesses, who have proven that they care for this bigger picture – around nature and the environment – as well as for profit. Through this Andy has met some the most caring sharing people that he has ever come across.
Overall Andy admires people that just make ‘shit happen’. He doesn’t buy into the hero stuff and hates hero worship just because someone has grown a business or is a great adventurer. Personally, he thinks the heroes are the people who raise amazing families with no resources, who survive against the odds of social. His admiration is reserved for people who really strive in that and succeed to walk their talk, without ego, and who are prepared to share everything they do as openly as they can. To maximize that thing of being the change.
Andy’s Favourite Resources
One of the things TYF works on, which is a continual journey, is doing everything they can to encourage their own staff to break the rules. Andy finds this is really hard to do as people coming out of school are so well trained not to do so!
To help TYF have implemented a surf-time policy – which means staff can go surfing when the surf is up – this is something Patagonia also do. If customers aren’t going to be affected and someone wants to go out for a run or get to the beach they are encouraged to just get out and do it. It is about working by managing energy not time.
TYF’s goal is to scrap holiday policy eventually. The aim is to get to a point where everyone in the organization owns their targets and their performance so clearly that no one thinks about ‘I’m working late tonight’. They just do what needs to be done, celebrate it and get on and do the next thing.
In regards to resilience; one of the things that is a most powerful metaphor embedded in the natural world, is that nature only uses diversity – since that is what works. It never does mono-cultures because they don’t work; they break, they are open to disease and systems collapse etc.
In terms of building resilience one of the things that we as individuals need to do is think about how do we mimic that difference? How do we make sure that we hang out with people of different ages and different backgrounds, different places, different views? How do we from time to time do different things that give us those nuanced views on food, exercise, nature, cookery, art etc. to become more of a polymath in terms of our understanding the views of the world so that way we can connect to more people?
Learning to think differently is as fundamental as being able to process information differently and to notice more.Andy Middleton