Don’t ask what gives you purpose, ask what gives you energy. Listen to this clip from this fantastic recording I had with Shane Ward, agroecologist and founder of Action Ecology.
My wife introduced me to this idea. She’s an organisational psychologist by training, and has been working in leadership development and all these other things, so she came home one day was talking about an exercise that she was involved with where people were asked to try and find one word that described what energised them and for some reason, this captured my thinking in a way that nothing quite like it ever had.
Shane Ward is a regenerative land use advisor, communicator and the founder of Action Ecology.
Shane brings an international perspective, scientific rigour and pragmatic approach to connecting people with the right knowledge, drawn from both innovative ‘on-the-ground’ practitioners and the latest research.
Passionate about sustainable food systems, ecosystem restoration, as well as plant, soil & microbial ecology, Shane also works more broadly to engage people with visioning a better way forwards for humanity’s approach to energy, economy and agriculture – re-partnering with natural systems – so we might provide a chance for future generations to thrive on this planet.
Katherine Ann Byam 1:03
My name is Katherine Ann Byam, and I’m your host. What’s your purpose? And how does it integrate with sustaining life itself? For some of us this question is a deep ache that we spend a lifetime trying to find, perhaps shifting direction as we learn and grow from one path to another. For many of us, our children give us a clear definition, providing for them becomes our reason for being. For others it’s about enjoying the present moment ever so fleeting, and ever so beautiful. For still others, it can be financial, status, contribution or impact. In this podcast, my guest and I will share with you tips, ideas and methods on how to build a career that integrates with who you are, and the life you want to lead, we will explore the social foundation on which to build your transition, and an ecological ceiling, above which we need not climb, so that we live not just for ourselves, but for our collective ability to thrive. Welcome to The Purpose Driven career podcast, do what matters. I invited Shane to come share with us a bit about his career pivot and journey, I found his story really interesting. So I interviewed him way back in March for my podcast where ideas launch and during that interview, it came up that he used to do something completely different than ecology before he actually got started in this space. So I wanted to ask you, Shane, my first question, tell us a little bit about that unorthodox route you took to being in this space? And what happened to you in sort of 2008 2009 to create that pivot?
Shane Ward 2:38
Sure. Well, first of all, thanks for having me, Katherine. It’s funny, I actually don’t really talk about this subject very often, I suppose it is, it is pretty unorthodox, in some ways. But yeah, for some reason, I just, I don’t often sort of share, volunteer, you know, all the things I’ve done before. But so this is not something that I’ve had many occasions to discuss.
I suppose the thing about a life is that it doesn’t tend to neatly follow chapter markers, you know, so when telling this story, I will be sort of simplifying things as much as possible. But I started, I suppose my, my first career straight out, you know, out of high school, as a young adult, the focus was film and television. So I really wanted to be a film director. And I, however, did not have any idea about how to do that. At the time.
It was not popular then to do that as a career as it later became. And so it was not obvious to me at all how I went about doing that. And so, you no I did the usual thing, sort of I tried going to university that didn’t really kind of pan out did a couple of years of trying to do that and Arts degree in philosophy and art history and things like that cinema studies, but then ended up going working jobs, you know, low paid jobs and but then eventually found my way to a film school. And this was in Melbourne, Australia, at this point, and I through roundabout way ended up getting some experience working on film sets on the crew in the camera department, I got my first taste of it as sort of like as an intern, and then launched my own sort of as a independent contractor, essentially, Freelancer working on film crews for a few years, that the dream the whole time being to become a successful film director.
So that was the sort of initial trajectory that my career took off in and I was very passionate about it. I was very driven, very determined, the moment that I decided that that’s what I was going to do, everything else kind of went to the periphery. And so I remember, you know, over that period, thinking to myself, you know, well, it was it was noticeable anyway, that compared to a lot of my other, you know, friends and people that I knew of my age group, that none of them didn’t have a very clear idea what they wanted to do, and I was laser like, focus on that one thing. After a few years of working on crews. I had sort of the probably the first I would say, crisis in my, in my adult life where I kind of I broke up with, you know, had a relationship agenda broke up my girlfriend at the time, my grandfather who was very close to me passed away, I had injured my back, so I couldn’t work. And it sort of felt like everything kind of exploded all at once. And I was sort of there wondering what I was going to do. And I thought, well, I’ve got to rebuild my life. So I decided, well, if I’m rebuilding it from nothing, I’m as a rebuild what I want, you know, so I thought, What do I want, and being half French and having gone to school in France, when I was younger, for a couple of years, and my family being being French. And so that was a very important part of who I was culturally, I thought to myself, well, you know, I feel kind of trapped in and I guess a bit
Shane Ward 5:51
stuck, really where I was. And so I thought, Well, I’m gonna go to Europe, I want to, you know, go and meet this extended family and see the country that I feel a connection with them, and just seek my fame and fortune as it were. So that’s what I did, I, you know, I went and did a sort of a random sales job for a few months just to save up enough money, sell my price guitar, bought my silver plane ticket, and then left Australia veiling my vowing to never return but with no intention of returning. And so that’s what I did.
And then I sort of my trajectory over the next sort of year was, was sort of this incredible experience of just finding myself, you know, partying on yachts in Cannes, and, you know, going to Hollywood parties and pitching to film execs, and, you know, just it all felt like it was all sort of happening. And then that trajectory ended with itself with a little bit of a crash. And there’s a whole nother story there. But, but that sort of was what set my life in that direction, in which case, I then eventually found myself in London, and, but that was not, you know, it’s not easy. It’s, there’s not an easy place to live, it’s not an easy career to tackle. It’s extremely difficult to succeed in. And, but I was determined to do so.
And so when I found myself there, without much work, you know, I’d had some work, and then it dried up, but I just couldn’t find any any more, that led me sort of to inadvertently fall into the corporate world, which I had zero experience. And I’ve never worked in the corporate world before in my life. But what I found was that, you know, the skills that I developed through being an independent filmmaker, you know, the sort of the, I guess, the entrepreneurship, of having to try and get projects up from nothing, the rigour and discipline that’s required, particularly operating on a professional film set, close enough, it’s not good enough, you need to be able to perform at a high level, I developed all kinds of creative skills in terms of you know, how to build websites, and how to write obvious things. I was also wrote scripts. And anyway, so I had this range of skills, also just this, I guess, this attitude of just can do, I can problem solve, you know, no matter what the problem is, I can solve it, which is what you have to do when you’re working, trying to make a film or no money, you know, that’s put me in good stead. And essentially, I came in working in a programme team and at a bank. And before long, I was a communications manager, because they realised they liked me, they realised I had the skills, you know, they wanted to take advantage of that. And so then I was a communications manager.
And then after I was a communications manager, one sort of needed to become a second time, and then a third, and so forth. And so I sort of fell into this sort of pattern of for the next several years of being, you know, pretty successful as a sort of communications consultant, you know, contracting to different companies around bringing my this is pre social media. So at that time, you know, I was one of the few people, I suppose, that had a real grasp on the sort of digital media space, of course, coming from film and knowing how to communicate using those tools well, so I kind of carved out a bit of a nation myself doing that.
And in, you know, when I wasn’t doing that, I was then sort of putting my effort into trying to get film projects going as I was kind of running this sort of parallel life in a way, feeling like a bit of an imposter, sometimes, I guess, in the corporate world, as Yeah, it was not something that I ever really felt that was for me, but it was this trajectory that eventually led me to this point in around 2008, where I was starting to wonder what I was doing. But I guess, at that point, I was what I must have been in my early 30s, something like that. And I guess I just wasn’t, I wasn’t feeling it.
I was having a hard time getting projects made in London in the film industry. I was getting stuff done, but it just felt like I was getting knocked down all the time I was working in, in the corporate world, but after the sort of after sort of, I guess, reaching something of a plateau, you know, being successful and I could see I could just keep doing this for the rest of my life. And I could be successful at it. I was earning decent money, but it was not satisfying to me. In fact, it was deeply not satisfied. But it wasn’t. I think necessarily because of the work, I think what that period revealed to me was something underlying that was going on. But the way that it played out was
I broke up with my girlfriend at that time we split up, we’ve been together for a few years, this relationship. And I was then again asking myself this question, what do I want out of life? You know, what, where am I going? What do I keep continuing what I’m doing now? Is there something more that I want? And? And the answer, obviously was yes, there is definitely something more that I want, but what is it? And how do I get it? And how do I do that? So that’s when I thought, Okay, well, at the end of this particular contract, the end of the year, I’m going to go travelling. I wanted to set off from Australia, and I’d sort of left that life behind to start a new one. And part of that was it was about exploration, I really wanted to explore the world. And I kind of hadn’t I again, found myself getting stuck, you know, need to make money, need to kind of succeed, whatever that is. And, you know, I was always so sort of focused on just China sort of getting that next job. Or, shall I say, more, I was focused on trying to succeed with the next film project more than getting the next job. But the corporate stuff was actually relatively easy for me. After I got myself established, it wasn’t something that was too hard. But it you know, it was the grind it was just so you know, living in a big city, the pressure to keep in obviously make money and get ahead and do all that sort of stuff. And it was not didn’t serve me. So I said, right. Okay, I’m gonna go travelling. And so it was actually just in that lead up to that, that I actually met my now wife, who was working at that company. And when I when I shared with her my plans, we started dating them and said, with that my plans to go travel. She was like, Oh, well, I’m actually gonna go visit a friend of mine in South America. I’d been thinking about going to Asia, but she said “do you want to come to South America and hang out with us. We’re going to kind of out in Brazil. I was like, Yeah, cool. Sounds good. And thought about it. But yeah, why not? And I thought I’ve always wanted to go diving in the synesthesia, the Yucatan Peninsula, right. It’s amazing sinkholes, and thought that’d be amazing to do so great. So that’s what I went, I went off and I sort of learned to scuba dive. And then I started doing these scuba diving trips.
And these days, you know, having an adventure, travelling by myself for a little while before I met with it. And as it happens, on one of those scuba diving trips, I ran into some people from Australia, which were relatively few and far between in that part of the world at that time. And through that meeting, I discovered that there was this property opportunity that was selling these houses deeply in Mexico, right opposite this protected turtle sanctuary Beach, sort of in the jungle. And I was backpacking, it wasn’t interesting. I wasn’t shopping for property, but my ears perked up when when the guy said that there was no planning restrictions and do whatever you want something that this creative sort of impulse of like, wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to have this tiny little house, you know, very modest, concrete block thing, but, but in this amazing place, surrounded by jungle by the beach, you know, you could do whatever you wanted with and suddenly I was kind of my, you know, my brain was kind of lit up from that.
And I kept travelling through Central America and whatever, and then eventually ended up with Charlotte and on our adventure on our travel in Belize and Brazil and stuff, we started saying, hey, you know, it’s pretty funny. thing isn’t, it wouldn’t be crazy if we bought a house in Mexico. And I was like, you want to do it? And it very, you might at this point, we hadn’t even moved in together yet. We’ve only been dating for a few months. Right? And to her credit, she was like, Yeah, let’s do it. And I think that was, you know, so we did it, right. So we bought this thing I was we were travelling, we went back to London, both of us are working there, we worked for the rest of the year, and then say like, at the end of this year, we’re quitting our jobs and moving to Mexico.
So we didn’t end it, you know, it was this impulse to be open, I guess, to be proactive and to be open. You know, I think this is what the themes of what had been steering me at these key points throughout my careers. At this stage so far, the openness to what’s happening open to opportunity, but also open to listening to what was speaking to me what was my you know, trying to discover what my truth was, what my sort of authentic inner voice you know, who I was in this world, what was what did I really want to be doing? So that you know, that period then in Mexico and around 2008 2009 was was a pivotal moment for me because apart from just having an amazing time, it really highlighted how important my connection to the natural world was because up until that point, you know, living in London and doing all this stuff, you know, I was young I was full of energy and I was always striving and the big city and the bustle and all that kind of energy was great and I speeding off it but I also didn’t realise that it was also draining me so I was being sort of run ragged by it and when I was there I can still remember the moment you know standing outside of my house looking at the wind blowing through the drag the jungle through the trees and the sound of it and I suddenly felt like this alive like I felt Wow, this this is actually what I like this is what’s important to me.
This is what matters. Why do I live in this concrete brick jungle surrounded by sort of artificial things, the environment was not one where I was sliding, this is where I was thriving. And that realisation I think started was probably the first domino, or the first thing, which really then paved the way for what came later, I couldn’t, after that moment, sort of deny what I where I needed to be or what I needed to be doing. Although at that stage, I had no conception of what that would look like, that still evolved, but I knew I needed to be doing something that was meaningful, and I needed to, I needed to be connected with nature. And so that was kind of I think, the pivotal moment for me.
Katherine Ann Byam 15:39
How did you get on to ecology, I mean, what made you then decide that this was the thing that you have to pursue, because it was far away from your skill set at the time. First of all, I know that Mexico can probably trigger a few things as well, because there’s a lot going on there. I mean, I think it’s amazing that you found a jungle that’s actually livable. So tell us about how you made that pivot.
Shane Ward 16:03
Well, and that in itself, you know, again, life is not that neat. It was a series of things and a series of forces that were kind of joining together, it was a confluence, really of different streams of my own development, my evolution, you know, all these things kind of coming together. But what happened was essentially I, on the way back from seeing that house in Mexico, I was talking to one of the guys that linked me up with it, he was an architect.
And growing up in Australia, I grew up in a mud brick house or Adobe, some people call them Adobe, surrounded by trees, that was just the world. To me, that was just normal. So I never really thought that much of it at this point. You know, afterwards, after we got the house, of course, it started to become clear that that had always been important to me, I just sort of forgot it, I just taken it for granted.
And this connection to being an only child, I’d spent my time climbing trees and playing outside and being surrounded by buildings and all this sort of stuff. So I just had that automatically, and then moved away from it and thought I knew better and other things I wanted to do. But then I remember chatting to this architect and talking about how the earth buildings and, and all this kind of stuff because my sort of Daydream as an adult, it always been one day, I’m going to go to my own house, you know, and maybe it’ll be my break.
Maybe it’ll be something else. But you know, and I’d always sort of daydream about how would I do that? What would that look like? And how can I quit curator and create my own living environment to be, you know, this wonderful paradise, you know, that suits me. And so, actually, it was through that. So after Mexico, I then started to think again, about this about right, well, well, I’d always been my dream to build my own house one day, but then how would I? The dream started to expand? So I start asking, how would I get water? How would I harvest water? You know, if I wanted to be sort of more self-sufficient? How would I do that? You know, solar panels? How would I power it? You know, how would I feed myself? No. And all this kind of stuff, right? So the sort of the Daydream started to expand and I started to have questions and being intellectually curious, I wanted to know the answers to them. So that was one sort of stream, a preexisting sort of enthusiasm for that topic. The other thing was having sort of rekindled my love and connection to the natural world. I wanted to understand it better. I’d never studied science, I’d always been, I suppose a bit of a an armchair environmentalist in, you know, and it was something that I felt strongly about from a values perspective, but which is, you know, fine, but I didn’t really know that much about at that time, the issues.
I remember, I had worked for an energy company in London around the time that Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, and we’d organised screenings for the entire employee base of this energy company. And, and so this was, you know, a topic which was on my mind in this period, too. And along with a lot of other people is kind of a growing realisation that you know, that climate change and issues of the environment were serious and urgent. But hilariously, I remember thinking to myself once sitting in an airport in Hong Kong and thinking, Okay, well, maybe my skills are in film, so maybe my contribution should be to make a film. That seems like the obvious thing to do. Right. But then I thought I will, but Al Gore’s made An Inconvenient Truth. We’ve kind of fixed like, I’ve never seen myself, Oh, that’s covered. Now. We know one needs another film about the environment, right.
So, so I thought, well, actually, maybe I would be done, you know, I thought, what’s another sort of issue that maybe I could pull this energy into? Because at the time I kind of also thought, oh, maybe it’s about issues, maybe if I just get myself behind something that I cared about? That would be the thing which and so I thought about the Global War on Drugs and so I actually did end up spending quite a lot of time working on that. issue forward. But, but it wasn’t until a couple you know, well, it’s kind of it was over the period of a year or so after this. So of Mexico and this whole sort of process, I realised that I needed this connection with the natural world.
So through that, and through this through so I guess under the sort of premise of, or, well, I’m gonna understand self sufficiency more and how these things work. I discovered permaculture, and I discovered it through a member, I was sitting in my office. And I’m actually, it turns out to be the last corporate job I ever did. I was a bit bored, sort of on top of everything. And I remember finding this video on YouTube about this guy who had taken 10 acres of salty dust, right, there was no soil left in the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan, hyper arid, and within three years, turned it into a green oasis. And that was my lightbulb moment, when I saw that I was blown away, I was like, holy, that if that is possible, then we can fix anything that is as hard as it gets. If you can turn a hyper arid, completely degraded environment like that back into something that’s productive, productive and green and life giving Well, then, we don’t need any new technology. We don’t need any new knowledge. And if we, that’s, we’ve got everything we need, we just need to do it.
And so I said, Well, I want to learn how to do that. I want to do that. That’s the kind of thing that I wanted to write that was something that felt meaningful, and that I just knew nothing about, but I wanted to know how to do it. So long story short, I did. I said, I’ve found that guy. I learned from him and I started training with him and that kind of was in permaculture design. And then I you know, for there’s a period where I was like, oh, maybe I’ll do a bit of film and permaculture design on the side, you know, it’s still kind of clinging on to this old, you know, almost a habit at this point. I’m not sure if it was still a joint. But the skeleton of this old career that I thought maybe my bloody mindedness, I suppose, is what it was just refusing to admit that I could need to let it go. And yeah, but then that quickly, you know, snowboarder permaculture design was my thing.
And then that kind of led me to ask questions, you know, more questions. So I started, you know, putting things into place, planting trees and actually doing it with my hands. And it was, you know, doing that that made me think well hang on a second. So like, why, you know, why would the bacteria for this nitrogen fixing tree that I’ve been told about? And why would that be here and then having to go and try and find answers, and then realising they weren’t obvious answers, and then having to, I’ll start emailing scientists from around the world to ask these sort of technical questions about sort of, you know, biological, sort of microbial symbiosis with trees and things like that, and not have nitrogen fixing works and, and my now wife was like, You’re doing all this, we just go back to uni and get a degree. I’m like, Oh, it seems really hard, you know? And it’s like, we’re actually at this point, I think we’ve actually had our first child. Yeah. And we had a baby. But she’s like you doing all that? Like, you’re doing all the research anyway, you might as well just gonna get a bit of paper for it. Right. So anyway, long story short, yeah, I mean, this process, I’ve been trained with other people in agroforestry, and soil ecology and microbiology, I went back to uni and got a degree in ecology. And yeah, you know, there’s that sort of it was that, that was kind of the process, I suppose, driven by intellectual curiosity. And, and, and the fact that I was energised by it, and I use that that that word specifically, because I remember
around the time that I just mentioned, when I was starting to sort of really ask a lot of questions and try and find out, you know, just wanted to drink up all this information, all this knowledge about how the natural systems function, how do we create them? How do we design an ecosystem? You know, how do we repair the damage that’s been done? It was around this time that my wife introduced me to this idea. She’s an organisational psychologist by training and works in that field and, and has been working in leadership development and all these other things, right. And so she came home one day and was talking about an exercise that she was involved with, where people were asked to try and find one word that describes what energises them. And it was a very simple, I guess, I guess it’s sort of run of the mill kind of, you know, workshop facilitated type exercise to do.
But for some reason, this captured my thinking in a way that nothing quite like it ever had. It’s been a long time but I’d spent the whole of my adult life up to this point, thinking about what I was passionate about, which was films and telling stories and working with actors and crafting all these things. I was passionate about that. I was passionate about, you know, other things I was I loved music. I thought about what I loved and what I thought I was passionate about. I thought about all these other things, but I never actually asked the question what energises me what gives me energy instead of taking it away, and when she framed the question In that way, it kind of floored me for a bit because I suddenly realised that I could be passionate about something or love doing something that maybe wasn’t giving me energy, it was only sucking it. And that was, I think, a really critical turning point in my thinking about everything. And that was the moment that I was able to start letting go of my old career, and the ego that was attached with this idea of failure and success. Because I realised when I tried to work out what was that one word for me, then it was, it was kind of to what was what it’s a the two sides of one thing, which is the exploration and the discovery, somewhere in there is the thing which really energises me and I realised that in everything that I loved doing throughout my life, they all had that ingredient in common. So the thing that I loved about making films, that I didn’t love everything about it, but the bits that I loved most were because of that the things that I love to do is my pastimes in my hobbies and my whatever. I loved them because of that, because it contained this ingredient of exploration and discovery, you know, this, this new field that was emerging for me about agroecology and permaculture and, and all this, I was enjoying because of the exploration and the discovery of it. And so that suddenly was this thread which connected everything together. And it made it much easier for me to see what I needed to be doing with my life, and how I could be sustainable in doing it right and how I could be doing something which gave me energy instead of just taking it away.
Katherine Ann Byam 26:29
That’s really, really powerful. I think that’s just changed things for me as well. So I hope everyone else is having the same sort of reflection. So before we go into open q&a, I have one last question. And then I’m going to stop the recording and then allow everyone to ask their questions as well. But before we move on, can you share what maybe it doesn’t keep you up at night because you found things that energise you, but share what concerns you about where we are now on certain climate and sort of sustainability tipping points?
Shane Ward 27:01
Well, there’s a lot to be concerned about, I think what concerns me is what you mentioned, the tipping points, you know, the planetary tipping points are what concerns me, I guess, I feel like I’m often thinking about or talking about these kinds of issues with people. And you know, in my own echo chamber, I hear lots of other people talking about this stuff. The big Million Dollar, trillion dollar question that we all face is will human societies be able to wake up face reality and do something meaningful and proportionate about this challenge in time? And, you know, the question of will the human species survive the coming crisis? So I shouldn’t say coming? We’re already in it. It’s already started. I yeah, I think species will survive. Well, human societies and civilizations survive in a way that’s recognisable to us today, probably not. If, if we, if we can do something about this in time, then yeah, maybe we might be able to, you know, still preserve the best and maybe make it better.
But what keeps me up at night is how, how it’s the nature of psychology and change, people are not very good at change. You know, I, in my corporate life, did a fair bit of change comps and working with change management professionals and working in that space communicating that and you know, what I learned from that, and of course, being married to psychologists and organisational change and understanding the nature of the change journey and change psychology. You know, we’re pretty rubbish at it. And, you know, I think the world needs a good change manager. And we don’t have that sort of mentality about it in some parts of the you know, we’re still bickering about it, we’re still kind of arguing whether it’s happening and, and then other parts, everyone’s like, in a frantic panic about it, which is, you know, warranted, but not particularly helpful.
But in loads, everyone’s trying to come up with solutions all the time. But we kind of don’t, I mean, this is a whole nother topic in itself, but we, you know, just a whole bunch of sort of single solutions, trying to essentially play Whack a Mole with technology and try and say, Oh, we can just fix it by doing this. Electric cars, or it’s just this or it’s just that, you know, completely misunderstands the nature of the problem that we have, or the crisis that we face. So what keeps me up at night is essentially that we just simply won’t be able to wake up and face reality fast enough. I think that’s really what what concerns me and I have my good days and my bad days and my days where I feel hopeful that you know, things can change rapidly and that when we give nature, we take the boot off the neck in a chicken respond so fast and just come back so quickly, and it’s inspiring to see you know, but, you know, we just were not very good at it. There’s still so much greed In so much ego and power are tied up in preserving the status quo that yeah, I don’t know, you know, it could well be that maybe we just, it’s just takes a generational change and you know, just enough people for the older generation to go away but for things to change, but the fact is, the planet doesn’t care about that. And it may not be quick enough. So that’s what keeps me up at night. And I hope that we can somehow find it in ourselves to do what’s needed.
Katherine Ann Byam 30:26
Thank you so much. This has been really valuable.
This episode was brought to you today by the courageous Career Club? Have you picked up your own copy of ‘Do What Matters; The Purpose Driven Career Transition Guidebook’? To find out how you can get your copy, as well as resources that go alongside it. Visit my website, www.KatherineAnnbyam.com or engage with me on the socials. I’m looking forward to hearing from you