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  • Matt

Finding Our Sunlight

Life has flourished on the Blue Dot for 3.8 billion years, resiliently abiding in the immensity of cold space. Nature follows certain design principles that have allowed life to persist and adapt with hard-to-fathom resiliency. Life’s design is elegant, resource-optimizing, and long-lasting. Life evolves, innovates, and flows. The interconnected tapestry of aliveness is truly beautiful.

In contrast, we in Western society tend to overengineer things. We “heat, beat, and treat” materials to build products that conform to our wants. We construct bureaucratic structures that inhibit connection and creativity. We seek to control situations by using power to protect ourselves, rather than unleash the power of openness, diversity, and change. Why do we act this way? After all, we are part of Nature too!

Fortunately, pioneers such as Janine Benyus and Kathy Allen are helping us explore how to mimic Nature. Their work illustrates how to create products, relationships, programs, organizations, and communities using the same design principles Nature uses. Working with Kathy for the past 13 years, I have felt incredibly fortunate to be present as her thinking evolved, and to work with her to apply Nature’s principles to organizational and community life.

This blog is the first in a series about each of Nature’s design principles as I learned them from Kathy. I hope to be another voice helping to spread these transformative concepts like a “beneficial virus.” If enough of us start thinking and acting like Nature, perhaps we can shift the tide of personal, communal and environmental harm that undermines life on the Blue Dot.

Nature’s Design Principle #1: Nature runs on Sunlight

Nature runs on Sunlight. OK…um…what does that mean for us? Well, sunlight is a ubiquitous, free source of energy. Photosynthesis transforms the Sun’s pervasive energy into myriad forms that support life on Earth. This raises provocative questions for us, such as: what is our version of sunlight? What is the free energy that powers us? And what is the “photosynthesis” that transforms that energy so we can grow, flourish, and be supported?

When I worked in philanthropy, people often assumed that charitable money was like sunlight. If you got a grant, it would make a program come alive. In a way, they were right. Charitable funds CAN be a powerful energy source. But money alone doesn’t create life. Sunlight that falls on the moon creates a pretty sight at night, but there’s no life there. In the same way, charitable funds can’t create healthy community life. There must be “photosynthesis” functions in place that can transform money into life-supporting activities. Examples of photosynthesis in community are things like trusting relationships, open information-sharing, and willingness to set aside competing interests for the common good. I observed that, when foundations and grantees put too much emphasis on money, they lost touch with the vital need for photosynthesis. Too often, charitable-money-as-energy landed where conditions were ill-suited to support community life for very long.

Individuals can also benefit from asking, “what is my sunlight?” What is the free energy source that makes me feel alive, curious, connected, caring, and creative? It might be hobbies, being involved in community, or important relationships. At the core, I believe we all share a basic energy source of love. This starts with self-love and a foundational gratitude for the opportunity to be alive. When we can source our “sunlight” internally through self-love, we are better able to create healthy external conditions that support and spread that love. In this way, we put into place our own “photosynthesis” to transform the energy of love into a life that is connected, purposeful, and worth living.

We can use this same sunlight/photosynthesis metaphor in all aspect of life: our important relationships, families, teams, work committees, etc. What is the sunlight and what is the photosynthesis required to turn that energy into vibrant forms of life? This question can serve as an ongoing inspiration for discernment, innovation, and strategic thinking.

For me, learning functions as a type of sunlight. I love to learn about people, ideas, and human potential. My photosynthesis is finding ways to help people seek out their highest, best selves as individuals, organizations, and communities. In this way, I turn the energy of my natural curiosity into consulting work that is life-giving for both my clients and me.

And so, I offer up this closing:

May we all know our Sunlight, foster its photosynthesis, and create loving lives worth living.


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