Dispatches from Switzerland (and Italy) 👣

Hey friends!

I’m on my flight home from two amazing weeks in Europe. The first was on Lake Constanz about two hours east of Zurich where I facilitated a retreat for the Climate Breakthrough Project. I think of the Climate Breakthrough Project as the MacArthur Genius Award (and then some) for some of the most brilliant people working on climate change today. I have to tell you – after spending three days with these folks – both the awardees and the staff and board of CBP – I am feeling more optimistic than ever that we can make a difference on what is one of the greatest challenges of our time.

I met Bruce Nilles with the Rocky Mountain Institute. Previously he led the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign that played a significant role in preventing 90% of the new coal plants that had been proposed by Cheney’s secret energy task force back in the 00’s and is now well on it’s way to shutting down half of the coal plants in the country – and going for 100%. The bottom line is that coal is bad for everyone, especially the people who live downwind from the plant.

Now Bruce is working to accelerate our country’s transition off natural gas. We all know the dangers of fracking, but what I didn’t know is what a health hazard natural gas is in our own homes. It is not good for you. My takeaway is that we will be transitioning all of our appliances – hot water heater, stove/oven, dryer, and **gasp** our beloved firepit ASAP. We need a new hot water heater anyway, so that’s convenient. But when I asked Bruce how quickly we should prioritize the other appliances – which are rather new – Bruce said, “well, the world needed to be off fossil fuels yesterday, so now would be good.” All righty then. The good news is we went solar a few months ago so once we get off natural gas and get electric cars we will be off the grid minus my flights – which are by far the worst of everything combined.

Also there was a dear old friend, John Hepburn the co-founder of Unfriend Coal in Australia. He’s been working to strip away the social license of the big financial agencies who are insuring coal plants with tremendous success. Imagine you’re a coal company and you go to renew your business insurance – which I’m sure isn’t cheap – and the insurance company says, “oh, sorry, we don’t offer that any more.” That’s what John is up to. And he’s gotten through to all the major insurers in Europe and he’s coming to the US and Asia next. Watch out!

Then there’s May Mei, founder of GoalBlue, who is mobilizing hundreds of thousands of young people in China to eat less beef. Here’s the thing – in China as more and more people enter the middle class and become more affluent – eating beef is a status symbol. And China is doing a phenomenal job of elevating more and more people into the middle class – so watch out cows! But May is brilliantly tapping into social influencers and the youth and making it cool to eat less beef, and with more than a billion people living in China – it really adds up.

Then I met Tessa Khan who is a human rights lawyer from Bangladesh. She learned about a landmark case in Denmark where they successfully sued the government for not keeping faith with their human rights obligations by not adhering to what needs to be done to avert the worst effects of climate change. When Tessa learned about this case a couple of years ago, she decided to devote her entire life to using her expertise as a human rights lawyer to protect the people who will be most negatively impacted by climate change. When it comes to Tessa versus the government – any government- my money’s on Tessa!

Last but not least, I met Yang Fuqiang who is working with the government of China to design a consumption cap on oil, just like he helped them do a few years ago with coal. This is a really big deal and a really big bet. China’s fossil fuel emissions alone are significantly more than any other country on the planet, so their taking a voluntary step to cap it would make a big difference for all of us.

That’s just the awardees. The staff and board of the Climate Breakthrough Project were also each and every one of them extraordinary and brilliant and creative and committed unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They’re willing to make big bold bets and if their bets succeed, collectively it will account for about 10% of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that we need to realize as a planet by 2030. I mean – think about it – a small team of folks swinging for the fences to see to it that we’re 10% of the way there on averting the sixth mass extinction. What’s not to love about them? If you want to learn more check out their website.

So yeah, that was a good trip. And my takeaways were this:

(1)   Get rid of our natural gas appliances asap.

(2)   Try an impossible burger. Did you hear that Burger King has caused a worldwide shortage of these wonders of science? It’s happening.

(3)   A question inspired by the people I met: is climate change a technical problem or a spiritual/moral problem? Or both? I think it’s both. Yes – you can look at maps and graphs and substitute this form of water/food supply/energy supply for another and the geopolitics can sort itself out and in some ways it’s almost a no-brainer. All that’s lacking is the will power to do it. It’s not like we don’t know what needs to be done or that the technology doesn’t exist. But it’s also a spiritual/moral problem because the people who need to change are not the people who are most affected by the problem – which means people like me need to really put myself in the shoes of someone from Bangladesh who with rising sea levels will probably not be met at the Indian border with rainbows and unicorns but most probably pitchforks and guns. I just read that the city of Chennai is running out of water. 5 million people. Where will they go? Without a fierce spiritual/moral grounding – a deeply internalized sense of connection to all of the web of life – it’s just way too easy for me to go back to business as usual. How can I embed this into my daily life more firmly?

On a personal note, my family flew to Europe to meet me and we spent a week vacationing in the Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany regions of Italy. I have to tell you – it was the most relaxed I have been eating a meal with our children in the five years since Huck was born. We found remote farmhouses that practice what they call agriturisimo. Everything is farm to table fresh from that farm, even the wine. The food is so ridiculously good I cannot even tell you. I ate my face off in pasta and didn’t feel bloated or gain a pound. Is that just because they don’t use pesticides in their wheat like we do? Whatever they’re doing – it’s magnificent. And the farmhouses had outdoor playgrounds so the adults could leisurely dine in peace for hours while the children played on the swings, merry-go-rounds, and see-saws, zooming back and forth for a bite when they felt hungry. I feel so grateful for a real vacation with my family and wanted to share a picture with you of happy children playing in the fields while we ate our most delicious dinner of our lives. I hope each of you is able to do something rejuvenating and relaxing this summer, too.



It’s never enough. But sometimes you get a high five. 🙌

I have this persistent nagging sense that I’m not doing enough to make the world a better place. Is it just me? Or do you feel that way too, sometimes?

I feel that way a lot.

I go into a spiral worried about of all the things that are happening with global warming and then I think when you add a history of systemic violence and racism on top of that, sheesh – things are bad and they’re gonna get worse! And I want to do so much but I don’t know where to start.

It’s not particularly helpful for me to be in this state of mind. I mean, I know better. I know that this is just a “flee-forward” taking me out the present moment.

And yet…I do this all. the. time.

Last Sunday I was unusually despondent and my wife, Christine, said, “You know…maybe what you’re doing that is most helpful is through the Billions Institute – the things you love to do the most?….Maybe?”

Me: Nah. That’s not enough…it’s just not. (continues complaining about the future).

Christine (wisely) goes about doing something else around the house while I wallow in my doom and gloom.

This week a dear friend from my 100,000 Homes Campaign days, Linda Kaufman, was our house guest. Linda is an Episcopalian Priest and she told us about a time when she, too, felt despair. Her mentor told her, “Linda, as a Christian, you don’t have the luxury of despair.” Basically her mentor told her this: get your butt back to work.

You don’t have the luxury of despair.

Today I visited my acupuncturist and told her about my concerns and how I want to do something but I don’t know what. I said I’m especially worried about refugees and building my “welcoming muscles.”

Oh, she says, a friend of mine has helped settle five Syrian refugee families into Claremont over the past couple of years. Want me to put you in touch with her?


Sometimes it’s not about large-scale change. Sometimes it’s about blooming where you’re planted. That’s true for me at least.

I’ll get to my point now! This afternoon I received an email from Willemijn Keizer at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She came through our Skid Row School over a year ago. They’ve been working around the clock to help immigrants know their rights especially given the increase in ICE arrests and raids. They came up with this brilliant, creative, dare I say subversive idea: why not embed their rights into a song? And why not have a Latin Grammy award winning band, Flor de Toloache, sing that song? And maybe we should pump that song into communities where there are a lot of improper and illegal arrests being made.

How awesome is that?

Southern Poverty Law Center tells the story best here. The song is El Corrido de David y Gloiat and available on spotify and itunes. Please spread it far and wide. And great big salute to Willemijn and her colleagues at SPLC for being so stinkin’ creative!!

We like to say at the Skid Row School that when it comes to large-scale change, there are “many ways to many.”  Willemijn just dropped the mic on that one. And she wrote me a note to appreciate us for our (very small) role in provoking her and her friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center to think out of the box.

Which reminds me of the purpose of this letter: it’s never enough…but sometimes you get a high five. Willemijn – thank you for that high five! I needed that this week! Now that my heart is full with that high five (and tapping to the beat of El Corrido de David y Goliat) I want to offer to everyone who gets this newsletter this provocation: reach out to somebody who has encouraged or inspired you along the way and give them a high five before the day is done. Ready, go!


I don’t want to hear “I’m sorry.”

A couple years ago my wife, Christine and I went on a weekend getaway double-date with our good friends, Bob & Jane. I was so excited to see everyone and probably ate too much sugar that afternoon and Friday night I basically talked my face off to the three of them. Later that evening I realized that I had taken up more than my fair share of the air and I resolved to apologize to the group the next morning. 

So there I was, sitting in the back of Bob and Jane’s mini-van, on our way to some fun destination, and I sheepishly said, “Hey there, I realize that I was talking a lot last night and I’m sorry.” I figured that’d be it. End of story. Folks would appreciate me for being so enlightened and apologizing.


Without even a hint of anger in his voice, Bob said, “When people tell me they’re sorry, I usually interpret that to mean that they’re going to do it again. I don’t want to hear that you’re sorry, I want to hear what you’re committing to going forward.”

Oh. ok. I wasn’t expecting that. felt my cheeks get hot and a wave of embarrassment come over me. And by the way, the whole situation was even more awkward because there I was sitting in the back of the mini-van, like I was a kid or something.

Then I realized Bob was right. The challenge he issued was an incredible gift for me.

So I took a minute and thought about it and came up with this, “I commit to creating space for everyone to share what’s on their minds and to listening deeply to what you all have to say.”

That seemed to satisfy my friends and we went on to enjoy a lovely weekend together.

That was about 6 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. The power of commitment and the emptiness of an apology. Fast forward to this past week and I had the tremendous privilege of spending three days with our Billions Institute Fellows in Atlanta. Our time together included a day-trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. (The picture below is from the Memorial). 
First, let me just say this museum and memorial is a MUST VISIT for everyone who lives in the United States to begin to more fully grasp the terrorism inflicted on black people in this country that continues to this day. Especially for people who work to advance social change and/or social justice.

Second, I want to share one of my biggest learnings from my experience and the subsequent dialogues that we had in the fellowship. It builds upon the lesson I learned from my friend Bob all those years ago. Here’s my best understanding of what happens for me. When I as a person who identifies as white encounter the pain and suffering and trauma of Indigenous people or people of color, every instinct I have is to say, “I’m sorry” and obviously that is as deeply insufficient here as it was in the back of Bob’s mini-van. Then I want to leap to commitment – to action – to doing something – anything – to fix it and make it better. And absolutely yes, that is called for and appropriate. And yet – there’s something in the leaping to commitment and action in this case -for me- that represents a skipping over and a hurrying up and an “I don’t want to stay in this discomfort for another minute!!” that helps me know this is actually more about me relieving my discomfort than it is about anything else in that moment.

And this week one thing dialed in for me – that one thing I can do – one thing I can commit to, is to be with. To be fully with. To be fully present. To sit side-by-side and breathe with people I love and to acknowledge the pain and suffering and trauma. That this being with is doing something and whoo boy is it uncomfortable.

Kelsey Blackwell in her wonderful essay, “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People” summarizes this well with this:  “The only thing I want to hear from white people about race is, I’m sorry. I didn’t see. I didn’t listen. I’m working to see and listen now.

Listening deeply and being with are two of the most powerful transformation moves I can make. Period. That’s my biggest takeaway from last week and I re-commit to listening deeply and being with the people in my life. 


Four biggest mistakes made by leaders of large-scale change 😬

One of my favorite things to do is speak with alumni of our Skid Row School a few months after they’ve graduated. The phone calls often go something like this:


Exchange of pleasantries.


So, Becky…the Skid Row School was great and all but…we’re kind of stuck.


Tell me more….


Having fielded dozens of these calls now I want to share with you the most common ways folks get stuck while leading large-scale change (and what you can do about them):


4. Your aim is off. Too big or too small. We recommend something in between a 5 to 10x expansion over a similar time-period from your last wave of expansion. So if it took you 3 years to get your intervention to 100 schools, in the next 3 years you could aim for being in 500 to 1,000 schools.


If this is you, you may want to proactively change your shared agreements about how much, by when. One thing that often helps is to ask for one more year. Kind of how you can buy a vowel on Wheel of Fortune. You can usually buy a year if that’s what you need.


3. Theory lock has set in. We see this all too often. You’ve chosen which “all teach, all learn” structure from our “Many Ways to Many” tool and it’s not getting you the results you’d like. Instead of getting curious that maybe there’s a better way, some people double-down on tactics that just aren’t working. Remember, the whole point to there being many ways to many is that there are…many ways to many. Not just one. For a refresher on this, check out this SSIR piece by the same name. And feel free to poke around the Many Ways to Many tool and see what it recommends for you!


2.  A commitment is missing. Having a bold, quantifiable aim is one thing. Committing (and re-committing) to that aim is a whole other. It is in the committing that the aim comes to life. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way more times than I want to share. When things ain’t right, it’s at least work asking if somewhere a commitment is missing. While you cannot control objective reality, you can definitely control your decisions and actions. My mentor Katie Hendricks likes to say, “you know what you’re committed to by the results you’re getting.” Look at the results you are getting, and that will tell you what you’re committed to. If you don’t like it, time to make a new commitment. The sooner the better!


1. There’s a subconscious sabotage effort going on. This is the #1 most common challenge that I find when I’m working with our graduates and this is why we’re insistent on combining skills for personal transformation with skills for planetary transformation in all our workshops. It’s so easy to imagine that the problem is technical or “out there” but all too often it’s personal and “in here.” There’s a lot more to say about this but I’ll sum it up with four questions:

(1) what have you not faced?
(2) what have you not felt or acknowledged?
(3) What are you holding back from saying? and
(4) What are you holding back from doing?

Believe it or not, most of the time the answer that gets someone unstuck is in one of those four questions.

I hope this is helpful. Zip me a note and let me know if this struck a nerve. I wish you all the very best in your work to make this world a better place to live. 


What’s 🆕 and 🆒 @ the Billions Institute in 2019

I hope that your year is off to a terrific start. I had a terrible cold starting Christmas Eve but you know what? It was kind of wonderful to lay low and get a lot of rest. In between the sniffles and the coughs, I enjoyed copious amounts of laid back quality time with my family, so for that I am truly grateful. Plus antibiotics when you need them. Grateful for them, too. 😉

We hit the ground running last week with 52 folks flying in from as far away as the UK for our Skid Row School for Unleashing Large-Scale Change. This was our most thorough weaving together of the skills for personal transformation with the strategies/tactics for large-scale change to date. We also rolled out some new tools to help teams more clearly pinpoint some of the organizational dilemmas they’ll need to sort out on the way to scale. They were quite useful if I do say so myself.

We’ve also landed on a beautiful new location for our trainings, the Kellogg West Conference Center on the Cal-Poly campus in Pomona, CA. Check out the view above! There’s nothing like Southern California in the winter with 70 degree weather and snow-capped mountains! AND the hotel/meals package is about $100/night LESS than our previous location. We think it’s a keeper.

One of the questions that participants leaned into last week was “what are you morally obligated to get to everyone who can possibly benefit, regardless of their ability to pay for it?”

It’s a question we ask ourselves, too.

We’ve heard from some of you that you’d love to come to the Skid Row School but you don’t have enough time (4 days) or money ($3,000). Message received.

We will still continue to offer the Skid Row School twice a year (each January and June), we will also be creating these new ways for folks to benefit from our approach for designing and leading large-scale change even if you cannot afford to come to the Skid Row School. Coming soon in 2019:

  1. The podcast. Candid conversations with our alumni about the thrill of victory and agony of defeat when it comes to leading large-scale change.

  2. The book. I’m finally going to do it! I’m gonna write a book along the lines of “How to Save the World without Losing Yourself” that captures my best thinking on how to do just that.

  3. Dig Deep/Dream Big: Introduction to Unleashing Workshop. This workshop is a high level overview of our approach (the Model for Unleashing) that we cover more in-depth at the Skid Row School.  There is an emphasis on the first two parts of the model: Dig Deep and Dream Big. Participants will explore the overlap between what the world needs most and what you were put on this planet to do. Expect to leave with a clear vision for the change you seek and actionable next steps. At $795 for two days, we’re hoping this enables more people to benefit from our approach to designing and leading large-scale change. We’ll be running this for the first time March 27th – 28th at the Kellogg West Conference Center on the Cal-Poly campus in Pomona, CA. Learn more here.

  4. Next week we’ll get back to more regular musings on designing and leading large-scale change.

    Meanwhile, I look forward to being alongside you on your journey to make the world a better place and wish you the very best for a successful and joyful 2019!



We’ve got less than 20 years to get our sh%t together


The science is in. In case you missed it, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report warning that we’ve got less than 20 years to get our sh%t together or we’re in serious trouble. It’s happening much more quickly than had been anticipated.

An Oxford scientist says we have to turn the world economy on a dime. “To prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, the report said, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. It also found that, by 2050, use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent. Renewable energy such as wind and solar, which make up about 20 percent of the electricity mix today, would have to increase to as much as 67 percent.” {alumni of the Skid Row School – note the “direct the rider” play here – it’s not a mystery what we need to do}.

The past few years I have been doing my best to wrap my brain around climate change and grasp the implications. While no one knows for sure what will happen, here’s the most disturbing description that I’ve found so far. It’s not for the faint hearted so read at your own risk. But it’s also really important so please read it! Bottom line is it’s hard to imagine any aspect of our lives that wouldn’t be negatively impacted if any of these come true.

The same weekend this climate report was issued, our family was delighted to host Skid Row School alum and climate change leader John Hepburn of the Sunrise Project and his lovely family for a couple days last weekend. We were their final stop on their much deserved sabbatical. Over several home cooked meals with fresh vegetables picked right from our garden, we had many conversations about where the world is headed and what we can do about it. i came away from those conversations convinced that there is much to wring our hands about and yet there is so much more that we can be doing.

Both John and I had recently read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (a book I cannot recommend highly enough for those of you who are curious about what it means to be a human being). While I believe our species is on in the midst of creating the sixth great extinction, John reassured me from his read of Sapiens that the defining characteristic of our species is our capacity to create new a story and live into it. As we believe, so it becomes. And one glimmer of good news is that it doesn’t take that many people living into the new story to change the course of history (for better or worse). While John was in Peru he studied the history of the Inca Empire. It took them 40 years to do it, but a mere 180 conquistadors from Spain ended up conquering the whole empire – one with a massive standing army of at least 100,000 soldiers. The conquistadors had a new story (that was a lie) and unfortunately the Incas bought it. It changed the course of history forever.

I know this story took place 500 years ago and in this example the colonizers won. I know that things are different now. And yet I cannot help but wonder about what new (and truthful) stories we can start telling ourselves and start living into. I wonder how many of us it takes to reach a critical mass. I wonder how I/we might shift to a regenerative (vs extractive) way of being in the world. I wonder what my/our lives might be like beyond fossil fuels? What if they’re a whole lot better than we can even imagine? What if, as Buckminster Fuller says, over the next 20 years we can solve this problem then get on with our true purpose and destiny as human beings: to solve even bigger problems than this…that’d be kind of cool right?

One way or the other….the clock is ticking. The choices we make individually and collectively might matter more now than ever before. May we all tap into our best selves for the challenges ahead!

Onward into the unknown!


p.s. If somebody sent you this email, sign-up here to receive weekly inspiration and practical pointers on leading large-scale change.

p.p.s. If you’re ever in town, please come over for dinner and we promise not to be too depressing.


Skid Row School Alumni Jennifer Blatz CEO of StriveTogether gets a much deserved shout-out from this David Brooks’ piece in the NY Times about something that’s actually working well in America. Kudos, Jennifer and thank you for some good news!!

Upcoming Events

The January 2019 Skid Row School is now full though we are accepting folks on our waitlist just in case spots open up. The next available Skid Row School is June 25th – 28th, 2019. We are also available to bring the Skid Row School to groups of grantees for foundations on a case by case basis.

Graduates of the Skid Row School are invited to apply for our large-scale change leaders fellowship. We meet three times a year for three days at a time and deeply explore the adaptive challenges almost everyone leading large-scale change faces.

The next meeting of the fellows is February 5th – 7th, 2019, and will take place outside Atlanta, Georgia.It will include a tour of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

We offer scholarships to those who need financial assistance for both our Skid Row School and our fellowship. Give a shout if that’s you.