PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: How To Live A More Meaningful Life

PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: How To Live A More Meaningful Life
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We sat down with PSFK 2017 speaker and No Impact Man Colin Beavan who discussed how you can give back to the world from right where you are

Emily Wasik
  • 16 may 2017

When people think about what it means to embrace the ‘YOLO’ mentality, they often think of being part of a flash dance mob, zorbing, slugging tomatoes at La Tomatina or going to Burning Man. But what if embracing “YOLO” wasn’t about material possessions and temporary highs but about embracing the fact that you really do only live once, so perhaps you should think about actually having a meaningful impact on the world?

Colin Beavan wanted to tackle this question of “what it truly means to live a meaningful life?” head-on with his experiment No Impact Man 10 years ago. And no he didn’t voyage off to buddhist retreat in Nepal or get certified in reiki. Rather, he stripped back every single consumer-based element of his life, and by that I mean virtually all of the comforts of modern living—from electricity to gas-powered transportation to shipped food to public waste disposal—in a drastic effort to curb his environmental impact on the world. And he didn’t just do it alone. He brought his wife and toddler along for the eco-friendly ride too.

And what did he discover? Here’s his mic drop moment.  He realized that, without a lot of modern conveniences,  creating space in his life actually allowed for things that actually make people happy like free time, relationships, and pursuing his passions.

At PSFK 2017, Colin will discuss methodologies for finding more purpose and meaning in your life and how you can give back to the world from right where you are.

Want to know more? Come see Colin speak at our PSFK 2017 conference on Friday May 19. Buy a ticket today before it sells out!



Emily:  You’ve come along way from your No Impact Man days to the work you’re currently doing. For those of our readers who aren’t familiar with your acclaimed project 10 years ago, can you give us a rundown on how you got to where you are today?

Colin: In 2007, I started a project in New York City, where I lived environmentally as possible called No Impact Man in an attempt to answer questions about whether our consumer-based way of life actually made us happy and whether we could continue with it if we expect to keep our planet safe.

Since then, I’ve been speaking around the world and running workshops. People have asked, “How can I live a life where I feel as though I’m having a meaningful impact on the world, but also where I’m prosperous and abundant?”

I’ve developed a number of exercises for people and ways of being that help people to answer that question for themselves. That’s what my more recent book is about, which is called, “How to be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World.”

Which parts of this zero impact lifestyle have you kept to this day and which did you end up giving up?

I like to joke that I’m no longer No Impact Man. I’m Medium Impact Man. Eating food that’s good for you is a no-brainer. It turns out that the food that’s the most sustainable is also the food that’s healthiest for you.

Using active as opposed to passive transportation allows you to get exercise as part of your daily routine and research also shows that active commuters, that means walkers and bikers, have a higher quality of life than people that use cars.

There’s so many other adaptations to my life, including living in my community, that are both better for the habitat, better for my local and wider community, and better for me.

Most importantly, what I keep and maintain is the idea that it’s possible for any one of us to have a meaningful impact on the world and that actually striving towards helping our local and wider planetary community makes us happier.

What do you think was the most beneficial change to your lifestyle that was brought upon by the project?

I will say more than one thing first. A concrete understanding of the fact that we’re all in this together, climate change is the first time where all of humanity has literally been on the same ship. There’s no point in trying to get the best stateroom anymore. We all have to work to keep the ship afloat.

Understanding that is actually a consolation. Think that we’re not separate. We’re not alone. Also, it helped me to be more present to my life. It helped me to ask, “What are my priorities?” which includes a much more present father than I would’ve otherwise been.

When was your passion for having a meaningful impact on the world first sparked?

My passion is for people to live happy, fulfilling lives in a safe world. It turns out that just at the moment there’s a correspondence between living unsustainably and fairly deep human unhappiness.

What sparked me taking a look at those things in terms of living green was a combination of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars where people were literally dying for our energy numbering in the hundreds of thousands, seeing what burning those fossil fuels is doing to our habitat, and also seeing that those hundreds of thousands of lives lost for energy didn’t seem to be creating the happiest lifestyle for people.



Obviously the current political climate, it goes against your mission to wake people up to ways of life and doing business that are healthier and happier for our world. What do you see as the biggest challenges to the environment, consumerism and, in general, human quality of life that we’re going to face in Trump’s America?

A lot of the reason why we’re not doing what we need to do as a society is because we’re trying to preserve institutions that we think we need, Exxon or the coal industry. One big challenge is to remember that the institutions are supposed to serve people. People aren’t supposed to serve the institutions.

We need to be less scared of getting rid of institutions that don’t serve us anymore. Also, we have to differentiate between crooked and self-serving leaders, and oppressed people on both sides of the political equation.

We have to learn to truly listen to each other, and be compassionate with each other, and to have conversations that bypass the leaders who are invested in our separateness. If we want to move forward, we’re going to have to find, move away from the us and them mentality and towards what I call the only us mentality.

Do you have any advice or ideas on steps (both big and small) that we could take to do that?

I think, to become civically engaged and to participate in our democratic institutions. That’s one thing. To go to that in the spirit of love and compassion, not fear and anger and to try and spread love and compassion within those institutions rather than fear and anger, don’t cop out. Fear and anger’s a cop out.

A wise person ignores the bad and builds the good. The second becomes what can we build? What parallel systems can we build in our businesses today that actually bring about the good that we want in the world?

You said in a former interview that you can’t change the values of a culture through legislation. Instead, you actually have to change the culture. Can you elaborate on what you meant by this?

Social change, it’s a two-step dance. Legislation that’s too far ahead of the culture doesn’t work. It’s unenforceable. At the same time, legislation can only be a little bit ahead of the culture.

You need to push the culture ahead of the legislation. Then, once you’ve pushed the culture beyond the legislation, then you can change the legislation again.

If you want to regulate carbon out of the system, one of the things you have to do is begin to actually help people choose ways of living that are not carbon intensive.

Look at marriage equality, for example. The marriage equality movement began in San Francisco, to recognize same sex domestic partnerships. Ultimately the reason why it was possible to even think about the recognition of same sex domestic partnerships in San Francisco is because the culture was already there.

Then, the recognition of civil unions was recognized. Then that brought the culture of San Francisco even further ahead, also through the work of activists who were working both on legislators but also working to change the attitudes of the public.

Once domestic partnerships were recognized, then the culture moved forward and passed a law so that it was possible to actually looking at gay marriage itself. Then, of course, that swept across the country. You culturally reduce homophobia.

Then you manage to get some sort of domestic partnership legislation further, which, in itself, further reduces homophobia. It causes the culture to change and you work on changing the culture. Then you can take a step further in the legislation.

Do you see what I mean? Cultural change and legislative change are a two-step process.

You also once said once that “Collective action is at the root of liberal ideology and individual action is at the root of conservative ideology. To straddle individual and collective action, it feels like you’re betraying your political heritage.” Could you give us an overview on what you meant by that?

They say that liberals love groups and hate individuals and conservatives love individuals and hate groups or something like that. There’s a real difference in the ideology.

When No Impact Man came along, it was interesting because I got a lot of conservative fans and I got a little bit of push back from progressives, because progressives want a community, typically speaking. Progressives want to work with groups and conservatives want to work with individuals, individual freedoms, individual rights, individual punishment.

No Impact Man was this weird hybrid of pushing a progressive agenda through conservative methodology. I didn’t know that at the time. I discovered that afterwards. That’s why I got emails from people saying, “I hate Al Gore but I love you.” I also got emails from progressives saying, “This is bad.”

It turns out that, actually, if we want real change then we have to be willing to look at both.

I know you spend a lot of time examining happiness in your newest book. What are some of the things that make you truly happy?


Not putting money before time, so having leisure time. Having the freedom to use my time in line with what feels authentic to me. Having the privilege to use the talents that I treasure within myself, that I’m good at, and also enjoy using. Both of those things, being authentic and using my talents in a way that’s good to my community. Feeling as though I use those things in ways that help my local and wider community and that is recognized by my community.

If there is one message that you want people to take away from your work, what would it be?

We have the power to change our own lives and the lives of those around us. You just have to pick it up.

If you could go back and give the younger you advice about starting out with the work that you do, what would that advice be?

Do it in a community instead of just with my family.

Why is that?

Because it’s really hard to embark on a new course of life without the support of people who share your values. If you really want to radically change your life the first thing to do is go and find a bunch of other people who are changing their lives in the same way.

When you chose to do it with just your wife and your daughter, how did that year affect your family?

For all three of us, really, it caused us to examine who we were and how we wanted to live in our lives. It’s like a ball of string. You can’t have a paradigm of reexamining your values in one area of your life without it happening in every facet of your life.

This is why so many of us are scared to actually ask, “Who am I?” Once we get into it, we’re scared it’s going to change everything. I think for all three of us, we developed a habit of self-examination and moving off in line with our value.

How old’s your daughter now?

Bella is 12.

Do you think that this more mindful way of life has become ingrained in her, considering she’s grown up with it from such a young age?


It’s part of Bella. She’s traveled around the world with me and been at so many talks, she handed out flyers when I ran for Congress and has, also, a big part in Soul Centered Mom.

It was when she was a toddler but all of this stuff, she’s been imbued with this stuff ever since. Who knows where she’s going to go, what will happen with her, but she is not your typical consumerist kid. That’s for sure.

Sometimes. One time I was giving a talk and somebody said, “I have a question for Bella.” She said, let me see if I can remember exactly, “What do you do when you feel worried about climate change?”

Bella said, “Well, first I tell myself, ‘Calm down.’ Then I say, ‘What can I do about it?'”

To wrap up, can you give us a hint on what you’ll be touching on at the conference?

I was going to talk about methodologies for finding more purpose and meaning, and getting into how you can give back to the world from right where you are.

Not once you find a new job or something, but how in your current circumstances can you figure out a way to bring yourself more purpose and meaning.

Thanks for your time, Colin!

Colin Beavan’s writing, speaking, consulting and activism have encouraged tens of thousands of people to examine their lives to discover what’s really important to them. The resulting “transformative adjustments” that people make allow them to live more in line with their true values and aspirations, both for their own lives and the world. It is Colin’s mission to wake people up, on both individual and collective levels, to ways of life and doing business that are healthier and happier for individuals, for our society, and for our world.

When people think about what it means to embrace the ‘YOLO’ mentality, they often think of being part of a flash dance mob, zorbing, slugging tomatoes at La Tomatina or going to Burning Man. But what if embracing “YOLO” wasn’t about material possessions and temporary highs but about embracing the fact that you really do only live once, so perhaps you should think about actually having a meaningful impact on the world?

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