Here's My Journey from Nature Kid to joeabe.com

My niche, the heart of joeabe.com, is helping life-enhancing leaders like you redefine success to reclaim your life and our future.  It’s my business to help you get from Where You Are to Your ideal, Unique Niche in a Just, Living Economy.

But the clarity I feel today wasn’t always there.  Here’s my story of how I found my niche and my innate gifts, including lessons learned, “aha” moments, and how I overcame adversity, cultural barriers and self-doubt.  I’ve tried my best to package these mini-stories to help you get to know me better and help frame my experiences in ways that can help you on your journey.

My childhood, for the most part, was a happy one.  I had a strong imagination, an inventive spirit and keen curiosity about nature and science.  This manifested in basement and backyard projects and science fair exhibits, such as constructing a goldfish pond, designing an ecology experiment with mason jars, and building go-carts.  I played in the woods in my neighborhood, fished and swam in my family’s country getaway, played sports and led a quiet, unassuming childhood and adolescence.  However, like most of us, my life also included some traumas: 

Imagine being back in kindergarten.    I am coloring a goldfish bowl outlined on a white piece of paper, trying your best to stay within the lines.  I look around to see how other kids are doing.  Am I doing what I’ve been asked to do?  Suddenly, I feel a presence behind me.  A giant of a woman, Mrs. Adams, is observing my work.  I continue working, but feel uneasy about the presence behind me.  Suddenly, she bellows loudly for all to hear in a mean, condescending voice:  Why are you using purple?  Everyone else is using a blue crayon!  I was mortified.  I felt the glare of the other kids.  My picture seemed just like everyone else’s.  What had I done that angered this intimidating woman?  I had no idea what I had done to provoke such a response and like most kids, I was just trying to fit in.

Fast forward to high school.  We’re in gym class, something I generally enjoyed and looked forward to each day. But today was different.  We are herded upstairs into an area of the school I never been to, down a narrow, tiled corridor.   We waited in line, wondering what was going on in front of us.  As I get closer to the front of the line, I see that some sort of testing is taking place.  Now it’s my turn.  The school nurse shows me a series of charts with lots of dots, and asks me:  What do you see?  I see numbers in some of the charts.  Others are just a meaningless constellation of dots.  Very abruptly she announces for all to hear:  “You are severely color blind!”  What did she mean? I thought I saw the world just like everyone else.  As a teenager, already awkward about the changes happening to me, I was just trying to find my way, be popular and fit into this new high school thing.  Was I different from everyone else?  What did she mean by color blind?  Why did I just learn this?  How would this affect me?

Up until that fateful day, I had no idea that I saw the world differently than most people.  I am red-green color blind, which affects about 8 percent of the male population and a much smaller percentage of females.   

What are the the key lessons from this part of my story?

  • Society continues to be insensitive to differences in people that deviate from what is considered “normal.”  My slight limitation with color blindness has also made me more sensitive to those with far greater struggles and my own tendency be insensitive to differences.
  • Our education/career development system, while making strides in some areas, still needs fundamental transformation.  We need to meet people where they are, celebrate their diversity and guide people to develop their brilliance throughout their lives.  
  • Blindness exists in many forms.  This includes how society holds onto broken mental models even when they no longer work. 
  • Don’t wallow in your weaknesses.  Instead find and develop your GENIUS to serve others and make the world a better place.

How am I using and connecting the above insights?

Ironically, my shortcoming in distinguishing colors is offset by MY SUPERPOWER VISIONI have an unusual knack to see connections, see the world as it is, and how it might be.  I can visualize across great expanses of space and time to discern patterns, possibilities and solutions.  I can often see the edges of people’s paradigms, their perspective of how the world works.  I can often quickly understand whether an organization is healthy or dysfunctional. 

How am I using my SUPERPOWER VISION? 

The dominant model of success is broken.  This model contributes to society’s blind pursuit of growth and consumption, even when it is trashing our lives, our Planet and our future.  I am using my VISION to develop, apply and share the Business Ecology Success Model.

Funny how nature often compensates for deficiencies in one area with even greater strength in another.

Those close to you often see unique talents or abilities that we don’t usually recognize because they are second nature.  We assume everyone has them.  My older brother John (an Irish twin, just 14 months older) blurted out in frustration on more than one occasion:  “You think everything is connected to everything else.  They’re not!’

John, who like many folks in society, was very comfortably fitting things neatly into specific boxes.  Frustrated with his younger brother, he tried to convince me that I had some sort of flaw in seeing connections.  In reality, he saw something in me that defined my uniqueness.  I have an innate ability to see connections among diverse topics that others simply don’t  see.

The lessons here:

  • If you’re not sure what your special gifts are, ask those close to you:  What do you see is special about me? What do I do effortlessly that others often struggle with?
  • Or, as it happened to me, listen carefully to how others describe you.  What they think is a flaw, may be hidden, incredible strength – something the world desperately needs.
  • I believe we are at a moment in history where systems thinkers and those able to “connect the dots” are most needed.  For instance, great examples are Robert Lustig, Nate HagensArthur Brooks, and Kate Raworth.  Is this a talent that you have?  If so, ask:  How can I use it to help others and the world?

Growing up, one of my earliest superheroes was Mighty Mouse.  As a small child, my mantra was “The smaller they are, the mightier they are!”  I resonated with the “Here I come to save the day!” message and the extraordinary powers of this miniature superhero.  Mighty Mouse showed up when things looked most desperate and performed amazing feats like flying, lifting buildings and stopping trains that seemed to defy the laws of gravity and our common understanding of the usual outcome of cat versus mouse encounters.  He took on villainous cats, like Oil Can Harry, to save a pretty mouse damsel in distress, usually in just a nick of time. 

The lessons here:

  • We face a similar, but very real calamity today.  Today’s damsel in distress is our mother Earth. Today’s villain is the juggernaut of indiscriminate growth, consumerism, and debt-based money that enriches the very few in the short term at the expense of most people, the Planet and our future.  Aside from trashing the Planet and impoverishing the masses, the take, make, consume and throwaway juggernaut cannot deliver on its promises of happiness, a rosy future and personal fulfillment.
  • Now let’s shift from our short-term, human perspective to a long-term, planetary view.  Earth will likely survive without us.  It is a superorganism that may remove or destroy human beings just as our bodies might attack pathogens.  Over its 4.6 billion years, Earth has dealt with far greater calamities caused by extinction-level events.   Afterward, life rebooted into new and different global ecosystems and climates.  On our present course, our Planet will likely evolve to be uninhabitable for most life present today, including human beings. 
  • While it’s still possible to change our course, can we, and will we, evolve fast enough to make the shift from today’s unsustainable path to a Just, Living Economy?  I remain hopeful that we can and we will.  But like the Mighty Mouse cartoon, time is running out.
  • Was my childhood fascination with Mighty Mouse a foreshadowing of my awakening to the hidden superhero in me? My intention today is to use my vision of redefining success to help others find their niche and tap their superpowers to collectively avoid economic-ecological catastrophe, and instead, create a Just, Living Economy
  • What will my story and your story be as we confront this colossal challenge? 
  • What will future generations say about us?  Will we find and tap the superpowers within each of us, and like Mighty Mouse, save the day?

Do you fear showing the brilliant light that is within you?  Do you fear how living your story might damage or destroy relationships that you cherish?  These fears are common for those of us who dare to live the story we were born to live.  These fears are often deep-seated – the result of deep family, educational and cultural conditioning.  Here is my story toward the beginning of my career.

I was nearing the completion of high school.  I was a very good student, but not the brightest in my graduating class of Bishop Denis J. O’Connell, a Catholic high school in Arlington, Virginia.  I didn’t have a clue of what I wanted to do with my career or even what college I wanted to attend.  I was really tired of the 12-years of faith-based education treadmill I had been on, and deep inside I felt–I knew, I needed a break to figure out my life’s direction.

My dad, in contrast, had a very definite idea.  I was going to college, especially a state university! My dad, everyone called him “Al”, had been a poor student, but an accomplished athlete at Ridgely High, near his home in Wiley Ford, West Virginia.  His poor grades directed him to going to work, joining the Army, working for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and then joining the corporate world- climbing from clerk (and working side gigs like real estate) to a management position at the Washington Gas Light company.  Realizing the struggles and obstacles he faced, he wanted a better path for his children.  

Dad’s hard-charging path, by the way, led to a heart attack when he was 47 when I was a high school junior.  He recovered and lived to be almost 83.  Later in life he grew to love nature and grew in wisdom – advising me to:  Take time to enjoy life.  “When you have good health, you have everything.  “Family is important.”

While dad’s vision for me going to college was long-held, we didn’t really discuss it.  It was understood.  When I said I planned to go to college, but right now I needed a break, he exploded:  Why do you think your mother and I have been working so hard to give you the opportunity to go to college?  What would your classmates and our neighbors think?

Does this sound familiar?  I ended up going to Virginia Tech almost clueless, following in the footsteps of my older brother John.  I started out in pre-dentistry.  My reasoning:  I wanted a good-paying job that would give me the freedom to live and work on my own terms.  Did I really know what dentists did or the education/training involved?  Hell no!  But it sounded good. Then I got a wake up call.  In my first quarter at Tech, I received a D in genetics while getting A’s or Bs in all other classes was a wake up call. I was totally confused. I realized later that my advanced biology course in high school had not laid ample groundwork for a college level genetics class.

Recognizing my struggle, Dad intervened again.  “You’re good at math and science.  Why don’t you become a geologist.”  Dad had a geologist friend at the Washington Gas Light Company who must have suggested this path.  Did I know what geologists do?  Hell no again!  But I completed my B.S. in Geology while also working for the U.S. Geological Survey as a student hydrologist.  That detour with the U.S.G.S.’ Water Resources Division gave me a break from classwork and exposed me to other options, especially in the environmental field.

There are several lessons here: 

  • Society, then and now, does a really shitty job helping people find their niche in life. 
  • Our education system is designed to produce workers who fit nicely into the cultural-political-economic “system”, not creative, heart-centered entrepreneurs who might turn the economic system on its head and make the world a better place.
  • Follow your gut instinct and your heart.  It turns out, my idea of taking a year off was way ahead of its time.  Countries like Australia now offer “gap years” between high school and college to give students a chance to discover their life’s purpose.
  • Make well-being central to your life, business and personal economy.
  • Replace the “rat race” model of success with one based on cultural and natural wisdom.

As long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for understanding success beyond the traditional metrics of western culture, especially the game of material acquisition.  

My experience in a private Catholic high school revealed the considerable disparities in income between families attending the same school.  I was from a middle income family.  We lived in a modest home and all of us were expected to do chores and get jobs to help pay for recreational expenses and dates.  Some of my privileged friends or acquaintances lived in mansions which afforded them other advantages such as private tennis lessons, trips abroad or ski adventures to the Rockies.  It became pretty clear at an early age that those who started economically privileged generally had a leg up on the rest of us.

Early in my career, I was drawn to the concepts of time management, especially the Franklin-Covey system.  This introduced the concept of having an internal compass based on one’s values.  This led naturally to understanding the profound impact of habits have on one’s life.  However, the concept of finding one’s life purpose did not come along until later.

Similarly, while others were drawn to making a big income, my passion was making a difference, especially with the environment.  I bought into the false premise that you had to choose one or the other.  I realize today that you can both – you make a difference  and profit as well.

The lessons here:

  • Time is the great equalizer.  Become more aware of how you use your time. 
  • Develop daily rituals and habits that support your journey toward your ideal niche
  • Be aware of your values and develop an internal compass to stay true to your story.
  • You can make a profit and a difference by bringing your brilliance to serve others you were born to serve.

It was 1988.  I was working at the U.S. EPA headquarters in Waterside Mall along M Street in Washington, DC, an area not far from where the cherry blossoms celebrate the coming of spring.  The year before I had joined EPA’s Waste Management Division after escaping a brief stint at the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  I was working on monitoring regulations and clean-up of solid and hazardous waste sites.  While I enjoyed the professionals that I worked with, something began to gnaw at me.  Sitting in my windowless office in a poorly ventilated former warehouse of a nearby Safeway grocery story, an epiphany came to me:

Did I really want to spend my career cleaning up other peoples’ messes (waste) caused by poor decision-making?  How could I swim upstream to where the decisions were being made to effect real change?

When an opportunity arose in EPA’s Office of Policy, Planning and Evaluation, Strategic Planning and Management Division, I acted on my instincts and landed the job.  I worked for a while in the Environmental Results Branch, a group charged with developing better indicators of environmental progress.  Most of the agency seemed focused on administrative indicators like the number of permits issued and did a less than stellar job reporting on whether the waters, air and land were actually being protected or restored.  I realized that the whole environmental movement was built on legislation directed at controlling human discharges to the air, water and land and the premise that industry and society had a right to pollute.  Further, environmental regulation was always playing catchup, with new chemicals and technologies posing new challenges every day and EPA’s mindset was stuck in protecting public health and did little to protect or conserve the nonhuman environment.

The lessons here:

  • Society has a strong tendency to address symptoms while ignoring the root problems.  For instance, our healthcare system tends to focus on providing drugs and doing surgery, but does a poor job of addressing the root causes of chronic disease.  Our food system, culture and lifestyle are slowing killing us. Most of us are overweight and malnourished, don’t  get enough exercise, are sleep-deprived, stressed out, and time challenged.
  • I have an innate ability to dig deep and see the root causes of problems.  I am using my gift to help me and others redefine success to reclaim our lives and our future.  What is your gift?
  • Society often pays attention to and measures the wrong things.  We need to replace “growth and consumption” with “enhancing wellbeing” as society’s goal.  We need new indicators to support and track this shift.

One day in 1989 I was presented with a unique and exciting opportunity:  Did I want to help be part of a small team developing a foresight capacity for the EPA?  I jumped at the idea even though my direct supervisor warned me that I was making a serious, potentially career-ending decision.  In fact, it was just the opposite. 

I became a chief architect of what became the EPA’s Futures Staff, an entrepreneurial group charged with developing the agency’s ability to anticipate environmental problems.  I developed the blueprint for our group’s work.  This included looking at early warning indicators (population, behavioral changes), sectoral analysis (e.g., energy, agriculture, manufacturing), and emerging issues (e.g., climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, habitat destruction).  Our small group was a natural complement to the already established Pollution Prevention Division, which developed partnerships with industry in different economic sectors such as energy and transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing.  We developed numerous partnerships with groups like the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Royal Dutch Shell, Batelle, World Resources Institute, Global Business Network, Rocky Mountain Institute, The Futures Group, and the Institute for Alternative Futures to support our foresight work including numerous reports, scenario planning, Delphi (expert panels), a Futures speakers program and other tools to help EPA get ahead change to be more effective.

One day I wandered into the office of Dave Bassett, an engineer/meteorologist/inventor working in the Pollution Prevention Division.  Dave and I hit it off immediately and have remained good friends and collaborators ever since that fateful day.  He had a large drawn-to-scale diagram of the entire U.S. energy and transportation system on the wall of his office.  With the sources of energy shown at the top with varying widths of arrows, drawn to scale flow lines showing how energy was used or wasted, the human needs being met (comfort, transport, making things) and the pollution resulting from the current energy system.  This brilliant “systems view” provided a lens for seeing and leveraging opportunities for transforming the U.S. energy and transportation system to meet human needs while dramatically reducing our footprint.  Eventually, Dave and our Futures staff worked together to enhance his systems diagram by adding the existing and future policy levers (tax reform, subsidy shifts) for shifting the system toward more sustainable options (energy efficiency, renewable energy and demand management).  Mike Brylawski, one of our several student interns who worked for the Futures Staff,  brought our new product to a chance meeting with then Vice-President Al Gore.  From a reliable source within the White House, we found out later that Gore had placed the policy-systems chart on the wall of his office.

Importantly, my work in the Futures Staff exposed me to cutting edge thinking and transdisciplinary research in areas such as industrial ecology, sustainable development and systems thinking.  I thrived in this sort of environment.  I had the unique privilege to attend a very special meeting held in Snowmass, Colorado hosted by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the visionary organization founded by Amory and Hunter Lovins.  I traveled there on my own nickel to avoid potential conflict of interest or other issues that bureaucracies tend to raise.  Other attendees included Paul Hawken, Donella Meadows, David Orr, and a host of very bright RMI staff and interns.  During that occasion, Amory handed me a short paper written by VISA founder Dee Hock, because of my interest in viewing organizations as living systems.  That paper gave me the courage to continue my path of discovery toward Business Ecology.

The lessons here:

  • Personal growth takes courage, leaving your comfort zone, taking action and persistence.
  • Be ready and open to new opportunities.
  • Other people, especially close friends and colleague, often help us on our journey.  Be open to their insights, support  and suggestions.

In the summer of 1995, I left the federal government to write Business Ecology:  Giving Your Organization the Natural Edge and founded a nonprofit based on its principles.  It started with a paper I wrote:  “Business Ecology:  Bringing New Life to the Marketplace.”  When I tried to get this paper published it was rejected.  I was told it contained too much information, but it would likely be the basis for a new book.  Later and after much work and collaboration, the book was published in 1998.

The Business Ecology Network received 501(c)(3) status in February 1997 and hosted or participated in several Business Ecology Roundtables.™  At that time, BEN did not succeed as expected a few important reasons:  (1) the business model was way ahead of its time and not fully developed, (2) the founder, while passionate about its mission, did not have had sufficient skills and an established professional network to draw upon, (3) the State of Maryland  and the world was less receptive to green business opportunities, and (4) what I was offering was not focused sufficiently on meeting needs of customers I was born to serve. These factors are not valid today.

The lessons here:

  • As a leader or guide, don’t get too far ahead of those you wish to lead.    Meet people where they are and let them take steps as they are able and willing.
  • Know who you wish to help and understand their needs.  Offer to help them without charging them to hone your offerings and build credibility, trust and respect.
  • Nothing succeeds like an idea whose time has come.  The world is ready for Business Ecology.

Since my time with the federal government, I also have the benefit of working as economic development/energy consultant for a D.C. environmental nonprofit, got laid off, worked odd jobs, got trained and certified by the Coach Training Alliance, developed web development/social media skills, got rehired, and worked more than fifteen years for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on coastal management, state-federal coordination and advancing Maryland’s work on climate adaptation and sustainability. 

More recently in my journey, I’ve become aware of two additional innate, complementary gifts that support my Niche – marketing and storytelling.   Recent investments in myself, including the completion of Marisa Murgatroyd’s Start with You™ program, enrolling in Marie Forleo’s lifetime B-School and Time Genius programs,  and completing MUSE Storytelling’s “The Science of Storytelling” have yielded tremendous returns to me.  The programs helped me uncover and articulate what I already knew deep inside and revealed new insights about myself and my journey. 

The lessons here:

  • Investing in yourself is the best investment you can make.   Returns on investment include increased well-being, skills and knowledge, better relationships and steady, sometimes dramatic progress in achieving your goals.  You’ll exude confidence, generosity and value.
  • Set rituals everyday to meditate, focus, be grateful, exercise, learn, play, connect, and give to feed every dimensions of your well-being.  This will help you stay consistently focused and energized  to be the change you wish to see.
  • Each of us has a story and special gifts to share with the world. Be open to insights and help from others along your journey.  When you can, light the path for others.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.  We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

If you’re like me, you see all kinds of changes and solutions that we need to make fast to save our butts from ourselves and shift toward a Just, Living Economy.  Here’s the critical “aha” that I only recently fully embraced.  If you want to change the world, focus on changing yourself every day.  Ironically,  when I say “change yourself” I really mean tuning into your authentic self –the being that existed before you were born – the timeless, divine spirit whose essence is infinite love, creativity,  joy, generosity and power.

For most of my life and career, I have focused on solving “environmental problems” using science and technology as the foundation for solutions to fit within the current human social-economic system.  Further, as pointed out in Business Ecology, the environmental movement has largely applied reactive, end-of-pipe solutions to mitigate an evergrowing list of environmental problems caused by a poorly designed economic system.  Overtime, I’ve realized that the real problem is our mental model of success – one based on growth, consumption, ego and debt based money

Our world is presently experiencing broad cultural, scientific, technological, and economic shifts.  There is a dire need to frame and guide these shifts with time-tested cultural and natural wisdom.  

At a global level, there is an awakening to an ultimate truth – consciousness is the life energy of the universe and that energy is available within each of us and all existence.  During the course of humankind’s story, spiritual leaders and mystics have pointed to this reality.  More recently, modern science, in particular quantum physics, has come to the same conclusion regarding the ultimate essence of reality – consciousness.

The lessons here:

  • For most of my life, I’ve made spirituality a part of my existence.  However, I’ve sometimes neglected this core aspect of my being.  Further, I haven’t fully understood the practical and life-enhancing benefits of spiritual practices such as gratitude, meditation, prayer, mindfulness and generosity.  If we are spiritual beings having a human experience, then it makes sense to tap and feed our core identity every day to bring our best to the world.
  • We will not think or innovate our way out of our current economic-social-ecological crisis without shifting our values, perspective and behavior.  This transformation happens when we fire up and feed the divine spark within each of us to live powerfully in the present.  Science and technology need to be guided by deeper cultural and natural wisdom that’s available to all of us.  When we use our inner guidance system,  imagination and life-based success principles to shape our decisions and actions, we transform our lives, work and personal economies to support the BIG SHIFT.

All of the above experiences in my life journey have given me the clarity, energy and focusing tools I need to start and grow My Ideal Niche:

I am a success architect, trainer and coach for life-enhancing leaders like you.   It’s my business to help you get from Where You Are to Your Ideal Niche—your zone of maximum well-being, effectiveness and influence.  Drawing from my own experience and journey, I can help you answer key questions to help find and grow your niche in a Just, Living Economy.  These include:

  • Do I have a clear sense of my core identity-the being or soul that existed before my birth?
  • How can I tap my genuine inner spirit through meditation and other practices to really bring who I am to the world every day?
  • How do I find and live my purpose and target my passions or innate gifts and talents to serve those I was born to serve?
  • Is my work and life consistently aligned with my core identity? If not, why?
  • What is my picture of genuine, enduring success, including making shifts happen in my personal economy?
  • What are the obstacles and opportunities along my path to my ideal niche?
  • Do I have a map, the motivation and the means to get there?

To help you answer questions like these, I’ve created the Make Shift Happen!™ Find and Grow Your Niche in a Just Living Economy program.  Through this online program, I help life-enhancing leaders like you shift from Where You Are to Your Ideal Niche.  My Make Shift Happen!™ Program is designed with all of the above in mind. It integrates training, exercises and coaching to help you:

  • Set Yourself Up for Success Everyday
  • Define Your Path from Where You Are to Your Ideal Niche
  • Take Consistent, Focused Action to Find & Grow Your Niche
  • Learn, Apply & Share Life’s Success Principles
  • Review, Rejoice, Revise & Repeat to Keep Moving Forward!

Take the challenge now!  Invest in yourself and our future today!  Let me be your Make-Shift-Happen Success Architect, Trainer and Coach.

Be sure to take advantage of my FREE resources, sample coaching, tips and tools to help you begin your journey and get better acquainted with me, my community and my work.

Warm Regards,  Coach Joe

Are You Ready to Begin Your Journey?