Rachel Carson and Accepting, Not Chasing

Environmentalist Rachel Carson

Happy Earth Day!

Your questions hit me this week while I’ve been on the road again (follow along here to join an upcoming talk or reading).

The most frequent question I’m getting: How, when, and why should you expand your startup or social venture into new markets?

Below I’ll share how I think about this — and some quotes and insights from recent readings you’ll love, plus a list of resources at the end.

First off, if you’ve never read anything by environmentalist Rachel Carson, please close this email and buy Silent Spring right now. Or at least read the recent New Yorker profile of Carson and her work, which inspired the modern environmental movement (and is a testament to the profound, outsized impact one woman can have using her biggest superpower: VOICE.) My favorite part of Carson’s story is that she looked frail, spent her later years in a wheelchair, and was written off by men in lab coats who thought her outspoken critique of the use of chemical pesticides was counter to modern science. (Countless later studies proved she was right, and she ended up inspiring the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Carson struggled for years to be taken seriously. Her first work was on marine biology — she wrote two books before publishing Silent Spring — and was largely unknown until then. But what genius she exhibited!

Beatrix Potter, another naturalist-writer most known for her wonderfully imaginative children’s tales, had a similar story. Her work wasn’t an immediate success, and she was rejected in her first attempts to publish Peter Rabbit. Only after a relative forwarded her manuscript did one take notice and finally give her a break. (Potter was also an avid nature-lover, and contributed some of the best sketches and diagrams of mushrooms during the Victorian Era, still in use today in field guides.)

What do these two women have in common? And how do their stories relate to social business expansion?

I have spent a lot of my life chasing. Chasing opportunities, potential clients, marketing opportunities, and even people and relationships. You know what I mean 😃 And all that chasing led nowhere. Most of the things I chased eluded me, wasted my time, and made me feel "less than". Why were we not included in Conference X? Why is our work not featured in News Story Z?

Chasing fed my biggest bugbear, FOMO.

Well, it turns out that these women and their incredible work, plus a whole host of entrepreneurs I deeply admire (like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, or inventor Sir James Dyson) operated from a different principle: acceptance. Rather than chasing opportunities that eluded them, they decided to accept and optimize what the universe put in their path.

Publisher not interested? Potter circulated her hand-bound and copied children’s stories to friends and family, developing a cult following that led to her first book deal.

Venture capital not an option? Dyson did the rounds in VC and grew frustrated with rejection. So he took out a bank loan and started his company with zero outside financing (part of why he’s worth over $5B today…and he started in his forties!). At Samasource, we raised “patient capital” from grants and donations…and ended up becoming a profitable social enterprise in the last years.

White-coated lab scientists discrediting your work? Turn to the people who accept and support you: in Carson’s case, she inspired people all over the country to question the mainstream practice of spraying toxic chemicals on plants and in homes and focused on them, rather than her detractors. Turns out, they were right.

Retailers rejecting your product? Challenges in retail inspired LXMI to refocus our efforts on our direct channel, which has doubled since we concentrated on it, and has better margins to boot. We now launch new products online first, gather feedback and interest, and later roll out to retailers who come to us.

So: screw FOMO. (One great piece of advice from a friend: switch FOMO for GOMO, or Gratitude for Missed Opportunities. A GOMO mindset focuses the brain on abundance, rather than what’s missing, and helps you live healthier, happier, and in concert with your values rather than what’s trending on your friends' feeds.)

Accept that serendipity plays a bigger role than we think in the opportunities that come our way, and that chasing isn’t always the best strategy to expand your venture.

And above all, remember that building anything really valuable takes time! Generally much longer than you think. When you’re in need of patience, hold on to this bit of Carson's wisdom:

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are nearly as eternal as any earthly life can be.”

Articles, books, and resources from this post:

How I Built This podcast series (Yvon Chouinard and James Dyson’s interviews are especially good)

Rachel Carson New Yorker Profile

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

Beatrix Potter on Wikipedia

Step by Step, Ferociously - a prior post on resilience and incremental progress

Leila Janah is the founder and CEO of award-winning social enterprises Samasource and LXMI and the author of Give Work: Reversing Poverty One Job at a Time. Subscribe here to receive her updates and posts.