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Open, Equitable and Accountable: From Conflictive Stagnation to Collective Growth in 2021 and Beyond

Crossroads, by Adam Meek

Two weeks ago, I held virtual office hours for those recently out of work and/or seeking career reinvention. It was an apt culmination to a year of public talks, online writing and one-to-one conversations on career change, diversity & inclusion, and strategies to work beyond today’s global impasse into a sustainable future of growth for all. The gist of the engagements come down to: How to Innovate and how to feel Empowered in the truest sense of the terms. So, I cleverly entitled my session Innovation & Empowerment Office Hours.

Session Philosophy and Caveats

Before going into any such session, it is important to understand and state your own principles and boundaries.

These are two philosophies I hold dear: 1) The future of our energy and infrastructure are heavily dependent on understanding earth systems and forward-facing, cross-trained earth practitioners will increase in value, and 2) A visionary leader mindset can be learned and internalized.

Brave innovation in the earth system, with leadership from earth scientists and engineers, will immensely help humanity as we collectively chart our planetary future.

Creating a sustainable future requires adjusting our clocks from short-term fiscal cycles to beyond our lifetimes into The Long Now. So, adopting an attitude of Timefulness, which “includes a feeling for distances and proximities in the geography of deep time” can only help. As Marcia Bjornerud says, “Most humans have no sense of temporal proportion – the durations of the great chapters in Earth history, the rates of change during previous intervals of environmental instability, the intrinsic timescales of ‘natural capital’ like oil, gas, air and groundwater.” Temporal and spatial proportion is the bread and butter of earth practitioners! Brave innovation in the earth system, with leadership from earth scientists and engineers, will immensely help humanity as we collectively chart our planetary future.

Prior to the office hours, I posted the following rules:

  • Contribute To Receive. You get what you give to any conversation. If you’re there just to pick brains and not contribute, pass resumes, or hog the engagement, I reserve the right to eject you from the call, and 
  • Honest Thought Required. Come with an open heart and mind, but most importantly, come with them. Few topics are off-limits but let’s try to stay productive. 

Despite this, a couple of attendees violated the rules of engagement and showed up simply to suss out how I got my current role, and if there are jobs available where I am now. Thankfully, we were able to quickly get past this sort of dead-end interaction and turn them into useful conversations out of which both parties got something. The flip side of such sessions is that they require a significant investment of free/volunteer time and being strong for others can take an emotional toll. You have to set firm boundaries to avoid being eaten alive.

I love that people felt comfortable enough to get vulnerable and share what really mattered to them, and wish I could hold more such sessions on a frequent basis. Community is critical at this time. However, there is only one of me and one of you. I urge that you help broaden the impact by holding similar office hours in your own circles, and encourage others to do the same.

Session Structure

Since each of us is a complex integral of our experiences, how do we use that to live today while simultaneously building for tomorrow? How do we innovate – generate value – and empower ourselves and others? In the office hours, I set out the following themes that the attendees discussed:

  • Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats (SWOT),
  • Personal Individual Development Plan (IDP),
  • Mental Health,
  • The Near Future / The Pivot
  • The Future of Oil and Gas,
  • The Energy Transition, and
  • Reading List

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats and Personal Development Plan

The office hours started with a meditation on Strengths from previous experiences that can translate to any job regardless of industry. And another deeper one on Weaknesses, which I view as Challenges or Gaps, that may be addressed through future roles, along with tactics to overcome personality differences and cultural barriers in those roles.

Again, going through Opportunities and Threats, I reminded participants that circumstances and events are Opportunities and Threats. Unless they are about to physically harm you, people are not Threats and don’t treat them as such. Go to the root of what about someone threatens you, and address that as a Challenge or separately outside this exercise.

  • I then suggested they use these findings towards their very own personal development plan, not just in a professional context.
  • Where do you see yourself next year and in 2, 5, 10, 20, 30+ years?
  • How do you view retirement?
  • What do you see you as having accomplished by then?
  • Whom do you want to have interacted and teamed with to accomplish these objectives?

To help shed the blinders of recent employment, I encouraged participants to think in terms of success for the long haul, beyond the quick fix and quarterly financial report cycle.

Whether you are a person or a group, learning about and preparing for the future come in handy in detecting and acknowledging bubbles instead of ignoring and trying to avoid their inevitable pops. Another suggestion is probabilistic futures thinking exercises (great for groups), which “use divergent thinking, seeking many possible answers and acknowledging uncertainty [versus] analytical thinking which uses convergent thinking to seek the right answer and reduce uncertainty.”

Mental Health

Speaking of denial, a big elephant in the room is mental health. There’s no crying in the workplace and we are professionals conditioned to “squeeze our rage into a bitter little ball and release it an inappropriate time.” (Points to whoever gets that pop-culture reference.) Talk therapy is a lifesaver for those who can access it because it helps many verbalize and work through their own issues with the help of a certified professional. I asked participants about their current levels of anxiety, depression, anger, coping mechanisms, and their access to mental health and community required at any time but especially now.

The job belongs to the company. You own your career.

There was a surprising outpouring of feelings on the part of all participants. Combined with a sense of betrayal on the part of their former employers, the lack of a real career community outside their place of work is where the unemployed feel quite exposed and raw. There are many I know who have suffered long bouts of extreme emotional distress on layoff or retirement, because they have come to conflate job with identity and purpose. How terrifying is it to not have “a home” because you no longer have a job doing what you know and love? This is an important aspect in which professional geo-scientific (more) and engineering (less) societies had ample opportunity and instead have dropped the ball. Over time, many have turned into growth-driven companies themselves that are run by cliques, protect the material interests of corporate members, and pay lip service to transformation, which inevitably results in the treatment of members as little more than dues-paying store customers. This is a dying business model; instead our work and its people need more forward-looking, courageous, energetic, open, grassroots and collaborative platforms.

Please remember this: If in your heart and soul you consider yourself an earth scientist or engineer, no one and nothing can take that away from you. Especially not a company. As I’ve said before, I urge you to take this time as a mental health break and “then imagine what you really want to do – be it in energy or not, no matter whether such a thing exists yet or not. And then bring your whole self to follow that with passion and dedication.” The job belongs to the company. You own your career.

The Near Future

Some aspects of this discussion included:

1) Folks who had previously felt safe in their jobs and had thus lacked the perspective of “the outside world” finding out they are not alone. Misery loves company, but company can quickly turn into a force for growth.

Here, I returned to the “futures thinking” philosophy and cited my history of leaving a company when I was already employed. You are nothing but a number to companies and they are in no way beholden to you. Corporate loyalty is a thing of the past, and

2) How critical it is for individuals to create networks and for groups to enable sustainable, give-and-take communities of value when the going is good, and not just seek and/or withdraw meaningful support when times are bad. What is the value that you bring to the table? Why should people join you? What is your lobbying power? What real change can you make and consistently? If an organization can help people only in times of plenty, then this is the time to consider that a risk and pull way back to rethink mission.

The Pivot

Change is hard, y’all. We discussed pivoting and reinvention as functions of years in career, financial capability, and time investment, and how much energy professionals with high-paying jobs up until now are willing and able to reach out of their comfort zones to morph. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a computing or data science education, but if you are just getting around to it and because it’s the in thing now, you are already behind the curve. Instead, stop and ask yourself the following:

  • What moves me?
  • What burning world problems do I want to solve?
  • With whom do I want to work?
  • How and where do I want to work?
  • What financial, short-term and long-term risks am I willing to take?

Further, doing whatever needs to be done, learning whatever needs to be learned, in order to better understand the earth as a system ought to be the only driver of an earth practitioner. Coding/data science is a tool, but it is not the only tool. What other tools can you discover, build, hone and bring to the table? There are quantitative toolkits, analytical toolkits, field methods, engineering advances, emerging skills. Whatever it is, be one with the future of your tool set and keep it sharp. Again, adopt a mentality of seeing everything one achieves (even during a work hiatus and even if you leave your field) as in service of a meaningful career.

Finally, before mid-career professionals write themselves off, I firmly believe they are in the Goldilocks zone as they have a track record and enough experience to oversee and deliver projects, and learn new things efficiently. Wentworth’s CEO Katherine Roe recently said, “[The way] the sector was behaving 30 years ago is no longer relevant. I don’t have 40 years’ experience, but I have relevant daily experience and I think right now, given how quickly things are moving, that’s really more valuable in some ways.”

The Future of Oil and Gas

With Saudi Arabia, OPEC, COVID and other market forces in charge, we can no longer look to most independent or national Oil & Gas companies as the adults in the room for future-facing advice on the fate of the fossil fuel economy, as they too are at a loss, fiscally and strategically speaking. Moreover, these companies serve stock/stakeholders and unfortunately cannot/need not invent beyond “do more with less people” to overcome their economic hurdles. There will always be a need for Oil & Gas geoscientists and engineers, but ones with strong constitutions to brave the inevitable roller coaster that will seat fewer and fewer geo-professionals.

Frustration and disappointment hang over this area as well. Not so much that fossil fuels have started to experience a use decline (a very long-tailed curve, nevertheless a decline), but more that Oil & Gas companies are laying off qualified earth scientists and engineers instead of upskilling and placing them in the front seat to strategy/solutioning for the energy transition and sound policymaking needed with it. This brings us to the other elephant in the room.

The Energy Transition

Oil and gas on one end and sustainable energy on the other of the energy topology is all companies talk about and invest in. What about the huge chasm of the energy transition in between? Few strategize the real sausage making and toil between where we are and the brave new green world we desire. The Transition problem space, and in fact every earth question – including infrastructure, carbon capture and storage, water supply, and so much more – needs good earth scientists and engineers collaborating with other smart people of different backgrounds and expertise. Without us, it will not be done well or sustainably.

Oil and gas on one end and sustainable energy on the other of the energy topology is all companies talk about and invest in. What about the huge chasm of the energy transition in between?

Outside of this session, I’ve talked to many about the unknowns of this concept: When is the last part of the energy transition? Will we anticipate it usefully, with many probabilistic models and outcomes? What about shifting at scale? When is net-zero emissions really (What is it really? Like oil and gas economics, the answer depends on whether you do it full-cycle or point-forward and how you report it.) And what should energy companies and other key actors do to transition? How do we work with countries and communities with the right policy that benefits the most people? How do we make it so that people who intrinsically understand the earth impact its policy?

Again, there are countless opportunities here for those who know the business of the earth, but we have to birth them. How and where? Again with ourselves and others, if we do the work of joining together to form tight-knit and open communities of invention.

Suggested Reading

  • The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility – The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer, Stewart Brand
  • Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, Marcia Bjornerud
  • Lab Dynamics: Management and Leadership Skills for Scientists, Carl and Suzanne Cohen
  • How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi
  • The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, Bina Venkataraman
  • How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, Scott Newstok

What’s Next?

Victor Hugo beautifully said, “If a writer wrote merely for their time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” I fully realize that one’s basic physiological needs (food, water, shelter, safety) require employment, but if that is where each of us stops, we have already lost. This “I’ve got mine and I’ll kick it down the road” mentality is what brought individuals, corporations, societies, countries and the whole world to the conflictive stagnation of 2020. Our first task as a species is to get over what serves us in the short-term – job, privilege, institutional barriers, denial of past and future – and build for people you will likely never see, using philosophies of constant reinvention, career, equity, and collective growth. It’s way past time for a global reckoning. Is it possible? Yes. Is it ambitious? Always. Bring it.

In this spirit of collective growth, I will soon be launching a non-profit online collaborative that prioritizes open access and dignified interaction for all. In this space, participants will be able to collaborate and form their own networks for mutual support, skills development, and solution building. My aim is to create a foundational community diverse in expertise and demographics, representing science, technology, the arts, sociology, education, design, and business development, with inclusion, equity and accountability as core tenets. Stay tuned for more news in the coming weeks.

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