Some Thoughts on Longevity and Sustainability

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: You were born in 1917 and at the time of this dialogue you are 91. Average life expectancy in the U.S. is currently about 78 to 79 for both genders. It is much less for males. Many men don’t live anywhere near the age you are. And you have a mental sharpness that is better than some people I know who are much younger. What do you attribute your personal longevity to? Also you have over five decades of experience working for companies and organizations, so I am interested in learning what you have learned about longevity and sustainability in businesses and organizations—what ultimately makes a company last. Have you thought about why you’ve lived as long as you have?

JM: Oh, I’ve thought about it a great deal. I think part of my longevity probably has to do with my genes. It seems to run in my family. My sister is now ninety-seven and my brother will be ninety-six in July. And he’s driving, good eyesight, bad hearing, still very active at the retirement home. Now as far as how you take care of yourself, how you eat and all that, I think that has a major bearing on longevity, but there are other things that have a bearing.

BW: I know you are a very calm, relaxed person. Maybe your upbringing and how your parents raised you influenced the longevity of you and your siblings. Mental attitude probably has a big bearing.

JM: Oh yes, it’s a big factor. Mental attitude plays a big role. Because it has an effect on every part of our body. More than we realize. And the person that reacts with emotional turmoil, with tension, with stress—I think it’s tough on the human body. Definitely. So the mental attitude, I think, is another major factor in aging. And I think it’s more and more of a major factor when you’re aging. Like at my age, if I was the kind that fretted and worried, “I’ll be in a wheelchair in another year and I won’t be able to do this and I can’t do that,” I think I would go downhill fast. I’m the opposite. I’m focused on, “Ok, what do I do to keep my body healthy and strong?” Well, I’m walking around the house all the time, outdoors when I can. I’m eating carefully. I have a healthy attitude. All those things.

BW: And as I mentioned, you have a mental sharpness that is better than many people who are younger than you. I know you’re socially active, volunteer a lot of your time with many people. You have many friends of all different backgrounds and ages.

JM: Well, I think it’s important to always be learning. I attribute my sharpness to the fact that I’m always learning. I’m curious about a lot of things and I also get hooked into problems. That’s one of the reasons why I volunteer a lot of my time. I also like to kick things around in discussion. All my life, I’ve had an eagerness to learn.

BW: I think it’s important to point out that you process and learn from experiences. I think age does lend wisdom but quality of that wisdom is proportional to how much someone is willing to learn and change. You meet some old people who don’t seem to learn or change much compared to others. And you meet young people who are wise beyond their years. People may experience many things, but if they don’t take the time to process or reflect on things, they may not learn or change much compared to people who do.

JM: You have to be willing to go through a process.

BW: It takes a certain character to do that. And also I think what you learned from your mother in the Great Depression helped. You said your mother was a very kind, loving woman who taught you to face reality and work honestly. So many people, when faced with problems or difficulty, they go into turmoil or they go into some sort of denial.

JM: Facing reality is accepting reality, not in the sense of condoning it, but facing it, the fact and reality of it, instead of going into some kind of emotional turmoil or denial, or this attitude of, “It shouldn’t be so.”

BW: I was struck by your description of when you had your minor stroke—you said you were standing at the dining room table…

JM: I was standing at the table and my legs gave out—I noticed I couldn’t stand any more so I leaned over on the table and thought, now what do I do? Eventually, I was able to sit myself down on a chair nearby and call for help. I began just by calmly accepting the situation rather than going into turmoil, like “this shouldn’t be so,” or panicking like, “I’m dying right now.”

BW: You seem to be that way in major situations and in minor, ordinary life situations.

JM: Right. For example, when we went through the Depression, what my mother taught me was that when you experience something like that, you don’t go into turmoil. So you not so much react emotionally to the problem as calmly face it. So I have developed the habit of not overreacting or reacting in a way that isn’t helpful. One of the least helpful responses is to go into a reaction like, “It should be this” or “It should not be this.” When we say that phrase to ourselves, which millions of people say to themselves, it blocks our acceptance of the situation and therefore causes us to go into turmoil and stress. It makes life even more difficult than it already is. There’s many ways you can handle it—that’s your choice. Let's say in a minor daily life example, someone might say, “Well this clerk at the store is a miserable character and mistreated me and was not respectful. She should not be that way.” Some go into angry turmoil. Another person sees it as an interaction with possibilities, an opportunity rather than thinking, “It should not be this way.”  And I think having a sense of humor helps. If you have humor and can see the humor in situations, that’s one way to deal with it and play with it. But many go into turmoil—it’s a way of thinking and reacting that many people have that prevents us from actually dealing with the situation in a fruitful way.

BW: So again, acceptance not in the sense of condoning, more in the sense of realistic expectations. We talked about people having unrealistic expectations in the topic “Unhappy People and the Positions They Find Themselves In.” Also acceptance in the sense of having compassion and empathy, and viewing problems as opportunities. I think people who expect and want everything to be smooth and perfect all the time can actually help to make problems worse or create more problems and conflicts. It all goes back to unrealistic expectations. Perfectionists often have unrealistic expectations and also can lack a sense of humor.

JM: Well problems and conflicts in life are inevitable. And also keep in mind, we all have egotistical expectations of how we should be treated, what we are entitled to.

BW: Early in our friendship, I remember something you said about living through the Depression—something like, it’s impossible to maintain or preserve an ego through something like the Depression.

JM: Right. You’re constantly humbled and you’re too focused on survival, the essentials of living to have and preserve an ego.

BW: And later in your life, I know your wife Thelma viewed your big misfortune—your bankruptcy and foreclosure—losing everything and starting a new life as a big adventure. You and Thelma seemed to view life as an adventure and didn’t seem to experience much fear and worry. So you do not worry. You’re not a worrier.

JM: Basically, I’m not. Every human being worries—so a worry could rise in me. The key thing is that, when a worry rises in me, it triggers my awareness—it’s important to acknowledge the worry. When people worry, they tend to try to get rid of it or they try to cover it up. They may drink a lot to deaden the worry. They may work a lot to deaden it. I had a friend that used to go to Las Vegas every time he was worrying. They do something to try to get rid of it, when it is better to just sit and face it. And put down the specifics. So if I’m aware that I’m worrying about some stuff, I sit down and I say, “Ok. I’m worrying.” I acknowledge the worry and then go into specifics. Because worry is a label for a whole area. “Well, OK, what am I worrying about?” And I’ll sit there sometimes fifteen or twenty minutes, jot some notes and put down specifics. Once I get the specifics down, I begin to say, “Well, these six things here that I’m worrying about, they might happen. Am I able to cope if they do happen?” But I have found over time that a lot of worry is pointless. It’s mostly speculation that’s a waste of time and energy. That’s something else I say to myself—“What might happen tomorrow, next week and so forth is unknown. There is no way to know.” You can spend time stewing about it, but it doesn’t help. It makes you feel bad, wastes energy, it’s depleting. So I focus on today. I focus on whatever needs to be addressed in front of me. But also—what is it I’m doing today that I enjoy. What do I have that I am grateful for. And so I’ve developed a skill in living fully in the here and now. And being very grateful regardless of circumstances. And I’ve been working on being good at it for quite some years. And I made it just fine.

BW: That’s a good skill and attitude to have in life. And it’s a discipline to always be grateful because you can always find something to be ungrateful about. You can always think like, “If only this, if only that,” or “I should have this or that.” It’s about choosing to be in a state of gratitude versus being in a state of entitlement. And to worry excessively or obsessively doesn’t make much sense—you’re basically believing, it’s all up to you, you’re the mastermind. You’re not leaving room for anything or anyone else. It’s actually arrogant. Jesus commands to not worry. If you’re caught up in the past or the future, you can’t be in the moment and receive the love of God. If you’re beating yourself up over the past or the future, the day is ruined, and you can’t give your best to people. Sometimes to faithfully put something into practice, it helps to have the testimony of an elder you know personally, someone who has lived a long time and been through a lot.

JM: You have to learn to let go of speculation, basically have the courage to let go of all the speculation. Or what I call stewing, which is like speculation or worry combined with brooding.

BW: One of my favorite things about you is that you’re very grounded. Your background and very difficult life experiences gave you humility and a grounding in reality. And failure was something you experienced so many times that I think you completely lost your fear of it. Fear and fear of failure was something we talked about in other topics. You had mentioned in many of the people you worked with, fear was very big. People can be very blocked by fear.

JM: People have a lot of fear. In my work, I saw the need for control and power which can show up as ego and greed—underneath all that there can be a lot of fear. And also out of fear, people play it safe. People will often do what they believe will make them safe and secure and sometimes this can lead to people making bad choices, decisions, putting all their faith in the wrong things. And later of course, they have regret.

BW: Many people have mid-life crises. For some, maybe that is the basis of their crises—all of these choices they have made out of fear. It’s fairly common for people to have mid-life crises. Did you have one?

JM: In middle age, starting in my late forties, was when my career started to do very well and I was at my peak actually. In high school, I had a really hard time. Some people, their best years are their high school years. In my twenties and thirties, it was also always a struggle for me. I was thirty-five when I had my bankruptcy and foreclosure. Middle age was when things finally turned around for me. Over the years, I would hear people talking about mid-life crises and wasn’t sure what they were talking about. I vaguely got it, but not exactly.

BW: You moved to Santa Barbara in 1965 during the sixties counterculture movement in California. Did you participate in any of that?

JM: Keep in mind, I turned 50 in 1967. In the sixties, I was in my forties to fifties and well into my consulting career, very busy working and supporting a family. I wasn’t part of the sixties counter culture, but I was taking workshops and classes in Santa Barbara during that time. For me, some of those classes were especially eye-opening in the area of emotions since in my generation they could be blocked out, especially in men and in people who went through the war and the Depression. Some of the things I learned I applied and practiced on clients and kept what worked. There were a lot classes like that, I can’t recall what they were called exactly or who taught them. So a lot of different things were going on in the sixties. Some good, some not so good.

BW: Did you have any longing to be a part of the counterculture? Did you feel like you were missing out?

JM: No. For the most part, I was actually baffled by it—the drugs part of it especially. I wasn’t interested in the sixties in the way that many in their teens or twenties were, but I did take to some of the positive things. Positive things like caring about the environment, living sustainably, whole organic foods, clean, natural living, I guess the things we associate with Eden—unpolluted and undefiled.

BW: But actually, you did have an interest in organic gardening long before the sixties, long before it was chic to be interested in that sort of thing. And you were even kicked out of the New York Botanical Gardens training program for your interest in alternative gardening and landscaping in the 1930’s.

JM: That’s true. Organic gardening always existed before the sixties. Before modern agriculture in the industrial, chemical age, all farming was basically organic, but we lost touch with all that, but the sixties helped to bring it back. The gardening and landscaping we were doing at Four Winds when I worked with them after high school—that was essentially organic.

BW: Your first career of many years was at Four Winds Nursery. You started off in landscaping, working in the dirt, working with the earth. I think some of the best things about you come from that background. Qualities such as being grounded in an earthy, humble way, an uncontrived humility, and a common sense that seems to be lacking in many people. You brought the best of your knowledge in organic gardening to your consulting career. You had a whole systems approach, an organic, holistic mindset that emphasizes the health of the whole system, rather than focusing on isolated compartments. You were unique in that you are able to see the big picture, the whole picture, an overview as well as the details. This is an unusual skill in a time when we’re increasingly losing the ability to see the big picture, when things are increasingly becoming compartmentalized, specialized in the modern age. You had mentioned one of your nicknames given to you by a client was Weaver-bird because of your ability to see the details and the whole overview both at the same time and weave them together which helped in bringing healing to the organization. Incidentally, the word “heal” means to make whole. You didn’t get lost in the details of the symptoms. You were able to investigate and uncover the root cause of the symptoms, the root causes of many problems.

JM: I didn’t think of it exactly in those terms. I wasn’t even fully conscious of it in the terms you describe, but in hindsight, it makes sense.

BW: For this discussion, I looked up the definition of sustainability. “Sustainability” is a word that is used a lot these days, most often in an environmental context. Sustainability, in its most general terms, simply means the ability to maintain balance within a given system. There are two basic areas of application. One, in the sense of the greater environment—using methods or modalities that do not deplete, waste, or destroy natural resources or wreak havoc on the whole system. And two, the second area of application, in the sense of an economic system and an organization in an economic system—able to exist and continue for a long time presumably in a healthy way. As you noted, many Fortune 500 companies fizzle out or crash and burn and don’t last. To bring this back to the original question—what makes a good company and what makes a company last? What makes a company truly sustainable? You have decades worth of experience, so I think you are qualified to speak on this.

JM: What ultimately makes a company last is very complex. Times change, technology becomes outdated, things go out of fashion, the market changes—those things happen. Obviously, to start, you have to have a good product or service, offer something valuable as a business. But given tangibles such as a good product or service already in place and in demand, then leadership becomes very critical for the long-term—the quality, character, and integrity of the leadership. In this discussion, we’re not talking about companies that have been around a while and have achieved a dominance in a market because of dubious means such as having a monopoly, unfair competition, they exploit cheap labor, that sort of thing. Sustainability in the sense of lasting a long time, being viable for a long time in a healthy way—companies that last for the long haul, in general, have quality and integrity. Obviously they wouldn’t sell a shoddy or inferior product. They wouldn’t cheat customers in any way. They have a standard of excellence that they do their best to adhere to versus some version of, “We can get by with this bare minimum.” If they are growing or wanting to grow, they have a mission or a vision that is grounded in sound values. And all of this—overall vision, values, integrity, a standard of excellence—depends on the character of leadership. Leadership that takes responsibility and is motivated by what is best for the good of the company, the objectives of the company as a whole, the greater good. Not leadership motivated by greed, self-interest, self-promotion, rapid questionable gain—for example the short-term objective of making as much money as quickly as possible.

BW: When we discussed leadership we noted that the essence of leadership is servitude and responsibility. And we noted that corruption is using a position or material things that you have been given stewardship over to benefit oneself and close associates rather than serving the greater good. That corruption is basically the opposite of servitude.

JM: People underestimate corruption. When people think of corruption, they usually think of government in poor countries. The capacity for corruption exists in every person, in any setting, in any context, no matter your background. For example, a socially responsible company can become corrupt just as government or any organization such as a church can become corrupt. Never think corruption can’t happen to you—like you are so special or spiritual or superior, like you’re above all that. That’s when you’re most likely to fall.

BW: Often the real issue that isn’t addressed or is completely overlooked is corruption. A commonly presented solution for poverty in poor countries is that the poor country should be industrialized and given the same educational system as ours. As if our way of life with our over-consumption and pollution and materialistic, consumer-driven lifestyle is an ideal or appropriate model. But corruption is often a major culprit in poverty in poor countries. One of the main things that needs to be addressed is corruption. If leaders are corrupt, people below will suffer for it—in all sorts of ways.

JM: We all know the extreme example of the executives with huge salaries and bonuses and meanwhile the company itself is in trouble or was bailed out by the government. That’s an example of leadership that is all about the self, self-enrichment, creating one’s own personal empire or kingdom versus serving the good of the company.

BW: You had mentioned fast growth based on short-term gain tends to be unstable. And we’re also familiar with the quick sell-out just to get by and make budget or cash in.

JM: So the long-term view versus the short-term view comes into play in leadership. Whether a company is concerned with short-term gain or not has a lot to do with leadership. In a healthy long-term view, the focus is on healthy, sustainable growth, rather than short-term gain. This is especially a challenge in corporations since they are always looking at quarterly profits for shareholders. Because one of the number one objectives is to make the shareholders profits, the natural tendency is towards short-term gain without the long-view. For example, there is usually little to no incentive to regard impact on community and environment. The number one concern of shareholders is whether they’re making money or not—if the business is growing in a healthy way and how it is impacting a community or the environment is often not even on their radar.

BW: But some argue that it’s impossible to be profitable and take into consideration those things. That it’s not even relevant.

JM: But I believe it’s possible to take into consideration those things. I believe a good business with good leadership takes responsibility, cares about people, community and takes into consideration the long-term view such as impact on community, that sort of thing. And just as a good company that cares about customers, treats its employees well, can do very well, I think those companies could do well also. Responsible stewardship—the essence of that is taking responsibility and caring. And I think that is rewarding. Obviously, it can be difficult to balance profitability with something like that. But I think it’s worthwhile to do the best that you can at something like that. You won’t ever be perfect at it, but at least trying over the long-term builds integrity, trust, loyalty, and community. But it is definitely a challenge in certain types of businesses.

BW: Sustainability and social responsibility are becoming popular movements now. In an effort to be politically correct, businesses will attach themselves to certain causes. But some of these are hard to quantify or measure in any meaningful way.

JM: Being a corporation or company with integrity is obviously not the same as just having a slick Madison Avenue ad or public relations campaign claiming that you do. Or merely being charitable or having the veneer of being charitable. For example, a corporation can claim to care about social issues, but have atrocious management or questionable business practices. 

BW: In a corporation, no individual is held personally responsible or liable. There is no direct responsibility, accountability, and liability as in a sole proprietorship. The owners of a corporation are the shareholders. So that is challenging and poses some issues and problems. Some argue that the lack of personal responsibility and accountability makes it much easier to lose a moral compass or have no real grounding in a moral compass to begin with. And it is much more difficult to hold an impersonal entity, such as a corporation, accountable.

JM: That’s a good point. Short-term gain with no regard to long-term consequences, such as growth and expansion at any cost without regard to impact, in plain and simple terms can just be called or viewed as good old greed. And greed can have a life of its own, a compulsive, all-consuming nature, like it’s never enough. So yes, that is a challenge. And probably more so in an impersonal entity such as a corporation. Maybe in a corporate environment it is more likely that some of these beliefs can blindly operate such as: Greed is good. Anything for profit and the bottom line is good and taking the time to care and give back to the community is not good for business. While very few people would say that or admit that out loud, many businesses, corporations blindly operate that way. And the lack of personal responsibility makes it easier for that to happen. So beginning the process of change is a lot about taking time out to notice some of these beliefs that may be operating on autopilot in the background, some beliefs we may be blindly following. Questioning these beliefs and the status quo. And obviously in some environments it may not be possible to question these beliefs outright and still keep your job. You may have to get another job or start your own enterprise.

BW: That’s what I like about you and your work. In your work, you questioned a lot of things that many people take for granted. What is interesting and insightful about your many decades of experience is that your experience was often in direct contradiction to what many assert to be true. Like our assumption, belief that self-interest always produces good, often presumed to be a fundamental tenet of capitalism to be applied at every level of business. Adam Smith’s principle of self-interest is twisted and abused to justify selfishness and questionable business practices. Some of the things that are prevalent and presumed to be “normal” and part of business, such as ego, greed, self-interest at the expense of others, you’ve found can be very toxic and destructive to business relations, and can severely undermine people working together as a team. You’ve found that organizations can be undermined by people not working together as a team for the benefit of the whole.

JM: Relationships, relational wholeness, how people relate, I think is the center of everything—definitely the heart of my work.

BW: Relational wholeness was a big theme in your work. As well as core issues rooted in individuals. As I mentioned, you were in a unique position to investigate root causes of problems. Your experience has clarified and confirmed for me that some of these big abstract problems we read about in the papers can start out as just deeply rooted issues in individuals. A theme I have been noting on what is sustainable: taking responsibility, having integrity and values, caring and concern for community, impact on others… It all goes back to what your mom taught you. I wrote down what you said your mom taught you. You said that she was a very gracious woman, that she had a very high sense of responsibility, and that she taught you to be kind and helpful with your customers on your newspaper route. And she taught you and your siblings to face reality and work honestly. I feel in many ways, that is the essence of your work—what your mom taught you. And I feel like maybe that is the essence of sustainability in the most simple, straightforward sense.

JM: I never thought of it that way, but that makes sense. I did help leaders examine themselves—and face reality and work honestly—and when the leadership changed then you saw positive improvement and transformation in the company.

BW: Especially after dialoguing with you, I understand leaders are responsible for a lot, but I also believe consumers also share a big burden in what they are choosing to buy, or invest in, or support with their money in the marketplace. Sometimes it is much easier to just deal with it on that level. The go-to seems to be just more and more regulation. Businesses are always about the bottom line so buyers have a lot of power in what they choose to buy or refuse to buy. What the consumers are supporting, purchasing, investing in—all those small choices accumulate. We talked about the challenges of the corporate model. Ideally, you would want to invest in or support companies that line up with your values. Some of this can take an investment in time and effort as far as researching companies, and asking for more transparency where there is none, but I think it’s worth it. The point I’m trying to make is that we’re all responsible. 

JM: You brought up a good point. We’re all responsible and everything we do has an impact. In shopping choices and also in work. It works both ways. What you choose to do with your money can make a big impact. And I think work especially is a rich environment to work with. After graduating from high school or college, most of us end up in a business or organizational environment of some kind. And generally speaking, we probably spend more waking time at work than we do at home. Where we spend a lot of our time and energy, the problems we contend with on a day to day basis, that is one of our most powerful contexts for change. But as you brought up that extends to what you are choosing to do with the money you earn. No matter who you are or where you are, everything you do on a daily basis has tremendous power and great ripple effect. Even if we don’t technically hold a managerial or leadership position, we’re all leaders, each in our own way, over our own realms.