ISHN Guest BlogLast fall, I taught my first collegiate sustainability course for the University of Iowa’s Evening MBA Program.

If you’re like me — a recovering perfectionist — you can relate to this story.

When environmental issues you care about can often (literally) seem like life or death… the end of the world, etc… then every decision feels like it carries a lot of weight.

“We have to get this right!”

Some people thrive in that situation.  They become more decisive and take action.

But a lot of people avoid decisions, and wait for more information.  The “better-safe-than-sorry” philosophy permeates the environmental movement.

When it comes to things you can’t take back — persistent toxic chemicals, for instance — it’s a great philosophy.

But when it comes to everyday decisions, perfectionism that says “If I can’t get this right, I’m not going to do it” can rob the world of something really special — your gifts.

Sustainability for business students

I’ve taught leadership courses for other universities in Des Moines since I moved here.

For my job, I’ve been speaking at universities for 3 and a half years. Sharing my company’s sustainability journey helps them see what these concepts look like in a local business… but the Q&A is what turns cynics into believers.

Focusing on business classes is one way that I feel strongly we can make a difference.

Business students often don’t see a single class on ecology or environmental science.  And only in specialty green MBA programs like Presidioand Bainbridge do they see how principles of sustainability integrate with good business management.

In my experience, when a program says, “We’re integrating it into the existing curriculum,” the students and professors can’t give many examples of where they see that to be the case.

The ideal

So, what I always envisioned for any program was one class for undergraduates, and one practicum for graduates.

In my mind, MBA students should be able to team up and consult for local businesses who are interested in sustainability, but don’t know where to start — and how to prioritize.

I saw case studies, local tours, local guest speakers from the business community… and final reports given directly to company leadership.  It was all so simple…

As I spoke at universities throughout the Midwest, I built relationships with business and sustainability professors.  How to grow a more robust sustainability program at their school was always a topic of conversation.

The reality

One such professor, from the University of Iowa, was an advocate for adding to their offering.

I got an email from the Tippie College of Business asking if I was available to teach an elective in the fall of 2013.

The problem for me was… it was already fall of 2013.

  • The class would start in 3 weeks.
  • There was no syllabus.
  • No lesson plans.
  • No marketing done to students.

My initial response was, “Maybe next time, but let me think about it.”

My tenure as president of the non-profit I founded had just come to a close.  I was excited about having more time for myself, my friends, and family.

I was also scared of teaching a less-than-perfect version of the course.  Would that reflect poorly on me?  How would that look to U of Iowa and other universities if the first one is a flop?

It was easy to turn down… except that it wasn’t.

In my book club, I was reading The Pursuit of Perfect, and really saw how thinking like this had held me back in the past.

So, I discussed it with my friends, girlfriend, and the University’s business department.

And accepted.

The failure

Boy, did my pride take a lashing.

It took a week to approve the elective for that semester.

I wrote the syllabus.  It took another week to approve that with the dean.

That gave us one week to promote the course to students.

  • The course had 11 students, none with an undergrad sustainability course
  • I didn’t know how to use the online share site for sharing slides and grades
  • I was completing the lesson plans the week before each class (oh, every fiber of my being hates doing this)
  • 2 of the tour sites were not available for evening times
  • 2 of the speakers were also not available
  • The students chose their own companies to assess (no time to line up consulting clients)

My perfect vision of a course was shattered.

It was an utter failure.

The awesome

Yet — as the book said — I could find a silver lining.

I didn’t curl into a ball and try to pretend the course had never happened.

I read the feedback, took notes of my own, and set up meetings to discuss future offerings.

  • Tippie College of Business understood the circumstances, and are interested in offering it annually
  • Most of the feedback was very positive, the students learned a lot and enjoyed the majority
  • The business speakers that did attend were excited to return
  • The Greater Des Moines Partnershipis now interested in creating a waiting list of its business members as future clients
  • I connected with multiple other professors to develop the consulting style of course I envisioned
  • And, Iowa State Universityis interested in discussing a similar course for their Evening MBA Program

If I had been too scared to take on a course that I knew would test my comfort zone in EVERY way… I never would have allowed myself to fail.

And I never would have learned how amazing a little failure can be.  Because it can lead to an opportunity for improvement.

The alternative was to avoid failure.

But in doing so I would have never creating anything of value to share with future students…and thus future businesses in the state of Iowa that might change the world someday.

Who knows?

I do know one thing.  Failure can be awesome.

When have you pushed through the fear of failure?

What difference did it make for you?  For your community?  The world?

Gratefully, Adam

Posted January 6, 2014