Six wisdom bombs from Van Jones

Van Jones gives a keynote at Portland State University

Van Jones gives a keynote at Portland State University

Author: Christina Williams

Van Jones was at Portland State this week for Portland State of Mind. It was a visit anticipated and planned by a number of us on campus and hosted by the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

Our intention for bringing Van to Portland was to turn up the volume on the fact that sustainability requires equity and inclusion to be successful, to provide a pointed reminder that we as a society sometimes forget this fact, and to inspire us to do better.

He delivered.

In the afternoon and evening he spent on campus he met with students, dined with community partners, and delivered a captivating motivational keynote. If you missed it (and if you did, you can watch his keynote online), or if you were there, here are the six takeaways I’ll be thinking about for a while. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Social and environmental issues are the same thing.

There’s no question where Van stands on climate. (“I remember when the Weather Channel was boring.”) What he doesn’t get is the division between social and environmental issues. Renewable energy, urban forestry—these are clear pathways to fewer emissions, cleaner air, more livable cities.

“Are these social justice issues?” asked Van during his keynote. “Are they environment issues? Who do you love more, your kids or your grandkids?”

Splitting hairs between environmental and social issues isn’t going to get us anywhere and Van made it clear that we’re not doing enough to close the gap. And it is on us.

“This is our movement,” he said. “The truth is that disposability is a lie. It’s all precious.”

Success requires failure.

“I learned most of what I know from what didn’t work,” Van told a roomful of students in a workshop on social innovation. “Your setbacks give you your character.”

It’s not exactly a novel idea, but to hear the great Van Jones—entrepreneur, movement master, author, brilliant person—say that many of the ideas that he’s tried to pull off have just plain failed was oddly inspirational.

The important thing, Van emphasized again and again, is to try, to do something.

“Try something, document it, get some help,” he said.

And try again.

Fate does not equal destiny

This is the part of the keynote where he invoked the humble acorn.

“Your destiny is that thing inside you that’s a call to greatness. Everything has that same call,” he said. “An acorn has the destiny to be a huge oak tree.”

The trap we too often fall into is that we spend too much time raging against our fate and don’t nurture our destiny—our destiny to make a difference. Now.

“We act like we’re going to be here forever and we let our destiny down.”

Facts don’t equal truth.

“There’s a truth about what we can do that isn’t bound by the facts.”

Simple. Profound.

Your ego is not your soul.

Van talked about the nuanced difference between feeding your ego and feeding your soul. Playing small might protect your ego, but your soul wants to play big. Your soul should play big. Your ego should play small.

There are three M’s in a movement.

A practical lesson from the student workshop provided the anatomy of a movement.

“It’s the same three steps ever time,” Van said.

  1. Mobilization
  2. Media
  3. Money

First out of the gate is to actually do something. Hesitant? Go back and read the “Success requires failure” part and do it anyway.

“Getting media is the third of the work, it’s not about self promotion,” Van said. (Later in the evening he would make the point that we are all the media now. One simple tweet with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag started a movement.)

The third leg of the stool is the capital to sustain and expand your initiative. Van broke down fundraising by explaining what donors want to hear: That the problem you’re addressing is worth the donors time, that the solution you are proposing is the best solution the problem, and that you are the best person to deliver that solution.

“It’s harder to make a difference than it seems, but easier than people fear.”