Ben Feder wrote a book Take Off Your Shoes on changing his life, traveling with his family to Bali for a year. Right off the bat, I want to share that I loved reading the book. I enjoyed the writing style and the content. Before and after he left to Bali he ran companies at a very high level so he ran operations, he engineered a big part of takeovers and these other high-level corporate leadership activities sometimes pretty exciting. For people who think corporate leadership is mechanical or cold Ben shows that it’s the opposite, at least in his case. A big part of leadership means living by your values. In his case included his whole family, his wife, his kids. It resulted in closer relationships, personal discovery. Let’s listen.
Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Josh Spodek. I’m here with Ben Feder. Ben, how are you?
Ben: Good. How are you, Josh? Nice to meet you.
Joshua: Great. Nice to meet you. I feel like I’ve met you a bit more maybe because I’ve been reading your book. I haven’t finished it but I’m well through it. And people, just sort of start kind of in the middle because we just got on and you asked me what’s this about or who’s your audience. And I started answering like, ”We should start recording this.” Sorry, for the listeners we are in mid-conversation but the reason is because we want you to catch this. I was saying that I felt like a lot of people when they hear leadership and the environment I feel like they hear the environment part but they miss the leadership part which is that’s the part that’s about the joy and the fun and personal growth and living by your values. And I think I’ve felt like that resonated with you.
Ben: Oh, totally, totally. Because, first of all, in my own life I have recognized that it’s hard…Sorry. In my own life I kind of realized that just by making a personal decision to act in a certain way and to do even minor things it’s not a question of “Hey, is this really going to help the environment?” as much as it is living by your values. And you know things as simple as, I don’t know, composting your garbage when you know that’s probably not the biggest environmental problem in the world, I am not even sure if it’s an environmental problem. But even that little thing that my family and I do makes us feel like we’re living by our values and taking some action.
You know when we were living in Bali, just by way of background for your listeners, the book is about is a memoir about sabbatical that I and my family took in Bali. My kids attended this wonderful school called The Green School which is a school developed by John and Cynthia Hardy to teach kids from all over the world about the environment and global leadership and environmental pollution. And that was a few years ago but it’s still there for children and they come back and they’ve all taken these lessons about leadership and the environment.
And so my son who is now 22 still won’t buy any plastic bottle, bottled water, won’t use plastic bags, none of my family uses plastic bags. My daughter kind of runs a high school organization called Bye-Bye Plastic Bags and it started in Bali and you know extended to New York trying to get rid of plastic bags because it was such a scorched to the environment. And so you know there is a place on this planet where in Bali of all places in Indonesia where the agenda is all about environmental protection and the ecology and teaching children not only about environmentalism and global leadership but also to be activists. I’ll stop talking in a second but you know there were two Indonesian kids that went to the Green School in Bali. One of them with my daughter Rita and they started this organization called Bye-Bye Plastic Bags. And that thing took off, it just became a global movement where they have ambassadors all over the world or they spoke at the United Nations. And I just feel like I mean they are high school kids that have been all over the place. And it’s just preaching about environmental protection and just taking life into their own hands, taking the environment into their own homes.
And I just think that if you’re looking for leadership, sometimes I feel like you know it’s not our generation that’s really going to provide leadership. We tried and so far it hasn’t seemed to work very well. But I’ve seen some of the younger generation, my kids’ age really taking up environmental and hopefully providing leadership for generations to come.
Joshua: You know you’re saying some things that I really want to get a lot of people to experience and learn that do…You’re not describing making the best of a bad situation when you’re saying that you’re not using plastic. You’re not like, “Oh, plastic would make my life better but I’m sacrificing it.” You sound like, “Why would I use it”? You’re not sad that you’re missing something that everybody else has.
Ben: I’m not sad about it. But the truth is I’m also not delusional about the impact that I’m having on the environment. I don’t think I’m having much of an impact. And every time I do anything I kind of feel like, “There are seven billion people on the planet. How is this going to help?” But just as you said I think it’s important to live by your values. One of the things that I discovered while being away is this concept of intention and you know people throw around the word a lot. And I think so many of us go by our lives almost in a sleep walking away without living intentionally. And it’s you know what you do sometimes is not as important as the intention that you have when you do it. And even if it’s just one person at a time having the intention to do something about the ecology and the environment even if it’s just that I think it’s important if not to the world, to that individual person. And the more people live consciously and the more people live intentionally about their actions I think it is just greater you know global utility and global happiness around that. And I do think ultimately if there are enough people doing that it will have an impact. I don’t think you need… Don’t get me wrong. I’m out of action and I believe in setting goals and pursuing and making an impact and all of that. Don’t get me wrong about that. What I say it’s not to replace that, it’s in addition to that. And if you’re the type of person that doesn’t have the resources or the ability to have a greater impact, then just have the impact in your own little world and that will spread.
I’m often surprised by how word spreads quickly, how things go viral and how just one person’s individual actions can just impact other people just by their observing us. And so I think intention counts, I think observation counts, I think living consciously counts. And by the way not just the environment, in all aspects of life but the environment is a good place to start.
Joshua: And these are things that if this is a lot of what I feel is missing in the talk about…There’s lots of stuff about “here’s what you can do” but it’s just behavior. It’s just tips or here’s the science, here’s a bunch of facts and they’re dry and it makes it sound like you have to go out of your way to do it. And when you talk about living by your values it’s not going out of your way. It’s actually being more true to yourself.
Now I’m sure there are people out there who really are like, “I don’t care about the environment. I really don’t care.” But I think that’s a really small minority. I think for most people we like clean air, clean water, we don’t want mercury in our fish. And that I think you also might take away from you… Correct me if I’m wrong but before you left the corporate world for Bali would you said what you just said?
Ben: I don’t think I would say any of what I said. No. I would not describe the way I was living my life as being conscious or intentional in any way. I was pursuing what a lot of people pursue. Everybody wants the same things, you want whatever it is, whatever it is you’re pursuing.
Joshua: I want to take a step back because I really want to talk about you and your books. And so I’m going to give a little bit…So you lived in…You have a Harvard MBA. You lived a corporate life. The beginning of your book is gripping. It’s this takeover of this company and you emerge as the CEO and then forty years later you’re still in it. Something that you’d expected to be temporary but it was not. It reads like you’re kind of trapped in a situation without realizing it and you and your wife say, “Something’s up. We’ve got to do something about this.”
You don’t realize you could leave and then you and your family, [unintelligible] Africa. You end up in Bali where you live for a while as you mentioned at The Green School and then all these changes happen. I mean the whole thing you described as a memoir. It’s a memoir and it’s a travel book. It’s a voyage of discovery internal external and the things that come out… It’s gripping, I have to say. OK, so you talk about the shift, you talk about mindset shifts in the book and now you’re talking about the visual one of seeing things. Later on in the book you talked about when you’re drawing someone, and you are talking about expressionism and you were talking about expressing what was inside the person. It’s not just in their eyes. So it wasn’t just doing the shift. Once you do that shift, that’s the starting point of something new.
Ben: Yeah. I mean this is what we’re talking about you know once you see things you can’t unsee them. And once you develop a certain way of philosophy, a way of being, not that it’s hard to not be the same person you were. Of course, that’s true but I do backslide all the time. I kind of get involved [unintelligible] back in the corporate world today and it’s easy to get into that mindset again. And my struggle continues to be kind of synthesizing the lessons that I portray in the book with what’s required to compete and be effective in the world or at least in my world. That synthesis is an unending type of challenge for me. So you can’t quite unsee it but every now and then I do backsliding [unintelligible].
Joshua: The introduction says that the book is mainly for your children. And I feel like it’s also for others as well. Maybe to give others an insight into what’s available to them and maybe also for yourself as kind of like a ratchet to keep yourself from backsliding. I’m not sure.
Ben: One of the interesting things I’ve discovered about the writing process and the editing process is that you know we all have these narratives in our mind that are like stories and we have multiple narratives often and sometimes it’s hard to tease out kind of what’s the right narrative, what’s the true me, what’s my true story. And to me writing the book didn’t quite help with establishing a narrative for my life but editing the book did because to make the book readable like you said you can’t put it out what really happened here but that was work on my part because I intentionally wanted to make the book highly readable and to do that you need to pick a story arc and by picking a story arc to tell other people I ended up picking a story arc to tell myself that became my own story. The way I edited things down… If the memoir was a book about everything that happened to me in Bali would be utterly unreadable. So you have to pick a story arc. And I picked that one that was absolutely true but we all have multiple truths in our lives. And by picking that one storyline I do think that I helped not only tell a coherent story [unintelligible] to others but also a coherent story to myself about the choices that I made and the live that I live and the life that I led while on sabbatical in Bali with my family.
Joshua: So one of the things that I do in this podcast which may fit in very nicely with what you’re talking about living by your values is that I invite people, guests that their option to think of something that they could do to act on the values that they aren’t already doing. And the goal is for listeners to hear that people you know for listeners who might otherwise say, “Well, no one else is doing that so why bother?” People are doing this, leaders are doing this and I invite you at your option to take on a behavior of limited time if you want to do something that you have thought of doing but haven’t done yet so something that… I’ve learned to give a couple constraints and ease other constraints. So it doesn’t have to fix all the world’s problems all by yourself overnight but it can’t be telling someone else what to do. It has to be something that you do yourself and it’s some measurable thing. not just awareness. And I wonder if you’d be willing to take on that. And then we would talk about it a second time.
Ben: The truth is nothing comes to mind at the moment. You know when you talk about that I talk about kind of how we dealt with plastic in our lives and I’ve made a conscious effort.
Joshua: I’ll just say that most people it takes a little going back and forth and it’s usually the hardest for the people who have done the most or have found what is their balance for them because they thought about it and the people haven’t thought of… You know it’s very easy for Exxon to make big changes in how much they pollute because they pollute so much. Whereas people who have already made all these changes is very difficult for them, well it’s not always very difficult but it’s often difficult to make the changes because they haven’t thought about it. Like I had that with Elizabeth Kolbert. She appeals for a prize-winning book. She wrote The Sixth Extinction and she’s like, “Oh, we’ve done everything.” The next stage for her would be a really major shift in her life that she could really couldn’t do. But then a lot of other people would go back and forth. I’m persisting a little bit here because some people something pops up that they weren’t thinking about and then they think you know I could do that and it’s not supposed to be a sacrifice.
Ben: I understand. But yeah. I got to tell you about that…Let me give it some thought. Because I mean the book you said you’re in the middle of it so I’m going quite to the end but the end really is kind of like OK, what practices do I want to bring to my life you know to really change my life as I kind of re-enter you know living in New York in the corporate world. And those practices are very much hard for me today. But let me give it some more time.
Joshua: OK. So well, then let me probably just think. Now that knowing this is going to be raised I kind of a little…It’s funny that you talk differently when you know it’s not going to be… [unintelligible] listen to it because I could wrap up or I could talk a little bit more because I mean I really did find the book… I’m really curious about a bunch of different changes. And I didn’t…. Sam is your oldest son. Do I remember right?
Ben: Yes, yes. Correct.
Joshua: And Sam was in a situation where he was doing everything he could to keep his grades up to get into great college. He was also like you said he would wake up in the morning… He was I hope I didn’t mix up the kids you know them better than I do. But like he wasn’t really that active it felt like in school. You know as a professor I try to activate my students, not lecture at them and not get them to comply but to get them to blossom. And I feel like that happened to him. And that seems like a big shift too. And I didn’t really follow… I didn’t get to parts to see the changes in him in the book. But that’s as big a change is in yourself.
Ben: Yeah, look I mean when I get really cynical and skeptical about my stuff I kind of when you talk about kids like I’m like you know all kids change is. That’s part of what being a kid is. So you know in many ways he just got older and it often happens. And sometimes I think even all the inside that I think I have in my book sometimes I feel like look you know who we are in our 40s and 50s is very different than who we are in our 20s emotionally, physically, whatever. And you know we could argue that all I did was get older and just getting happier because you know I got older in my life. And I see that in my kids also. It’s hard to tease out cause and effect in all this. I do think that I do know that we were on our way in Bali when I think about the changes that went on in my children, Sam was probably the one that experienced the most of it because I felt him waking up also. I felt him becoming more aware of his surroundings and more aware of living intentionally and making choices for himself. And to this day I mean he will not buy water in a plastic bottle and he will not use a plastic bag. So he’s almost religious about that.
Joshua: So here I have to… I’m going to show you something. People… If this doesn’t get it…I’m going to show you over here is my trash bag and over there is my compost, under this is recycling trash bag. But when it fills up I take it down the hall to empty it down to [unintelligible]. So today is May 22. So on June 4 it will be 365 days since I’ve last emptied my garbage.
Ben: Oh, really?
Joshua: Oh yeah. And I look at that… It’s like I look at that it’s like disgusting. Everyone’s like, “That’s amazing. Wow. So little pollution.” That’s a lot of pollution! A lot of that stuff is going to be around for 500 years.
Ben: Because you compost and everything else.
Joshua: Well, the main thing is I want is…Well, you asked at the beginning where this podcast came from. The earliest, really the earliest… I mean I’ve always turned off the lights when I wasn’t in the room and you know I would try to minimize pollution but I wasn’t that active about it. But then a few years ago was when I first realized most of my garbage was some food packaging and I gave myself this challenge to go for a week if I could without any packaged food. That was three years ago and, in the meantime, I think before then I might have never had a meal in my entire life that didn’t have some packaging in it. And now it’s like the CSA, I’ve been to the farm where I get it from. And I when the CSA [unintelligible] around the food from there…I don’t know if you know what CSA is but it’s community-supported agriculture.
And I go to the farmers markets so the Abbington square and Union Square and you know restaurants are just disappointing to me in comparison. They just don’t have… They cover up the vegetables with fat, sugar, salt. You talk about these changes and for me it’s not about avoiding plastic although not just plastic but other packaging as well, it’s the delicious. That’s what to me it’s all about and that’s what prompted me to have the goal to ask people to take on these challenges because in my heart I believe that they will also find something that’s their delicious. You’ve had a big major way there. And so it’s not like you have to go through some transformation you’ve never gone through before but that it’s… I mean year three of not flying. So I took on this after I found a delicious of that and I learned how much pollution flying cause I was like, “I can’t do that anymore.”
And I thought, “Well, I’ve got family all over the world. I got a job. I got stuff like…” Now I put it…I live in a system, I didn’t think of this but I was in a system and the system required some things but that didn’t mean I required them. So once I shifted, now it’s amazing. Actually, this weekend I was taking sailing classes in the New York Harbor as preparation for being able to get to Europe again or getting to Asia again because the longer I go without flying, the better I like not flying. So these changes I find like I really like them and I feel like I’m trying to share joy, delicious.
Ben: Yeah. I hear it. It’s awesome.
Joshua: Yeah. Well, let me wrap up because we’ve been talking for a while and everyone tells me, “You got to keep this to like 20 minutes” and we’re over 20 minutes.
Ben: You can edit it down.
Joshua: Oh, yeah. It will be edited down. Yeah, I’ve got people doing that. I like to ask at the end a couple of questions. One, is there anything I didn’t think to ask that’s worth bringing up? And the other’s, do you have anything specific that you would like to give to the listeners directly?
Ben: I don’t think you have not asked anything. So no to question number one. Question number two, obviously people ask me all the time so what are the lessons of the book? Some of them because they don’t want to read the book and they’re just, [unintelligible] because that’s the world I live in. So they want the executive summary. And my answer is always the same which is that I really tried not to draw any lessons for the reader. I really tried not to give the bullet points. I tell my story. Some people find it inspirational, motivational, aspirational or however they find it. I really just wanted to tell my story and let the reader bring to the story whatever they bring to it in their own lives and take away from it whenever they can take away from it. And I deliberately avoid the question, I don’t avoid the question but I did sidestep the question of “What’s it about? What do you want to tell your readers?” I don’t want to tell them anything other than my own story and if my own story is helpful to them or motivates them to act in a certain way, that’s great. But what often does one impact the reader that way. And the best reactions I get from my book is “The book really stayed with me for a few days. It really made me think about things in a whole new way.” And you know the least enjoyable reaction that I get for my book is like, “Dude, that was great, thanks.” [unintelligible] So I do hope the readers pause and think about the book, think about the story but I know that not anybody does. And that’s fine too.
So you know with all respect to the question and what you’re asking I deliberately want to not answer because I just want to tell my story. And we talked about that. I just want to tell my story. And the way people react to it is the way they react to it.
Joshua: Well, thank you. I think you succeeded at that. And there are a lot of books that are like, “Here’s the answer.” And I think your book is more effective at guiding people toward a way of finding answers for themselves if they want to.
Ben: Yes. Exactly.
Joshua: Thank you very much. I’m going to close with the book is Take Off Your Shoes: One Man’s Journey from the Boardroom to Bali and Back by Ben Feder. And thank you very much.
Ben: Thank you, Josh. I really enjoyed the conversation. It’s nice to be here.
I’m glad that Ben differentiated between mindlessly doing environmental things and acting by your values. I hope I didn’t talk too much towards the end. I appreciated Ben’s openness and rawness in sharing his experiences knowing that persist more about the personal challenge. In his case, having read his book I was in the middle of reading it at the time, I finished reading it since, I think he’s shared enough of personal change and growth. I recommend reading the book to learn how a successful leader takes on big personal change involving trial, involving whole family because it’s all there in the book.
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