The story of today brings us to Houston, in the U.S. state of Texas. Joyce, an environmental consultant and author of "The Last Straw", shares with us the journey that brought her to overcome a breast cancer, leave her job in the corporate world, and to figure out the secret to being her best self while showing up for the good of our environment.
My name is Joyce Kristiansson and I am a 57-year old environmental consultant and author living near Houston, Texas. Born in the Midwest United States, I was raised on a farm and spent my childhood outdoors and in nature as much as I could. I have a deep love of science and didn’t really see a lot of options for me in the rural town in southern Illinois where I graduated from high school in 1980. So I left the farm to pursue college, receiving a BA in biology in 1984, and then took a job in Chicago for an environmental contractor. I moved with that job to Houston in 1988 and took other positions in consulting and then for major energy companies. I met my husband, Lars (he is from Denmark) in Houston and we married in 1995. My pregnancies were difficult, but luckily we were able to have two beautiful children, Nic (now 23) and Kait (now 20). When my kids were just five and two years of age – my son was starting kindergarten - I decided to leave the corporate world and opened a solo environmental consulting practice. I completed my Masters in Environmental Management in 2015 after starting it twenty years ago, and everything was sailing along wonderfully. My consulting practice grew to a team of six and it was exciting to provide opportunities for other professional women with small children to have the same work-life balance I had grown to love. And then the perfect storm hit in 2017 – the energy market went bust, our clients began going out of business, my husband had a series of medical issues, we were putting a kid through college … and I found out I had a tumor in my breast. I underwent surgery, chemo and radiation. After the last radiation treatment, we took a short break and headed to Denmark to visit family. We came home to Hurricane Harvey! We were stuck for three days as our little neighborhood became an island, but thankfully, we did not flood and suffered no major losses. I remained in what I thought was a chemo fog until I finally asked for help from my oncologist in early 2019. It turned out that I had sleep apnea and needed an APAP – I call it my sleep machine and life saver. Having regained my energy (and hair), I wrote about my journey in a book, “The Last Straw, Change Your Life and the Planet – for Good.” Think of it as a sustainability self-help book. Until you take care of yourself you can’t really take care of the environment.
What were you looking for in life?
Describing 2002, from my book “The Last Straw”, it should have been the happiest time of my life. I had a beautiful four-year-old son and one-year-old daughter, my husband and I were working in careers that both challenged us and paid well, we had a live-in au pair to care for our children while we were working, and we owned a home in a beautiful, safe neighborhood in the country.
Instead I was deeply depressed. I went through the motions, did everything that was expected of me, and was desperately tired. Instead of enjoying bath time with my little ones, it was an exercise to get through just so they could go to bed—which meant I could, too. Even my time outdoors, which usually rejuvenated me, was spent sitting in a patio chair staring into space. I was unable to articulate to my husband and those close to me just how unhappy I was. After all, I was living the American dream!
For six months in that state, I plotted how to leave my job. How to walk away from what started out as my dream position with a six-figure income at a Fortune 500 company whose environmental ideals aligned with my own. My self-esteem suffered; what had I done wrong? I always did my best work, but somehow, that wasn’t enough. I wasn’t just depressed, I was scared. Scared to stay and scared to leave.
I was struggling to mesh my two selves—the one who wanted to be seen as a stay-at-home mom, and the one who wanted to be seen as a working professional. Yet, I couldn’t see myself as only a full-time mom, and I couldn’t see myself staying in what had become “the daily grind.” During those six months, turning it all over and over and over in my mind, I realized that sometimes you have to leave something to build something that allows you to be you (and still make a living!).
I am not the first woman to struggle with this internal conflict. We strive to “have it all” but don’t really know how to make that happen. I was determined to have it all, my way. But I had to let go of many of the lessons I had learned along the way and dig deep to rediscover me.
What was stopping you from achieving it?
My perceptions of who I am were deeply skewed and downright anxiety provoking. Although I come from a family of four, we were spread out in years and lived in a rural area with very few opportunities to play with other kids. I spent a lot of time alone in the woods, which gave me a wonderful appreciation for nature, but wasn’t great for my social development. For years I viewed myself as a kind of boring technical nerd, academically successful but afraid to put myself out there. Through the process of writing the book, I shed a lot of that negative self-talk. Even now, though I have to consciously remind myself to be OK with not having everything just so before I launch another activity or event. The only thing that seems to work is just doing it, as uncomfortable as that is. Then when nothing bad happens, I exhale, and move on to try something else that makes me uncomfortable. I have found it to be the only path to growth.
Which was the trigger for the change?
How was your journey? What did you put in action?
I found the path to “being.” Aligning our natural state of being with our work can only lead to something better for everyone. I wonder what would have happened if I had discovered and accepted my true state sooner in my career. So much of what led to my success was brute force—putting in the hours, getting the work done, even when the work was absolutely mind numbing. That’s what got me to this point of making a good living, sending my kids to college, having a second home and property.
But when I aligned myself to even just a little bit of my true nature, I put in less time, had less stress, and made more money.
Even though I enjoyed and grew from every position I had, it was still a grind. Working through the week for the reward of social events on Friday night, laundry and chores over the weekend, more fun on Saturday night, then the dread of Sunday night, knowing Monday was just around the corner. And by the way, the laundry still wasn’t done. It was exhausting!
Now I avoid the traffic, work when it makes sense based on my energy level (for the most part), get enough sleep, incorporate some play and volunteering, and am so much happier.
But the independent consulting has had its share of working for the money as opposed to the enjoyment. As the kids have left the nest, with more time available, I have been struggling to find joy in the escapes, like puttering outside, that used to restore me after a workweek.
Now that I am making space for other things, like writing, I feel fulfilled in a way I haven’t before. I believe this is what it looks like for me to be in my natural state of Quick Start. I have stopped apologizing (to myself) for being an idea person and I work harder to communicate clearly to others who might misunderstand my ideas as directives, that these are only ideas—not suggestions or judgments. Sometimes, it feels like I need a yellow triangle that says, “Caution: Watch out for Falling Ideas!”
How do you think your life would be now if you had continued in the same direction?
I don’t even like to think about what my life would have been like had I not left the corporate world and went solo in 2002. I was tired and depressed and I imagine it would have stayed that way. Get up early, fight the traffic, attempt to play at office politics (at which I am horrible), look forward to lunch, make the commute home, get food on the table, bath the kids and get them to bed and start all over again. I’m grateful for that time in the corporate world – it got me the network that made the independent consulting career possible. I still work with many of the professionals that I met during those first twenty years or so, although some are retiring now. But now that I know my natural way of being is Quick Start, I understand just how punishing it would have been to stay on that course.
And then really it’s a similar story when I think about my journey with writing the book. It has opened up so many new opportunities. I’ve learned so many new things about writing, editing, self-publishing, book marketing, even search engine optimization! And the Facebook page and group that was created to go with the book has been an absolute joy and happy place for me. The other day I recorded my first podcast interview with a very small podcast producer– but hey, you have to start somewhere. None of these things would have happened had I not started being intentional about aligning the things I do with my preferred way of being. It has truly been life-changing. I know many people will take the Kolbe assessment and it will just confirm what they already know about themselves. But for those of us who have been force-fitting ourselves into the role that we think society requires of us, that kind of self-awareness it is hugely empowering.
How is your life today?
I published “The Last Straw, Change Your Life and the Planet – for Good” in May. Now, my Facebook page, “The Last Straw,” has about a thousand followers and our Facebook group of the same name has more than 500 members. It’s a space where we share our appreciation of nature, and our struggles and successes with green living. It is an absolute joy to wake each morning to happy posts with photos of bumblebees and dragonflies and deer and birds as well as tips on sustainable food choices and how to remove single-use plastics from our lives, for example. Although my consulting business has dropped off due to the pandemic, we have enough savings and work to sustain ourselves financially. Our adult kids (23 and 20) are living with us during COVID, one looking for a job after graduation from college in December 2019, and one working full time as a therapeutic riding instructor. We’re catching up on lots of home projects – our garage has never looked better! And we’re growing vegetables for the first time. The Facebook page and group really helps. You can’t have a down day when you see inspirational nature quotes every morning and pictures of backyard nature from all across the country every day!
What would you say to someone reading your story?
Take a walk outside. Look around and see the flowers, helping our pollinators thrive. Listen to the birds chirping. Feel the sun and the breeze on your skin. See the nature in your backyard. If you can see nature, really SEE it, then you will grow to love, really LOVE it. If you really love nature, then you will want to protect it. If you want to protect it, you will be willing take small actions to incorporate new habits into your life – picking up litter, recycling aluminum cans, encouraging your favorite restaurant to use more sustainable take-out containers, using a reusable water bottle, as examples. Imagine if all seven billion people did what they could. Oh, what a difference we would make!
As you’re making these small changes, give yourself a break! Some days will be easier than others, some days we’ll do better than others. We’re all a work in progress. We all show up in different ways, and that’s not only totally OK, it’s a wonderful thing. So do what you can, your way.
And then share! Figure out your best way to share based on how you like to be: speaking at engagements or on videos; writing books, blogs, social media posts; educating little kids, big kids, adults; serving; joining; becoming involved. You have something someone else needs to hear—share it, with your words, with your deeds, with your kindness.
And know that there is a cost to not sharing. There is a very real cost to not sharing our story, knowledge, wisdom, power, kindness, compassion. We are experiencing that cost right now in the form of more severe weather events and a painfully forced adaptation to climate change because the leaders in developed nations failed to act. Just as when we toss that stone into the water and tiny waves radiate outward, we can’t help but affect others. A big splash isn’t required. Acting in a way aligned to our natural way of being is all it takes and we might just have a bigger impact than we ever thought possible. Remember the ripple effect from the Big Bang? There’s a ripple effect when we share, even in small ways. Our impact, no matter what it is, will outlast us. That is our legacy.
Which are your top 3 inspiring books?
Together, the following books illustrate an evolution in our modern societal thinking about conservation, as each of these authors make their own journey, also evolving in their thinking along the way.
A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. Leopold came to appreciate a land conservation ethic, growing from a young man who killed a she-wolf, later regretting the action, to a landowner committed to restoring 120 acres of depleted land in Wisconsin.
Get it in Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.
Which are your top 3 inspiring movies, series or documentaries?
An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore stood up for climate change science because it was the right thing to do, even though it was not popular politically.
Blackfish. It helped me see the cruelty in capturing these magnificent, intelligent orca whales, separating them from their pod families and the wild and condemning them to captivity.
Schindler’s List. We can never fully understand the horrors of genocide and oppression unless we have lived it, but we can educate ourselves. You may not be able to do everything, but you can do what you can do.
Which are your top 3 favourite songs?
Taking Care of Business, by Bachman Turner Overdrive. I played this song every morning on my commute to a Chicago suburb for my first job out of college. I look back now and I realize that I may not have been doing what I wanted to do, but I was doing what I needed to do – I was taking care of business.
Small Town, by John Mellencamp. I grew up in the small town Mellencamp sings about. Where I did my last three years of high school, it felt like I was related to almost everyone by blood or marriage. My dad had attended that school, and we had fifth and sixth cousins sprinkled throughout the town (Louisville, Illinois) and surrounding area (Clay county). Looking back, between some of the small town views, the lack of opportunity, and feeling like I didn’t fit in, it was stifling for me. I understand now that it was because I didn’t feel like I could be me there.
Dream, by Priscilla Ahn. This song reminds me of a neighborhood friend who was taken 10 years ago at the age of 42, by an aggressive breast cancer. She left behind four kids age 10 and under. I stayed with her in hospice the night before the day she passed. She loved this song – even made a recording of songs including it for the cancer center where she was treated. It reminds me that life isn’t fair and in fact can be heartless and cruel to some, and others of us get a pass. With that pass comes a responsibility to share of ourselves.
Which is your most inspiring quote?
In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught, by Baba Dioum (Sengalese conservationist). I was raised on a farm where animal mortality was a fact of life – not even really noticed on a day-to-day basis. Then in college I was trained as a biologist and in the realm of ecology and ecosystems, the population is always more important than the individual. It wasn’t until I started seeing living things through the eyes of my young daughter that I understood the value of the individuals within the population – the toad she would rescue from the pool skimmer basket or the gecko that made it into the house. Now I see that each life, no matter how small, has an intrinsic value, as does its’ niche in the ecological community. If we see nature, really see it, we will grow to love it. If we love it, we will want to protect it. If we want to protect it, we will be willing to make the small changes in our lives that create a better environment. We typically think we as parents mold and shape our children. I think our children are the real teachers.
Tell us about your own favourite picture!
The spiny orb weaver is the most adorable little creature! Spiders are often feared and maligned – typically killed on sight - so I think of this crab-like arachnid as a tiny spider ambassador. They come in not just the white color you see here, but also yellow, orange and red. Their egg sacs resemble small flat green ovals of slime on flat surfaces. They even mark their web with little reinforced dashes so that you won’t accidently run into them, and place their webs above head height, but where they can capture mosquitoes and other flying insects. What’s not to love?