My strongest memories of my parents are all in nature: times like learning how to fly fish with my father, visiting farms to pick up pumpkins for Halloween, and hiking through woods near the lake where we spent our summers when I was a kid. I think it's because I prefer to remember them in moments when we were somewhere beautiful. It’s like the colors and sights help me remember how rich life felt when I was with them.
My parents died when I was very young- my father of a stroke when I was 10 and my mother of cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, when I was 11. For the majority of my life, my parents have been memories, photographs and visits to the grave where there were buried in an old church cemetery in downtown Toronto. The lessons they taught me, the stories they told me and my ideas of how they would have made a particular decision were how they participated in my daily life.
Once or twice a year on an anniversary or a birthday I would visit them and they would be tangible and physical again- a large black tombstone above a manicured green lawn with markers to remind me when they were born and when they died. Two rings carved into the stone with November 23rd, 1979 to record when they were married. Two little scales carved above their names tell me that they were lawyers. "May God hold you in the hollow of his hand" was chosen for the epitaph because my father liked Irish music and Irish prayers, and because it's a way to say that your love and best wishes for someone don't end when they die.
Two-thirds of the stone is left empty so that there's space to record my brother's and my names- and the names of our future wives. My father died unexpectedly, so choosing a grave was a last minute decision. My mother wanted a family plot, so she picked the last one available despite the fact that it's beside a busy street with busses and traffic and sirens blaring from the firehall down the street.
She had terminal cancer and knew she was planning for herself as well as my father. She couldn't bear the idea that leaving her two sons was forever, so she bought six plots so we could join her one day. When I asked her who the extra two plots were for, she said our wives. I asked her about our own kids and she said that was a very long time away from now, but I could tell it bothered her. Family was important to her. She loved telling me stories of my grandparents and great-grandparents and our ancestors who fought the British in Scotland and then sailed over to America when they lost.
She admired the old family mausoleums in the cemetery, but six plots was the biggest space left in the cemetery unless we wanted to build a mausoleum and selling our house or using my father's life insurance to build one was a bad way to use the money she was planning for her sons’ education.
The message my mother kept telling me in the year before she died was simple, but open ended: "be great at whatever you do." Whatever field I wanted to pursue, from singing to acting to politics or business was fine with her, but whatever I chose I was supposed to be great at it. Work hard, learn everything you can, and become the best. It wasn't the normal message to hammer into a 10 year old, but time was tight and she knew she had a deadline. She had a particular respect for business and loved that I had a little side business making devil sticks- juggling sticks you could make with wood doweling and hockey tape- and selling them to other kids at school.
She would drive me to the hardware store where I would buy my materials and used the time to talk about how much she respected my grandfather for building a company and taking care of his family. She taught me how to make my first business ledger, recording my materials costs and my sales to my friends at school, helping me learn how to calculate if I was making a profit. When she asked what I wanted to do with the profits and I told her I wanted to go the store and buy more materials so I could grow my little business, she smiled with pride.
My mother received her terminal diagnosis on December 24th, 1988. She died six years and a month later. After her diagnosis, she found that the medical system was efficient, but it was cold and clinical, leaving her struggling to find emotional support and guidance from people who understood what she was going through. She realized that if she needed this support herself, then other patients did too, so she founded Wellspring, a non-profit network of cancer support centers that provides emotional and psychological support to cancer patients and their families.
Between radiation and chemotherapy, after bone marrow transplants and month long stays in the hospital, my mother would sit up in her bed working on raising money, calling therapists and volunteers, and finding a location to put Wellspring's first centre. She worked like a woman who found her life's purpose, although I think what she really found was a purpose for her suffering. She was religious and philosophical in how she looked at cancer. She told me that if she had never had cancer, she never could have started Wellspring.
As I got older, I watched Wellspring grow. It grew from a few cancer survivors counselling a few patients to thousand of volunteers and tens of thousands of patients, with centres across Canada, and if her dream comes true, eventually the United States. Viktor Frankl wrote one of the sources of meaning in our lives can be unavoidable suffering, but only if we find a purpose in it, a way to redirect our hurt, our anger to a cause. She never read or heard of Frankl, but she found her way to his conclusions. And for her and the thousands of volunteers who joined Wellspring, she found meaning in the months and years of pain and sickness and hospital rooms and, eventually, in death.
After my mother died, we sold my family home and I moved in with one of my older brothers- Mark, my 33 year old half-brother from my dad’s first marriage. I had a vague understanding of how big a sacrifice he was making, but was mostly caught up with trying to understand what had just happened and what possible reason there was for it. I grew up in a religious home and went to a Christian school, so God was always part of that discussion and, in theory, part of that answer. My mother talked with me a lot about it in my last year with her, I think trying to help guide me to an answer she knew I would have to find on my own.
Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger was a theme that came up frequently, but with different words and examples for obvious reasons. I was left thinking about the meaning of all the conversations I had with her, all of the hopes and goals she tried to pass on to me.
When I was young, my mother sometimes told me about the dreams she had for me and my brother- that we would grow up and have successful careers, brilliant and beautiful wives, and happy families. She talked about our future educations, about law school and about which colleges she wanted us to go to. My brother listened to her and went on to become a lawyer, marrying a beautiful and successful prosecutor and having three young children. I listened to her and heard her talk about Princeton and how proud she would be if I went there. She was an implacable optimist and ignored the fact that I was in the third grade and still hadn’t learned how to read, so my academic career was getting off to a rough start.
I was mostly a bad student and struggled in middle school. Part of it was because I didn’t see the point and part because I was angry. Some of the anger was the natural process of grieving. Some was the confusion and hardening process of being a boy growing up without a father, feeling the stress of not having his born leader to follow, to protect you, and to guide you. A lot of it was just the frustration of not understanding why the world, or why God, would do something like this.
I was lucky to have a few inspirational teachers who had the patience to put up with my attitude. As they supported me and slowly helped me understand the importance of doing well in school, I thought more about the conversations I’d had with my mother about college. I occasionally visited and talked with the team at Wellspring and saw the legacy she’d created by turning all of her pain and suffering into something positive. I put all of my anger and frustration into doing well at school, training at sports, and focusing on college. I hadn’t found the meaning I was looking for, but I did find a goal. One morning in early April in my last year of high school, my brother called me and let me know I’d gotten into Princeton.
When I was in college, it felt like I was back in 7th grade, wondering why all of this had happened. I thought about what my mother told me about being great at what you do, but I didn’t understand it. I wanted to find a purpose, but didn't have any particular goal to attain. High grades, sure, might as well, but what would I do with them? Train harder and go further with fencing, the sport I dedicated myself to in high school? I didn't have the natural athletic talent to be a great competitor and knew it would be a long slog to find out if I could make it on training and desire alone.
I was lost until I started dabbling in business with my best friend, who later become my Better Place Forests co-founder, Brad Milne. We tried to start a language education software company for advanced language learners looking to improve their vocabulary and fluency. We imported hand made cotton scarves from East Africa. We dreamed up plans for launching our first company after college. It was forward movement, business was fun, and I remembered how proud my mother was of me as a little kid taking my $50 dollars of profit and going back to the hardware store so I could make and sell more devil sticks.
Through a strange twist of events I spent the next ten years working in software and the finance industry. I didn't love software, but it seemed like that's where all the opportunity was so I should go there. We hustled, Brad learned to code, we hired a team, we learned how to sell, we raised money and we landed clients like AT&T, Accenture, PwC, And Groupon. We built a business. It was hard, but it was exciting, like that saying about jumping off a cliff and learning to fly on the way down. But it never felt right. Brad and I would go out after work and talk about what we really wanted to do, not really knowing, but always thinking there could be some purpose for building a company beyond just building something and trying to make more money. We talked about what we cared about, why we cared, and what we would do if we could do anything. We didn't know what it was, but we knew it wasn't in business-to-business marketing automation technology.
I thought back to what my mother said about being great, but wondered what great was. What is great in business? I didn't know. Most of the successful people I knew in business weren't people I wanted to be, anyway, so why was I trying? Why did my mother tell me that this mattered?
Brad and I came across a blog post about the need for purpose in business in the Harvard Business Review. The author, Anthony Tjan, analyzed the great businesses in the world and found they mostly came down to doing three things: making the world more fun, making the world more efficient, and making the world more beautiful. I loved the idea of a purpose behind a business. Something that you could wake up to on the hard days when everything seems destined to fail and say, this is worth it because if I succeed this will matter. For me, I couldn't stop that feeling in my gut that made me ask if this is what it was for. I thought of Wellspring and how much meaning my mother found in it. I didn't see how what I was doing could answer that for me. I didn't know if I really cared enough to push forward. I read Simon Sinek's Start with Why and wondered if I could ever explain why I started a company doing B2B marketing automation.
If I didn't care, why should our employees care, why should our customers care? I wanted to struggle, and try, and fail, and try again at something that mattered.
I read (correction: listen to audiobooks) voraciously and there were a few books about life, purpose and business that stood out and made me think they held the clue for finding something that mattered. I read Cradle to Cradle about building products, and factories, and business models that didn't destroy the environment. I learned that design could make the world more beautiful, more fun and more efficient. I loved the Resource Revolution that suggested the biggest trend in the 21st century would be increasing the efficiency of how we use land and resources. I read Why Nations Fail and came to believe that good businesses with new ideas that change industries are the way to make countries and people wealthier, healthier and happier, but that established industry and governments will usually try to stop change because it's easier to stop than to be part of the change.
I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and learned to believe that quality, what the ancient Greeks called Arete, was the greatness that my mother talked about. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is considered one of the most significant books of the 20th century because it proposed a ground-breaking, but ancient Greek idea: quality is eternal. It might last a few moments, like an Olympic champion’s 100-metre dash, or for thousands of years, like the redwood groves in Muir Woods, California, but when we see it we are drawn to it and understand its significance.
In Man's Search for Meaning, I read Viktor Frankl’s memoir of surviving the Holocaust and discovering that the essence of humanity is in our need for meaning to survive. He explained that we can find meaning from three things: doing or creating something; experiencing something, such as love, which he believed was the purest of human experiences; and overcoming unavoidable suffering. Meaning, Frankl argued, was the core motivation for our existence.
When I discovered The Denial of Death, a 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning treatise on the meaning of life by Ernest Becker, Pirsig and Frankl’s writing became much more clear. Becker argues that the core motivation for our existence is our desire to transcend our own death. We do this by being a part of something greater than ourselves and contributing to the culture of the greater group we are a part of. This could be a society or a country, but it could also be a profession or a family. In the context of Pirsig’s quality and Frankl’s meaning, and my mother’s encouragement to pick a field and become great at it, it became clear to me that they were all talking about the same thing:
Our humanity comes from finding meaning in the actions and experiences of our lives. We can find it, like Frankl suggested, in doing or creating something, such as being a carpenter, a teacher, or a baseball player, but we experience the transcendence that Becker spoke of in the Denial of Death when we do or create something of exceptional quality- the universal and eternal concept that Pirsig suggested the ancient Greeks called arete.
We can also find our humanity in experiencing something of exceptional quality- the love between a parent and a child, or between a happy couple, or the profound satisfaction of being part of a great team. The awe that we feel when walking through an old growth forest or looking out onto a sunset over the Pacific Ocean comes from experiencing the quality of nature and our universe.
Frankl also proposed that we can find our humanity and our meaning in overcoming suffering. In overcoming our greatest challenges, we experience the richest and most complete challenge of our lives- and this challenge is the point of our lives. This was what I watched as my mother took her terminal cancer diagnosis and then directed all of her pain, anger, fear and frustration into creating Wellspring and trying to prepare her two young boys to succeed in the world on their own.
Through all of this, I began to believe that it was possible to find meaning in creating a great business- one whose purpose was to bring quality into the world. Brad and I spoke more about it and became convinced that we could find the right idea and solve a problem that deeply mattered to millions of people by creating a solution that would make the world a little bit more beautiful. We shared articles back and forth, talked about different industries, and dreamed about running that kind of business.
With all of that in my mind, Brad sent over an article about modern burial trends and the idea of replacing tombstones with trees. Brad wakes up early every day, so I opened the article on my phone in bed and tapped out a quick reply, “Nice idea, but not a business. Where do you plant the tree? You can’t put it in your backyard because you’ll move. You can’t put it in a cemetery because there isn’t enough space to grow trees.” I put away my phone and went back to dreaming about other businesses.
A few days later was my mother’s birthday. I went over to the cemetery to visit my parents’ grave and stood looking at our family tombstone. As my eyes wandered and stared at the old, decaying monuments and the few trees that stood in the graveyard, I could hear the busy street behind me. I tried to focus on why I was there, but as a second loud bus rumbled by behind me, I thought angrily: there has to be a better place than this- and the idea of trees instead of tombstones came back to me. In that moment, I realized that there could be something better, it just had to be different. It had to be somewhere beautiful and full of trees. It had to be full of life and in a place that mattered to my family. Standing there, thinking about what that better place would be, I realized I’d found the business and the purpose that Brad and I had been looking for.
As our team grew, we talked about the purpose of Better Place and what drew each of us to the business. A lot of companies talk about mission and values to the point that they become trite, buzzwords that sit on motivational posters in corridors and bathrooms, so we wanted to make sure that if we used a word like purpose, it came out of each of our real motivations and reasons for creating Better Place Forests. We are building a business because we believe that great businesses are the sources of positive change and innovation in the world. But we wondered what the purpose behind that business was? As we thought about it more, debated it, and argued, we realized that the article that Brad and I had found years ago about purpose in business was right: the reason we were all drawn to Better Place Forests was because it was making the world more beautiful. By creating each forest and protecting the land beneath it forever, we were making sure that a small part of the world would always be beautiful. And as each family picked their tree and spread the ashes of their family beneath it, they would add their own meaning to the land, making it not just a beautiful place, but a very human one.
I heard friends and strangers talk about Better Place Forests and the deaths of the people they loved. I asked why they liked the idea and I heard the same themes again and again: families staying together, the dream of being a part of nature somewhere beautiful, how happy they were with the idea that someone they loved would help protect a little piece of land forever. Privately, I wondered how this fit into my own experience. I thought about my mother sitting in her bed between chemotherapy and radiation sessions and telling me that if she’d never had cancer, she never would have started Wellspring. I thought about how I felt as a kid, angry at the world and wondering why all this had happened.
I realized that each person was talking about the same choice my mother made- they were choosing to find something positive in the face of death. They were doing what Viktor Frankl talked about in Man’s Search for Meaning: they were looking at death and choosing to find meaning and humanity instead of pain and anger.
One night when I sat down for dinner with a friend and talked about Better Place, I mentioned part of a quote that I liked from Martin Luther King Jr: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” He looked across the table from me and asked, “Isn’t that what Better Place is trying to do?” As I sat and thought about what he said, I thought back to the images that flashed through my mind when we first began imagining Better Place Forests- protected rainforests in Brazil, mountains of purple heather in Scotland, leaves falling into an autumn lake in a forest in Muskoka, redwoods towering along the coast of California- and I realized that after all those years of anger and frustration and wondering why, it was up to me to make own choice, and Better Place was how I was making it.
Written by Sandy Gibson
Sandy is a co-founder of Better Place Forests and is focused on customer support.