Episode 367 – The Solutionists with Solitaire Townsend

Solitaire Townsend‘A book is a job title that stays with you for life. I will forever be author of The Solutionists… This is your long tail. This is how you remain having influence in the world over time.’

If you ever feel like the problems of the world are overwhelming and that you are powerless against the injustice, apathy, greed and prejudice out there, this is the conversation you need to listen to. Solitaire Townsend is a solutionist par excellence, and she empowers other people to become solutionists too, no matter how insignificant they think their own actions might be. 

And part of having an impact on the world, it turns out, is stepping up to write a book that will exponentially increase your influence. Don’t get angry: get writing. 



Solitaire on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/solitairetownsend/

Solitaire on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GreenSolitaire

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alison-jones-9b09893/

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

Power Up Your Writing workshop at Gladstone’s Library: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/power-up-your-writing-workshop-tickets-600773689277

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: I am here today with Solitaire Townsend, a renowned sustainability expert who works with some of the world’s most influential organizations. She’s Co-founder and Chief Solutionist at Futerra and Trustee of the Solutions Union. In 2023 she was named ‘Agency Lead of the Year’ at Adweek’s Sustainability Awards.

She’s a TED speaker, a Forbes columnist, and she’s the author of The Solutionists: How businesses can fix the future, which is a very hopeful title. Oh, look, if you’re looking at this on video, there it is, isn’t it gorgeous? Welcome to the show, Solitaire.

Solitaire Townsend: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here.

Alison Jones: It’s really good to have you, and as I say, it is one of the most really energizing, hopeful titles, and I want to start right there.

How did it come about and why is it needed?

Solitaire Townsend: So for many, many years, I’m now in my third decade of working in sustainability with businesses, with NGOs, with individuals, and there’s never really been a sort of collective noun for those of us who are working within this. We call ourselves changemakers sometimes, but that can sometimes mean different things to different people. Sustainability folks, The Sustainarati, I have heard it called.

Alison Jones: I like that.

Solitaire Townsend: When I was thinking for myself around what I wanted this sort of next few years, decade of my career to be, I realized it was all about solutions. I spent a lot of time working on the problem, spent a lot of time communicating the issues from social justice to climate change, biodiversity loss, et cetera, and then there is this whole next period, just about solutions.

Which is where the word solutionist came to me and there is a word, it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it means a solver of problems. And in many ways that’s what a solutionist is. It’s a solver of problems. And the biggest problems that we face today are poverty, social exclusion, social justice, and of course the massive environmental questions that we have to find answers to in terms of resource use, climate change, biodiversity, et cetera.

So I took the job title on of Chief Solutionist with a little bit of trepidation and a small amount of embarrassment, but I was like, no, I need a job title that reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing every day. And people really responded to it and other people have started using it as a job title. And so I thought, right, there’s a lot of books out there about how to do sustainability. There’s much less about who does sustainability and about us as individuals and what it takes to be a solutionist. So that’s where it came from.

Alison Jones: And I love the fact that, as you say, that people were sort of waiting, although they didn’t realize it, for the right collective noun, and when you provide it, people congregate around it, don’t they? People kind of adopt it and use it and it gives you a language, it’s brilliant.

Solitaire Townsend: Well I’ve actually noticed, I did a quick check before the book came out, how many people were using the term solutionist about themselves on LinkedIn. And it was six. There was six people who were using that term and some of them worked in gaming or they weren’t anything to do with sustainability.

Even in the few weeks since the book has come out, it’s now well over 30, so people are adopting this term for themselves, which is just like, I couldn’t be more pleased.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s one of the great gifts of writing a book that offers that kind of terminology, isn’t it? And you said just in passing there, what it takes to be a solutionist, let’s loop back to that. The problems facing us can feel really overwhelming and frankly depressing. What does it take to be a solutionist?

Solitaire Townsend: So a big part of the wonderful folks who I interviewed for the book, from CEOs through to activists, entrepreneurs, was asking that exact question. And in the book I go into the five different attributes of a solutionist and how to learn them and how to become better at them.

And one of them is around optimism. Now, optimism sometimes gets a bad rap as if it was some kind of like Pollyanna, everything’s going to be okay. In some ways for me, for a solutionist, optimism is hardworking hope. It’s that sense that what I do can make a difference, that rather than worrying, I’m going to act, rather than looking at the problem, I’m going to look at the solutions. And every single one of the solutionists who’ve been incredibly effective and successful in what they do, have this sort of burning sense that it’s worth doing, simply that it’s worth doing.

Let’s go into that a little bit deeper because I think one thing that people get quite sad about, dissatisfied, even bitter about, is that they work so very, very hard and yet they’re not seeing parts of per million carbon dioxide go down, that they’re not seeing a planetary scale change for what they do.

So another thing that’s really important about solutionists is a sense of satisfaction from the doing without expecting that external validation. They’re expecting the planet to turn around and show you that what you did made a difference. I turn 50 next year and I know that within in my lifetime, if I’m spared and make it through to my eighties, we will be facing the worst of climate change. Even if everything which I do works and we manage to get to a recovering biosphere, it’s not going to happen in a way that validates me in my lifetime.

So like every single change maker throughout history, I have to do it because it’s the right thing to do. And as I say in the book, the Suffragettes, most of the famous Suffragettes that we all remember, they never got to vote. The civil rights movement leaders, they didn’t get to see the first black president. The inventors of electricity died by candlelight. You do these things because you serve the future, not because you’re expecting to see the future.

Alison Jones: Not just hardworking hope, but humble hope too.

Solitaire Townsend: And that’s very freeing when you decide to do that. When you stop expecting sort of planetary chemistry to validate your actions and go, no, I believe that this will work, but I don’t expect to see it work because that’s not the timescale upon which these changes happen.

Alison Jones: And psychologically it reminds me of that kind of business approach of focusing on the process rather than the outcome as well. Because the outcome is outside your control, but the process, you are all about the process, you choose what you do each day. Yes, I love that.

Solitaire Townsend: Exactly. And for a lot of people, I think it’s a relief to put down that burden of expectation that somehow that lots of people, particularly young people, are becoming increasingly fatalistic, if not sort of exhausted, watching what’s happening in the world and going, go out and do something about it, and then you’re done. Then whatever else happens is no longer in your control.

Alison Jones: And enough people adopt that, and we actually do move the needle, don’t we?

Solitaire Townsend: Exactly.

Alison Jones: And I’m going step away and ask a really nerdy, business-book-publisher/ editor question, which is that I really liked your model. So you’ve got those five kind of characteristics of solutionists and they form a star or they kind of form a negative star. It’s quite difficult to explain. You have to get the book and look at it people.

At what point were you sort of doodling and going, oh, that’s pleasing. I can make a star out of that. Tell me how that came around.

Solitaire Townsend: So I have a spare bedroom/junk room/office which is titchy tiny, and it’s got a, you know, the video when I’m in that office, back at home, it’s got a beautifully curated background of books and if I moved the camera just an inch either side, you’d see that it’s actually a junk room.

And one whole wall of that was covered with post-its of what I was discovering about the solutionists as I interviewed them. And then also as I researched historical solutionists, people like Mattai, et cetera, and them as people looking at people. And then the post-its began to coalesce in a certain way. And actually they coalesced into what looked to me like a star from where I was sitting.

But the image, as you know, is actually a gestalt. Because being a solutionist is an emergent property of doing these things. Because what I didn’t want to do is to have people sort of trying to hit the centre of the star going, right, I’m going to be a solutionist. It’s like, no, do these five things and actually being a solutionist emerges from it. You don’t have to try to hit the center.

And a really important part of that was to look for attributes that can be developed and learnt. Because another big question I asked myself was, well, you know, are solutionists born or made? Because if they’re born, there’s very little point writing a book about how to become one. So really, really investigating the journey and personal development that solutionists have been on, many of whom actually started their journey sort of in their middle age. Like, you know, they weren’t doing this from birth. And so it was really important to me to identify the attributes that you, that I, can work on in our own lives to become more effective at what we do.

Alison Jones: Yes, and again, naming them, which is hugely helpful for the reader. And that process of research, I mean I often think even if you were never to publish the book, having the book as the reason to do all the research is enough, isn’t it? It’s such a great process.

But what surprised you about that process or what’s perhaps disappointed you about it? I’d just love to hear what you didn’t expect.

Solitaire Townsend: So one thing which I’ve been quite open about is I wrote down a list of a lot of the exciting businesses I wanted to talk to that were growing sustainability, people like Oatly, Impossible Foods, Who Gives a Crap, et cetera. And I’m lucky enough to have roots and connections through to be able to talk to some of the CEOs. One of the shocking things for me was that the first 10 interviews that I did were with white men.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Solitaire Townsend: Because this is all supposed to be about people and about the people behind process. But I’d started not thinking about the people, I’d started thinking about the brands. And we still have, and as you know, there’s a whole chapter on it in the book, we still have a huge overrepresentation of certain demographics in terms of business leadership. And so then I sat back and I thought, wait, let’s go about this in a different way. I’m still really interested in certain businesses, but this is a book about people. So who are the people that I want to talk to?

And I was lucky enough to connect with TED and I’m a TED speaker and also with the Earthshot Prize, and managed to find amazing folks like Majora Carter, who’s this incredible woman in the US who works on making sure that black and underrepresented groups get on the property ladder in terms of social justice in an environmental way.

These are folks who I wouldn’t have been able to have a route to. So there’s one big learning from this, which is ask for help when you’re doing something like this, if you hit a barrier and you realize, whoa, the people that I’m finding it easy to reach right now, that’s not representative of the change movement.

I had to go and ask people to help me find other people. And of course, as always, the shocking thing whenever you ask for help, even though you are embarrassed about it and anxious about it and delay it, is almost always people say yes.

Alison Jones: And not only say yes grudgingly, but really embrace it and pleased to be part of it.

Solitaire Townsend: Oh, like as in, I just could not believe the level of time and energy folks were giving to help, you know and I wasn’t interviewing them. They were helping me find people to interview. And so yes, there was enormous amounts of gratitude in terms of writing book. Like the weird thing about a book is, you know, I’ll hold it up again. Is it’s got my name on it. And actually it’s not my book as in, you know, everybody here at Futerra has helped write this. All these people who helped me find the interviews have helped write this. The interviewees themselves have helped write this. I feel a bit of a fraud to have my name on the front of it, because actually it was very much a collective endeavor of everybody who prepared to share with me their insights and their learnings, and in many cases, their personal experiences.

Alison Jones: Maybe it should be project managed by Solitaire Townsend.

Solitaire Townsend: Exactly. Exactly. Collated by Solitaire it? townsend?

Alison Jones: And that process of research, which as you say is so rewarding, so unexpected… and actually just on the bias point, I think it’s interesting as well just to note for people. It’s really easy to miss those things if you haven’t got your bias radar switched on because as you say, you start with the brands, which seems a perfectly reasonable way to start.

And if you’re not noticing, wait a minute, there’s some underrepresentation going on here, then you’re never going to course correct and you’re never going to make those changes. So, you know, that’s a good point to note. So then you’ve done your, I guess, ground-up research, you are asking these questions. It’s very, very open. You’ve got your post-its, you’re capturing the responses. Talk us through the stage where you start to crystallize, where the model evolves, and then you’ve got to actually wrestle the thing into words on a page. How was that?

Solitaire Townsend: So this is, it’s one of my favorite things to do. I write a lot, I write a lot of articles, I write a lot of speeches for the people. Part of my job at Futerra is writing for leadership with our clients. So there are parts of that process that I love and parts of that process that I don’t. So that moment when things are beginning to crystallize, and what I tend to do is I tend to get sheets of A4 paper, I Sellotape them together in terms of having a big, a big piece. And then I do like multiple colored pens, and I do all of these big mind mapping and the ideas emerge. One of the things which I learned a really long time ago with great advice for mentors, which is deliberately write crap when you’re doing your first draft.

Alison Jones: So freeing, isn’t it?

Solitaire Townsend: Like sometimes I’ll swear, sometimes I’ll put things in baby talk. I’ll force myself to not try to hone the language and just note it down, or I’ll set myself, I’ve got to write a thousand words in 45 minutes so that I’m literally just banging it down because that first draft is where a lot of people, that first line, that first sentence, is where a lot of people stop because they can’t make it perfect. It’s like, no, no, write, write like not one of these words is going to make it through. And I’m a fast writer, so I’m able to generate a great deal of words in a short period of time. And then there’s the bit I don’t enjoy, which is the editing, that’s where you go, great I’ve now got 90,000 words of crap. Now, I’ve got to make it into 60,000 words that somebody would want to read.

And that’s where the real work starts. And you just rewrite and rewrite and you delete thousands of words and take a long deep breath and go and have a cup of tea. And occasionally you delete entire chapters. You take an even longer deep breath and go and have a glass of wine and then eventually you get through.

And of course, a lot of the things that didn’t make the cut isn’t because they’re not good. It’s because they just didn’t serve the particular argument they’re trying to make in this book. So, you know, then you’ve got, you know, a year’s worth of articles.

Alison Jones: It’s not that you have to not use them. You can put them out on LinkedIn or something. Yes. But I think that there’s another thing that strikes me from what you’ve just said is that the faster and looser and freer and, you know, crappier, frankly, that first draft is, the less attached you are to it and the less painful it is when you have to, because you do, you are going to have to cut stuff out. And if you’ve sweated for days over it, it’s going to be harder, isn’t it?

Solitaire Townsend: And it’s also, again, for a lot of people, the idea of writing a book feels overwhelming, impossible. How would I ever do it? And going, actually the idea of writing a really crap book feels much more doable.

Alison Jones: ‘I could do that.’

Solitaire Townsend: Knock out two and a half thousand words a day, you’ve got it done in like just over a month basically.

Like you can get up to 60, if you are writing 1,750 words a day, you can get to a fully written book in a month and a half. Like, you’re probably not…

Alison Jones: …you wouldn’t want to publish it, but…

Solitaire Townsend: A weekend off here and there, but, then you’ve got something because then that psychological barrier of how do I get to that word count has gone, then that’s when the real work starts.

And what most writers that I know actually aren’t writers we’re editors.

Alison Jones: It’s the rewriting, isn’t it?

Solitaire Townsend: That’s the skillset. And I know, the book that you’ve got in your hand is probably the 23rd draft of The Solutionists and some chapters are well into their 50th draft. In terms of, you know, what it took for me to be happy with them.

Alison Jones: And you say that you don’t love that process? I’m not sure I’ve ever met anybody who loves that process. How do you get through it?

Solitaire Townsend: I always, whenever I start to write, particularly when it’s something like this, which requires a lot of research and a lot of stats, I also write fiction, which is much more fun in some ways. But, non-fiction requires a certain amount of credibility and structure around it. I always have a vision of what I hope the book could achieve, but it’s a very, very small vision.

I always think about one person. I try to imagine one person who might be sitting in a relatively crappy job, which they’re feeling sort of slightly uninspired by. They’re worried about climate change and they’re not feeling great about themselves in terms of what they’re doing. And I tried to imagine that maybe this book sparks them to do something that sets them then on a path, not that I would be claiming the book has changed everything for them, but sets them on a path to change.

And if you just have that one single reader in your mind, you go, this is worth it. It’s worth me spending weekends and evenings editing. It’s worth me sort of, you know, growling at my laptop when I can’t get it right. It’s worth me sort of, you know, doing that delete, because that one person’s path being changed would be a huge, enormous, incredible thing to have been able to do. So that’s…

Alison Jones: I love that that’s an actual microcosm of the whole philosophy of the book. That’s beautiful.

Solitaire Townsend: Thank you. And one of the big things which I’m doing at the moment is really encouraging women to write books. So several years ago, I was at a big event with a huge number of the sort of great and the good of the sustainability who were speaking, including politicians and others. And there was a group of young, very young actually, early twenties women who were there as part of the youth climate movement, and they took me aside, and they asked whether they could have a word with me. And I’m like, that’s great. And they asked me why I was the only older woman on the platform. After I took a moment to swallow ‘the older woman’ I asked them what they meant and they said that there was a lot of women in their fifties, sixties, seventies even in the audience, but there weren’t any on the platforms and there was lots of men in their fifties, sixties, and seventies on the platform.

And of course, you know, structural sexism is a part of that, obviously. But what I also realized was every single one of those men had written books and they had had very exciting job titles. They’d run incredible organizations. But a book is a job title that stays with you for life.

And it’s a live job title, that stays with you for life. I will forever be author of The Solutionists. When I’m at 80, when I’m no longer Co-founder or Chief Solutionist to Futerra, I will still be, I’ll be always be, when I’m 80 I’ll be Former Chief Solutionist to Futerra, that’s not a very exciting job title and so what I’m encouraging women to do is go, this is your long tail. This is how you remain having influence in the world over time.

And a lot of men seem to know that innately, that you’ve got to get out there and write books if you want to have a times 10, factor 50 influence on the world. But women don’t seem to know that. And so since I’ve started this campaign, I’ve got three women who are now currently writing books and have publishers for them who blame me entirely for what they’re going through, because they’re now having to write a book.

Alison Jones: That’s brilliant and I haven’t ever heard it expressed so powerfully that idea that it’s a job title for life. I think that’s a really, really good one. Of course, one of the reasons that the Extraordinary Business Book Club is extraordinary is that we aim for gender balance, which is surprisingly hard in the business book world. Yes.

Solitaire Townsend: It’s shocking and you know, some of these women who I’ve encouraged to write books, they are leading some of the most exciting organizations at the moment. They have access to unbelievable number of people. I can’t believe that publishers aren’t already knocking down their door going, where’s your book?

Because of course, as soon as they sparked, they were able to find publishers very easily.

Alison Jones: There’s a, don’t get me started on this, right down the chain there’s some systemic issues, but yes, we’re not going to go there because we’re running out time. And I really want to ask you, let’s have a coffee later, I want to ask you for your best tip.

So you’re fired up, every single person listening here is fired up. They understand that they can do this. They understand why it matters. What do they need to know before they start that you wish you’d known before you started?

Solitaire Townsend: One of the most important things about being a solutionist is actually looking after yourself. So there’s a whole set of things that you can do in terms of your personal life, in terms of changing your diet and changing your travel, and changing your home, about what you can do in your work life in terms of making a case for this to your boss, of actually being an entrepreneur and starting stuff up. There’s so much that you can practically do, but lots of people who are in the foothills of going, hey, maybe this sustainability thing is something I need to do more of, they actually get exhausted really quickly because it’s stressful talking about these topics.

Words like sort of institutional racism and climate change trip off the end of my tongue. For a lot of people, they almost take a pause before they say those words. These are big, moral, challenging, scary issues. And so it’s very, very easy to get overwhelmed. It’s also very easy to think that you have to work on it all the time without break, because you’ve got to save the world. You’ve got to save the world.

So my number one tip for anybody working in this is to stop sometimes, it’s to actually take a pause, look after yourself and remind yourself about why you’re doing this. And Lily Cole, the activist and model gave me a wonderful piece of advice. And she was actually on her way to a funeral when we did our interview. So she was in a very reflective mode and quite a quiet mode.

And she said, what’s the point of trying to serve life on earth if you’re not enjoying yours? And that just, that just sucker punched me. And I was like going, yes, what’s the point of putting ourselves in service, of trying to help other people and trying to save life, if I’m not actually enjoying the life that I have?

And so that’s a big bit of permission to anyone who starts working on this, which is you do not have to be a martyr for the cause. We don’t need any more martyrs. We need joyous, happy people.

Alison Jones: There’s nothing worse than the smell of roasting martyr is there?

Solitaire Townsend: Exactly.

Alison Jones: You attract more people to the cause, when you obviously look looking like you’re having a good time while you’re doing it.

Solitaire Townsend: Exactly.

Alison Jones: Really important.

Solitaire Townsend: Exactly. There’s my wonderful colleague, Lucy Shea, always says the best way to change the paradigm is to have more fun than anybody else, and to let everybody else know it. It’s like that’s how you encourage people into sustainability.

Alison Jones: Right. yes, you don’t flagellate them in there.

Solitaire Townsend: Exactly.

Alison Jones: Yes, love it.

And I always ask my guests as well to recommend a business, well, it doesn’t have to be a business book. It usually is what with this being a business book podcast. But is there a book that you recommend everybody should read apart from The Solutionists, of course.

Solitaire Townsend: Well, there’s actually a whole chapter which I was incredibly pleased that my publisher let me do, there’s a whole chapter at the end of the book of books by underrepresented authors and sustainability and in business. So BIPOC, disabled, gay, Global South writers, and one of the books, which I just absolutely love, is by Vanessa Nakate. Vanessa is a young, extraordinary climate campaigner. And there was a photograph of young climate campaigners at Davos, and she was cut out of the picture. It had Greta in it, and she was cut out of the picture. And so the photograph that ended up going all around the world was of three young white campaigners, and the young black woman had been sliced out of the picture.

And of course, the photographer said, oh, it was just an issue of shape and size, et cetera. But for Vanessa, this was a real calling moment for her. And so her book is called A Bigger Picture: My fight to bring a new African voice to the climate crisis. And she gives a really strong vision within that book around how this climate fight is also a gender fight and is also a fight against racism.

Now it’s not technically a business book. It’s a book about how the whole world changes. But one of the things as a business person, we all need to do, is to read outside of our comfort zones and to read things which challenge our worldview because boy, the benefits of that are extraordinary and the ideas and insights and innovations and new concepts that’ll come to you from doing so.

So, I really encourage you to read A Bigger Picture from Vanessa Nakate., a young African climate campaigner.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. I don’t know the book, but I absolutely endorse the principle behind what you are saying and it’s so easy, isn’t it, to spend your entire life reading books by white men, frankly, who write very good books, but you are really narrowing down your spectrum of understanding the world.

Solitaire Townsend: So, you know, I’ve got Bill Gates in my book. I’ve got Paul Polman in my book. I’ve got those amazing, incredible men who were immensely supportive of the book, but more than one of them, you know, Bill Gates is not a small interview to have landed. More than one of them said that one of the reasons why they were prepared to give their time to this book, compared to the thousands of requests they get every day is because so few business books are written by women and in their experience, they need more business books by women on the marketplace because it makes better business.

And so it was both a very lovely thing that they did, but they also had their own agenda, which is they want to see more books by women out there in the world because they need those voices to improve business.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. Brilliant. And Solitaire, if people want to find out more about you, more about The Solutionists, where should they go?

Solitaire Townsend: So The Solutionists is available from all good bookshops. Obviously bookshop.org is one of my favourites, but you know, Amazon is fine.

I’m available, I’m very active on social media, so GreenSolitaire is my handle or please come and and say hi on LinkedIn.

Alison Jones: And a very distinctive name to find on social media.

Solitaire Townsend: Exactly. I’m not difficult to find. Actually, I discovered the other day. I think I’m the only Solitaire Townsend in the world for now. So yes, I’m not difficult to find.

Alison Jones: I am trying not, I’m trying to be happy for you and not at all bitter, but as a Jones, I’m finding it quite tricky.

Solitaire Townsend: Well, let’s just say I am extremely dyslexic, so I have the writing and spelling age of nine years old, and so having a name with that many vowels and consonants in it was very challenging. So I love it now, but I was not a fan of my name when I was 11 years old. So there you go. I’d have swapped for yours in a second.

Alison Jones: That little bomb that you just dropped in at the end there, now I’m like, now I want to talk about how the dyslexia played out as you were writing a book, but we’re out of time. But what a joyful, challenging, interesting, thoughtful conversation. Thank you so much for your time today.

Solitaire Townsend: Well, it’s been wonderful this, you’ve asked questions that nobody else have asked. I’m so, so, so grateful.

Alison Jones: You are so welcome.

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