A Broader Inquiry for Deeper Meaning: How Self-Reflection Can Revolutionize Our World with Joel Solomon
Impact investor Joel Solomon’s life should have turned out quite differently.
Born into a family that successfully developed shopping malls in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he could easily have slipped into the family business, made a very good living and been hailed as a wealthy businessman. Instead, Joel left home on a journey of self-discovery, leading him to a life and career with a deeper, more profound type of impact. He is now the chair of Renewal Funds, the largest mission venture capital firm in all of Canada, with $98 million assets under management, and most recently, the author of “The Clean Money Revolution.”
Rank & File chats with Joel as he rides on the ferry from Cortes Island in the Pacific Northwest, his spiritual home for decades. With the sound of the ocean breeze in the background, Joel’s gentle voice still carries a hint of his southern upbringing, and underscores his deep, unhurried wisdom.
Growing up Jewish in the South during the segregated ‘50s and ‘60s meant many opportunities available to others were closed to the Solomon family. This reality weighed on young Joel, for he knew his parents were profoundly good citizens. Ultimately, the thought of embarking on a career focused on the pursuit of money for money’s sake troubled him. “I was starting to get a bit uneasy, and wonder if my family’s money and profession was dirty,” he shared in a 2013 TEDx Vancouver talk.
Meanwhile, there was another shadow over the Solomons too, one that no amount of money could change — polycystic kidney disease.
Passed down from generation to generation, this genetic kidney disease had taken its toll on his family. Joel’s father had been diagnosed with the disease, in which cysts in the kidneys inhibit the organ’s ability to filter one’s blood. In the era before dialysis or kidney transplants, this meant the condition was untreatable and ultimately fatal.
When he was in his twenties, Joel learned that he too had the condition. Doctors told him he may die very soon, or he may live a long time, they had no way of knowing. But based on his family history, he knew his life may be cut unnaturally short.
Joel had understood from an early age that defining his meaning and purpose were the first steps in figuring out what he truly wanted to do with his life. However, before his diagnosis, he had believed he had time to sort it out. The reality of his diagnosis “shifted up the intensity of that search.”
“The reality of the fact that we will die, and we could die soon … is a very valuable teacher and guide, if we choose to use it.”
— Joel Solomon
A Search for Deeper Meaning
“I left behind things I had been steered towards or fallen into, as can happen with young people,” he recalls as he walks the decks of the Cortes Island ferry.
Joel’s inquiry into his purpose led him to leave a burgeoning career working with Southern politician Jimmy Carter for an organic gardening training center in northern California. That stop led him, in turn, to arrive near these very shores close to Cortes. As he tells it, his jobs during this time were quite simple. At The Pacific Killer Whale Foundation’s remote laboratory he just had to “feed the dogs, don’t burn down the house and turn the tape recorder on when the orcas come by.”
Joel learned to relish his time immersed in solitude, silence and nature. He became an avid forager and developed a deep understanding of the interconnectedness among natural systems. “That was the beginning of the next chapter of my exploration,” he shares.
His time of wild solitude at an end, Joel shaved his beard, cut his shoulder-length hair and returned to Tennessee a changed man. But the lessons he learned — about the value of exploring, questioning and self-reflecting — have acted as a compass for his life ever since.
“There’s a temptation to fit into a slot … My advice is follow your instincts, try things and say yes to lots of opportunities, because being exposed to different circumstances, different parts of the world, different ways that people live, different ways that people think, was certainly crucial to me. I am a strong believer that the broader look and the broader inquiry has a very good chance of leading to a deeper answer to meaning and purpose and ‘what I want to do with my life’ that comes from an authentic place…”
Leading by Learning
Joel’s family legacy and his determinative time in nature merged into a guiding philosophy and leadership style that his good friend Gibran Rivera calls “evolutionary leadership.” Evolutionary leadership is a life philosophy, based on the foundation of constant learning and growth. Yet, it also requires a deep and unrelenting level of introspection.
Joel believes that “leadership is about having enough life experience and a willingness to take risks,” undoubtedly. Yet, equally important is the ability to learn from what just happened. Indeed, it is perhaps the most painful moments, the striking mistakes, the glaring blunders, that offer the most prescient teaching moments.
“Constant questioning leads to constant learning.”
— Joel Solomon
His recommendation to leaders interested in growth is simple: self-reflect. “Not necessarily critiquing oneself,” he clarifies, “but rather asking, ‘Am I aligned with my values? Am I being the best I can? Am I listening well? Am I being sensitive? Did I miss some cues? Did I do that in a way that was kind and worked for you?’”
Introspection for Social Good
Joel continues to develop these introspective skills as a leader in the evolving world of mission-driven finance, and challenges us to take a deeper look at the role of money in our own lives during this social change “movement of movements” we are all experiencing in the world right now.
“There is a rising of people wanting to think again about the long-term future and the well-being of the whole planet and its people, and to try and find practical solutions that would make a better world.”
In his new book, “The Clean Money Revolution,” Joel says that “there is more than enough money in the world to solve the problems that we have,” and points out that “50 trillion dollars will pass hands just through death in North America alone by 2050!”
But Joel says most of us have still “allowed money to really narrow down our understanding of what it is, how much there is and what it can be used for.”
So how should we view money?
Joel says, “Money is a sacred tool. It is the embodied energy of people’s labor and of harvesting things from the planet … It should be used with consciousness and intention. It should be used for the greater good — which can include taking care of ourselves, our families, our needs, our communities — but love of humanity and planet and life should be the underlying motivation…”
Joel calls this “the next stage of a deeper level of interacting with money,” which begins again with a question, this time with the question: How much is enough?
In fact, before investing, Joel asks probing questions of entrepreneurs like these: “What do you care about?” “What really matters to you?” “Why do you want to make 10 million dollars?” “What are you going to do with it?” “Is this purely a game or a sport to show you can win?” “If you make 10 million dollars, do you want to make 20 million after that?”
“It’s easy with money to simply get caught in having more of it,” Joel says. So the third part of his book really focuses in on: “Can you determine what enough is? And, when you know what enough is, what do you then do?”
The Clean Money Mindset
These profound questions related to money lead Joel to a practical call-to-action for all of us. He urges us to think about: Where is our money coming from, who and what is being impacted, are we satisfied with that, and are we willing to accept that?
“You can become super obsessive about this, and of course, never do anything, it’s all very relative,” he says. “But, I would say those relative aspects make a big difference in how the world turns out.” Joel uses this reference to explain:
“We are pretty clear now that what we eat has a big influence on our health — our emotional health and our bodies. If we do a little better on that versus a little worse, and you accumulate that over some years, the difference gets pretty dramatic. So our money is doing the very same thing. Right this minute, we probably own slaves, are poisoning people’s babies and starting wars…
“… I am in a car, waiting on the ferry. It’s an electric car that is made of materials that have been mined and manufactured. It has plastic. I am talking to you on a cellphone made of rare metals, quite toxic things that damage people. What do I do with that?”
Joel says: Awareness. Choice where there is choice. Demanding better products. Becoming an intelligent consumer. And every time we deal with money, continually asking: What do I know, what can I know, what do I need to know about who and what is being affected? And, can I do that better?
Practical Tips From Joel on Using Money
“I am actually not that interested in perfection,” Joel laughs, “I realize that is not real, but I focus on continuing doing better.”
Joel suggests starting simple, with asking questions like these: “Where do I bank? Do I use a credit union, where there is shared ownership and most of the money stays local? Or do I put my money into an institution that takes it across the globe to who knows where and who knows what uses?” “If I have savings, what do I do with it? Do I put it in mutual funds and stocks, and if I do that, what companies are those ultimately representing? And do I feel good about that?” “When I shop and buy anything, small or large, who is affected? Does that matter to me?”
For Solomon, his answer is a resounding “yes.” Yes, it matters where his money goes, what his money is used for. And he is joined by a rising tide of others who also answer, “Yes.”
“There is a clean money revolution afoot,” Joel says, and he urges us to join it.
Board Chair of Hollyhock, and author of The Clean Money Revolution, Joel activates money and business into pragmatic models for long term balance of ecology and society. Renewal Funds, RSFSocialFinance.org, Vancity.com, TidesCanada.org are important financial change agents where Joel plays key roles.
Portrait Photo: Zack Embree