November 16, 2009

How to Eat an Elephant, Part 4: When The Choir Rebels. ~Cameron Burgess

Having spent two days hot-housing with Waylon [Lewis, founder of elephant magazine and now elephantjournal.com, elevision and now Walk the Talk Show] and then opening up both him and elephant to (lots of) feedback from the community, I feel compelled to offer him the deepest of bows.

Because as much as he’s taken a beating through the last post (which confirmed my belief that many people don’t bother to comprehend what’s being asked of them before they comment), he has continued to remain open, available, and thoroughly vulnerable—you know, human.

It bears testament to his commitment to supporting a conversation about ‘living the mindful life’—how many other people do you know who would have the courage or foolishness to open the door to criticism in a public forum for all the world (including advertisers) to see?

So, as my mom used to say whenever I spoke out of turn—”Thanks for sharing!” and thanks also—a genuine thank you—to those who communicated authentically and honourably in line with what was being asked: how can elephant improve?

The purpose of this post, as much as to illuminate how elephant is moving, is to redress the balance and to reflect back some of the erroneous assumptions being made by the community about Waylon, elephant and business in general.

The reason why Waylon agreed to this process of being blogged about, agreed to be exposed to the community, is because he believed, as do I, that this conversation relates not just to elephant, but to most businesses that are striving to “make the world a better place.” He was therefore willing to go under the microscope, or onto the cutting board.

None of the below assumptions are new to me—they’re common amongst individuals, organizations and communities who dedicate themselves to some sort of ‘higher’ calling (whatever that means to them), yet I never cease to be amazed at the myopia of the mindful masses.

1.  The most common criticism raised was that elephant is “all about Waylon.” [Ironically, some advised that he make it more so, and get rid of other voices].


It’s his business! It’s not a non-profit (not intentionally, at least), it’s not a religion, it’s a business. A personality driven, media business. Does Ariana Huffington get the same criticism? David Letterman? Garrison Keillor? Ira Glass? How about Jon Stewart? Or Oprah?

And when it comes to using face and voice to pass along a “spiritual” message, I don’t hear anyone criticizing the Dalai Lama…

Somehow, it seems, that some of elephant’s readers have forgotten that elephant is subject to the same requirements of any business. It’s not philanthropically funded, nor buoyed up by donations. It’s funded through commercial activities—most specifically advertising—and has been pushed along by a strong and media savvy personality.

When the mission is “to be of benefit,” then fame is simply a way of achieving leverage. The Buddhists don’t seem to have an issue with it, according to Waylon, just so long as it’s serving the greater good.

We recognize, however, that the mission Waylon is inspired by—that of supporting conversation about living “the mindful life”—needs to continue to grow beyond his limited capacity to orchestrate. As a founder, holder of the original vision or mission, his role is to offer a space for the conversation through several different mediums, rather than being merely the dominate contributor to that conversation.

2.  ideas about enlightenment and/or enlightened behavior are not enlightened

I know I’m straying here, from a conversation about business, but who, amongst elephant’s 90,000 monthly odd readers is qualified to define enlightenment?

To quote Jessica Duravage from South Carolina, who said:

“If you don’t agree with something.. whether it be Waylon, Elephant or your boss… THAT my friends is your practice. Being open to the information IS YOUR PRACTICE. Deciding how you want to use it IS YOUR PRACTICE. Judging it because it is not serving your immediate needs or wants is %#$@%*$^ [ed]”

Just saying..!

3. promoting products and accepting advertising contradicts the mission

If you live in the forest, in a house you built with your own hands, using tools you made yourself from local, naturally occurring materials, and you walked there, naked, and made whatever clothes you’re wearing using fibers you grew yourself, locally, with tools you fashioned from local, naturally occurring materials, and you grow and harvest your own food and cook it with utensils you made from local, naturally occurring materials, with fire you made by rubbing two sticks together…

…Then there may be some degree of validity to taking the position that being mindful means not promoting product (still, you’ll want to check with the Forest Rangers about use of public lands, or you’ll get kicked out).

In the meantime, buying responsibly-sourced goods that you actually need is a practical way we all get to be mindful, to help change our economy from a consumption-based disaster toward an eco-responsible one. Supporting companies that are moving in the right direction improves access and affordability (try telling someone living in the Projects they should be eating organic and buying sustainable fashion, and see how far that gets you).

Where to from here?

Interestingly, the discussions we’ve had illuminated the very issues raised in the comments—issues that it’s clear Waylon was already aware of (our sessions occurred in advance of the comments). In order to expand the mission, however, there are some key strategic decisions that have been made:

  1. Begin the process of teasing apart Waylon and elephant by creating his own unique web presence that will:
    • (re)publish a selection of his blog posts, videos and articles – from elephant, Huffington Post, Shambhala Sun and elsewhere
    • provide a platform for him as both a paid speaker and author (he’s currently working on two books)
    • allow him to lend his personality to elephant in a way that is less about injecting himself into the conversation, and more about promoting that conversation through his engagement with various green / social / mindful events beyond Boulder, Colorado
  2. create a process for receiving elephant content from around the world that will:
    • require less editing and input on Waylon’s part
    • increase the relevance of content to readers from outside of Colorado
    • provide more relevance to advertisers from outside the Boulder / Denver area – with a  particular focus on California, & New York (who, combined, represent about 25% of the site traffic)
    • increase the number and quality of daily posts (more posts  = more readers = more advertisers = more money = more staff = more posts = more readers = more influence = mission being accomplished)
  3. employ a part / full time editor
    • they will be responsible for maintaining the integrity of elephant’s voice
    • this will free Waylon to work more on Walk the Talk Show, completing his books, and attending / speaking at more conferences
  4. redesign the elephant website:
    • provide better grouping of content, rather than the single stream (in line with the ‘tabs’ idea) so that site visitors can more quickly and easily find what they are looking for (website visitors rarely use ‘search’ functionality, and will generally look to what presents on the homepage to drive them deeper into the site)
    • round three will be to start presenting a homepage based upon the site visitor’s location (so that visitors from LA, for instance, can choose to see a mix of local LA content with the balance of content from elephant’s general stream)

So there you have it—and you’re welcome to comment and make suggestions (and inevitably will…). That said, the basic strategy is not up for debate. It’s been decided. In service to Waylon. In service to mission. In service to you. In service to all beings. In service to life.

And whilst we all may stumble upon the path, in equal measure in the seeming paradox between being in the world and yet not of it, it’s a journey we’re all taking together – one immaculately flawed and human step at a time.


Cameron Burgess is a recent Australian addition to the Boulderverse.

He is the CEO of a group of companies incorporating uncompromise, icologi & wellnessconnect that provide commercialization, strategic development, marketing & digital services purely to the health and sustainability market.

Cameron is also a core-team member of w1sd0m – a global network that helps organize the flow of intellectual, social, human, & financial capital to strengthen Global Social Enterprise.

A speaker, workshop facilitator and agent provocateur, Cameron can be found on twitter @uncompromise

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