Human Sustainability -  Shift from 'Doing' to 'Being'

Prioritising human sustainability

Provision for human sustainability can be incorrectly assumed and gain less airtime consequently due to urgent calls for action regarding environment and economic sustainability. Human sustainability and our social responsibility for it has equal importance as one of the four sustainability pillars. Human beings are a precious resource to be cared for and it should not take disruptive situations or global pandemics to realise this. If we preserve the viability of people then in times of chaos, work life will be more sustainable.

Our purpose is not limited to ‘doing’

Sustainability for humans is about connection. When sustainable we can be self-supporting and interconnected having our needs met without compromising the ability of others to meet theirs. And this leads to ‘ideal’ sustainable work cultures as well as ‘ideal’ sustainable personal lives. Knowing our purpose and deriving meaning from it is at the heart of ‘being’ rather than evaluating ourselves and others through a lens of ‘doing’. To limit human appraisal to ‘doing’ is brutally unfair and belies the source from which everything flows: “…If you are what you do, then when you don’t…you aren’t” (Dyer, 1976).

Re-writing your narrative to flourish

I have experienced and spent time observing fast paced workdays and relentless long working hours with ever-increasing demands and expected actions but since what I am describing can be a making of its own doing, and some would justify its own success, it is my intention to encourage, promote and enable human sustainability. I want individuals and professions such as teaching to thrive; not unsustainably collapse.

Creating pathways for fulfilment

Coaching can afford a mental pause for thinking and reflecting about sense of being in a psychologically safe space. Carving out deserved time to ruminate about how we live and work releases thinking traps for self-discovery and inspiration to germinate. And as momentum grows so will energy, creativity, reprioritising and innovation. Limiting beliefs such as there is not enough time or bandwidth to stop and think are limiting assumptions, indicative of focusing on ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’! But if these and similarly familiar resistors are challenged, sustainable working can be actualised. A favourite bench of mine by the river upon which I sit and ponder has the engraving: “Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.” Authentic and organic thinking takes place when I connect with my ‘being’, without interruption and with fear of failing abandoned. Nancy Kline (2015) describes discovery as a process which includes noticing what goes wrong and not being frightened of being proven wrong as she poses, “What’s wrong with being wrong?” and Thomas (1979) celebrates: “The capacity to blunder is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria, and there would be no music.” If individuals and organisations value independent thinking and safe spaces in terms of honouring time and creating trusted environments for it to happen, human beings would have the capacity to fulfil and be fulfilled.

Cultivating agile thinking

Although an increasing number of schools and educational organisations are encouraging children, staff and parents to approach teaching and learning with a growth mindset, for instance, I believe more can be done to improve human sustainability through creating a conducive culture. At the heart of this is purpose — for a human being, for an organisation and for a member of an organisation. In thinking about this, rich conversation will ignite and connection with oneself and others will strengthen. More exciting is that “Your purpose statement is not fixed” (Inam, 2020). Being adaptive in change is integral to ‘being’ and neuro-emotional agility is one of the five shifts in agility Inam encourages us to draw upon when life is disrupted. If we bear witness to who we are more than what we do we can co-create our workplace culture and our role within it, reflect whether our values are aligned, and thrive independently and interdependently, fundamentally bringing about human sustainability.

Human connection — ‘being’ to ‘being’

Connecting with our personal stories and those of others gives rise to purpose, and we will intuitively gravitate towards people with resonant narratives. If we actively and inclusively listen to the stories of our fellow human beings, we can honour who they are, engage and experiment with new stories (Drake, 2018). And with change comes transition. Human sustainability is of crucial importance for transition, which can be tricky and at times lonely to navigate. If we are open to ourselves as ‘beings’ more than ‘doings’ trust in finding out how our story develops or begins anew will accompany us during our adventure, as an individual or as part of a collective in and outside of the workplace.

Why human sustainability?

In advocating for celebrating and nurturing the ‘being’ rather than the ‘doing’ of humankind, it is my hope that we can ensure human sustainability, protect it from depletion and nourish it as we might a riverbed. And from this source, social, economic and environmental sustainability can be safeguarded too.

Kirsty Knowles


Dannert, H (11th July 2019). How to establish a sustainable work culture


Dyer, W (1976). Your Erroneous Zones. Funk and Wagnalls Co

Drake, D. B. PHD (2018) second edition. Narrative Coaching: the definitive guide to bringing new stories to life. CNC Press

Inam, H (2020) Wired for Disruption: The Five Shifts in Agility to Lead in the Future of Work. Kindle Direct Publishing

Kline, N (2015) More Time to Think: The Power of Independent Thinking. Cassell

Lupu, I and Ruiz-Castro, M (29th January 2021). Work-Life Balance Is a Cycle, Not an Achievement


Ricee, S (14th June 2021). Why is Sustainability Important?


Thomas, L (1979). The Medusa and the Snail. New York: Penguin