I’m frequently asked to compare and contrast the small collection of terms that herald the shift to a more life-aligned worldview. But I usually dodge the question. If one of those terms works well for you, there’s little reason for me to try to talk you out of it. The point is to align with life, and any of them can get you there. Although I’ve built my body of work around Thrivability, I use the whole ecology of terms somewhat interchangeably. 

At the same time, there are good reasons Thrivability has been my focus for a decade and a half – reasons that you might find relevant, too, especially if you are venturing into the “Regenerative space” or you’re looking for what lies beyond Sustainability. In that spirit, I’d like to outline some of the value and utility I see in the concept of Thrivability, not as a competing term but as a complement. 

First, the “ability” part of Thrivability is significant. (Alas, Flourishability and Regenerability are an extra challenge to pronounce.) On their own, Thriving and Flourishing are too easily dismissed as some future utopian, likely impossible state. I’ve even found that the terms may be seen as excessive and irresponsible: “You want me to aim for thriving when there are people struggling just to survive?” But we can focus right here, right now on enhancing our ability to thrive. And so can those who are struggling to survive. We can pay attention to how this conversation, this moment, this space could contain more of the conditions that enable life (your life, my life, the life of our organization or community, all life) to thrive. And we can grow our practice and our vision from there. The immediate availability of agency and action is valuable, without losing the directional aspiration of our full-on thriving.

The “ability” part also keeps us humble and in service of life. I can’t make you thrive or manage your thriving. Any living system (including you) is too complex to be fully controlled, with potential that can’t be fully predicted in advance. But I can support your inherent capacity for thriving. The same is true of our projects, organizations, and communities. With that recognition, Thrivability invites us into a stance of stewardship, continually sensing, serving and responding to a system’s intrinsic and evolving ability to thrive. 

More broadly, I find that there is something universal and accessible in Thrivability. Though I bring guiding models and frameworks, I rarely offer a definition of the term. I assure people: you know what it means. And they do. I can walk into an organization and, with little preamble or explanation, invite them to identify what thrivability means in their context. There might be a moment of hesitation, but once they get started talking with each other, they easily come up with a list of characteristics and conditions. And that list continues to offer useful guidance and insight over time. Indeed, with little explanation to staff, one of my clients renamed their Employee Engagement Survey the Thrivability Survey. No one questioned it. We know what it is to be able to thrive in our varying contexts. And we discover more as we step into the practice of Thrivability together. 

That ease and universality doesn’t seem to be quite as present with Regeneration. I want my marriage to thrive, or even to be Thrivable, but do I want it to be regenerative? Possibly. But I’d have to give it some real thought to imagine what that might entail. Though I haven’t tried it, I’m not sure I could walk into an organization without significant explanation and say: “tell me what Regeneration means in your context.” And a Regenerativity Survey would require some clarification. All of these examples might be a signal that education is needed, so that we all do have an immediate sense of what a regenerative marriage or employee survey would involve. For now, I find that Thrivability is often the handier tool. 

And, of course, there are times when other terms are the better choice. There is a valuable buzz around Regeneration these days, and a real need for its emphasis on healing and on continuous systemic renewal as a core design feature. Flourish is more accessible in many other languages, and in English it carries a joyful, artful tone. Thrivable Agriculture wouldn’t mean anything to a farmer, but Regenerative Agriculture has clear meaning. 

The final point I’ll offer – at risk of opening up major debate – is that I see Regeneration as a characteristic of Thrivable systems. A system’s ability to regenerate itself is part of its ability to thrive over time, as are its abilities to ward off threats, to innovate, to maintain necessary levels of stability and to kill off aspects that are no longer needed. Therefore, I find Thrivability the broader concept. But ultimately, a system can’t be thrivable unless it is regenerative, and it can’t be regenerative unless it is thrivable. So I’m not even sure it’s worth debating.  

More and more, I’m seeing “Sustainable and Regenerative” as a bridge phrase to describe an organization’s activities or commitments. I’m curious whether we’ll ever see a similar pairing of Thrivable and Regenerative in popular use. Until then, the ecology of terms is helpfully there to choose from.

Image by Sara Heppner-Waldston of saragrafix.

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