THE BLOG
03/05/2014 09:34 am ET Updated May 04, 2014

Is Rhett Butler Now in 'Right Work'?

Right Work At Any Age: "Youth is not always... wasted on the young!"

Who doesn't remember the steamy scene in the 1939 film rendition of Margaret Mitchell's, "Gone With The Wind" when the fictitious Rhett Butler carries Scarlet O'Hara up the wide plantation stairs?

2014-03-05-GonewiththeWind.jpgOf course, we all remember that just as we remember him slamming the door in the final scene of the movie shocking audiences of the day by saying, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!"

News to me was that... Rhett Butler has a namesake living in Menlo Park, California, who does "give a damn," is way under forty years old, and is working hard to save the environment for all of us.

Several years ago, a feature article in the San Francisco Chronicle caught my eye.

It was the story of a young man who had taken an extremely impactful stand to stop the deforestation of rain forests in Malaysia.

I was in the process of writing my book about how people find their "right work" and had great interest in talking with Rhett Butler.

I contacted him and was delighted when he agreed to an interview.

Was his name really "Rhett Butler"? And of course, how did he get the name?

Rhett told me that almost every interview he has begins with that question.

Rhett's grandfather had been a lone survivor of a military plane crash. When Clark Gable (AKA Rhett Butler) was filming the movie Test Pilot, Rhett's grandfather and the famous actor spent a week as roommates so that Clark Gable could learn firsthand about the plane crash experience.

The name passed to Baby Rhett.

For many reasons, as it turned out, my interview with Rhett was a wonderfully inspiring story for my book, Finding Right Work, Five Steps to a Life You Love.

As a child, Rhett traveled extensively with his mom who was a travel agent. He visited many far away and very exotic lands.

Before Rhett started college, he took a trip to Malaysia and spent time in a beautiful rain forest observing orangutans and the richness of abundant tropical life. This trip and events that occurred soon thereafter were the inspiration for his next project A Place Out of Time: Tropical Rainforests and the Perils They Face. As he explained to me:

Eight weeks after leaving the tract of Malaysian rainforest that had filled me with happiness, I learned the forest was gone, logged for wood chips to supply a paper-pulp plant. This place of wonder and beauty was lost forever. The loss of that small section of forest in Borneo created the urgency to act upon a thought that had been nagging me. I try to picture how biodiversity losses should continue to mount-I will explain to my grandchildren why these places that I enjoyed in my youth no longer exist.

Was Rhett inspired towards his right work? How can one person do so much?

Rhett first built a website to provide information and a platform from which to educate people about the environmental crisis resulting from deforestation of the rainforest and the impact it has on its animals and ecology. He documented this devastation that is happening so rapidly. He also explained the dire consequences of erosion, lost species, and other issues related to climate change. Unlike many others, Rhett proposed solutions for the issues.

Rhett's websites have now become among the most popular environmental websites in the world with global influence.

How did this all happen? Was Rhett always in this work?

Rhett was not always so driven or even focused throughout his early life. In college, he had done the average amount of work needed to pass. He was great at some projects, however, and finished school a year early with a degree in management science. He was strong in economics and math, but his real passions were in biology and the outdoors.

At first, the website was a hobby. Rhett didn't know what he would do for work, but he knew for sure what he didn't want to do. Rhett knew that he did not want to move to New York and become an investment banker and work 80 hours a week for something he didn't believe in.

Since he graduated a year early, he gave himself permission to take a sabbatical and work on his website, Mongabay.com, and selected a project focused on the rainforests. He wanted time to just figure out what he really wanted in his adult life. He postponed thinking about a "real job." On some level, Rhett was taking time for self-reflection, time to discover more about him.

But how did he "make money" to live on?

Some of Rhett's strongest talents were in his ability to analyze complex situations. He worked from home and traded commodity derivatives. He made a lot of money and lost a lot of money. Realizing the risk was too high; he leveraged his skill in analysis and contracted to assess business plans during the dot com boom. He worked part time on this and part time on his web site.

He also started his book about the rainforest. Once completed, Rhett's publisher refused to include pictures in the book because of cost. Rhett posted the book on the Internet for all to read for free.

In mid-2003 Rhett added Google advertisements to his web site. Five months later, when revenue from the ads were nearly equivalent to his take home pay, Rhett thought "maybe I could pursue my passion for a living."

With that he leaped off the cliff, left his "day job" behind and landed right smack in his right work. He turned his full attention to his website and the issues he felt passionately. He has never regretted it and never looked back.

Rhett's award-winning web site is built from deep committed value for nature and a passionate desire to save the world's rain forests. This passion has combined with natural talent and ability to write and create.

2014-03-05-Rainforestbookcover.jpgIn 2011, Rhett published RAINFORESTS, a book about rainforests geared towards children. The book is based on the websites' kid's section and includes 150 photos. The book has since been published in Spanish and Indonesian, while the web version is freely available in 39 languages.

In addition, Rhett's current activities include:

Continuation of Mongabay.com and creation of a non-profit arm, Mongabay.org.
His websites draw more than 25 million visitors per year, making them among the most popular environmental websites in the world.

Recent successes inspired by Rhett's passion for the environment:

  • Even though threatened with a libel suit by an energy company in Borneo, Mongabay's reporting supported grassroots outrage that created international pressure against the purchase of a second-hand coal plant from China (which had been too polluting for China), eventually culminating in the Malaysian Prime Minister canceling the project, which would have decimated coral reefs and rainforests (coal reserves were under the rain forest) and created acid rain for years to come. An unintended positive consequence was the activists who led the campaign emerged as leaders for a wider movement for renewable energy production across Southeast Asia.
  • Rosewood logging in Madagascar became rampant after a government coup in 2009. The lucrative practice was sending the wood to China for upscale furniture and million dollar beds. This demand created massive logging of pristine rainforest and a significant rise in the lemur bush meat trade. Mongabay's reporting focused on the shipping companies involved in the matter, eventually triggering campaigns that halted the practice and saved both the forests and the lemurs.

In 2012, Mongabay.org launched a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness about social and environmental issues related to forests and other ecosystems.

With so many of us looking for our own "right work," what can we learn from Rhett Butler? A lot. Rhett fits the profile that I have seen play out time and again for people who are successful in finding their right work. These steps I describe more fully in my book, Finding Right Work: 5 Steps to a Life You'll Love.

2014-03-05-RhettButler.jpgIn my interview with Rhett, I asked Rhett what counsel or advice he would give others about finding right work:

He answered:

Be aware of what is going on around you, wherever you are. Be proactive. A lot of people are not happy with what they do, but they don't really look around at other options. Instead, it seems they like to complain more than look and act.

Traveling and reading both give you a more open mind.

Respect other people's opinions knowing they just have a different view.

If someone tells you that you can't do something, it doesn't mean that it can't be done. People get discouraged too easily. For almost any problem, there is usually a potential solution or a work around. I'm not going to say that nothing is impossible, but things that may seem impossible are still possible."

Can one person, clearly in his right work, make a bigger difference because of the passion and commitment he brings? Decide for yourself.

Rhett Butler / Mongabay TEDxYouth

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