Nonprofits & NGOs

Decelerate to Accelerate

The fastest way forward may be to slow down.

It’s ironic that the people who seek to create a more sustainable world often live the most unsustainable lives of all, sacrificing their finances, their relationships, and sometimes even their health to pursue a broader social mission.

This is especially true for social entrepreneurs who set out to save the world and end up exhausting themselves. As Cheryl Heller, founding chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation, points out, we may be in danger of becoming the “fast food of social change” if we don’t take the time to slow down and go deep. In other words, we need to rethink how change really happens. Maybe it’s less about scaling up and more about scaling in. Getting to the core of the real issues that need healing. Starting with ourselves.

I (Michel) learned this lesson the hard way. After years of constant acceleration—co-founding Impact Hub Zürich, transitioning the global network, and pursuing a doctorate degree on the side—I nearly died. A lethal parasite entered my system, and I didn’t notice it until it was almost too late. But what at first seemed tragic turned out to be a real gift: Recovery gave me time to rest, reflect, and simply be. Only then did it dawn on me that I had been stretching myself thin and needed to refocus my energy— that is, I needed a decelerator as opposed to all the accelerators out there.

So I started prototyping what such a program might look like, first with friends, then with a cohort of fast-moving entrepreneurs from around the world. We went to a remote island near Bali to slow down together away from all the noise. No phones. No Internet. No distractions. This created a space to “tune into ourselves” and go deep with like-minded spirits, reflecting on our entrepreneurial journeys and helping each other crystallize what was really important. But in holding the space for everyone else, it turned out I was the only one not decelerating—again. Consequently, I will take a longer time-out early next year to fully decelerate myself before accelerating into my next venture.

Similarly, I (Roshan) suffered a stress-related illness in my late 20s and ever since have been careful to listen to what my body is telling me. After more than three years of starting a new organization, most of it spent in a foreign country and with no external funding until the third year, my co-founder and I were exhausted and close to burn out. To recover, I’ve spent the last four months reconnecting with friends and family in Europe, India, the United States, and Bali. I worked full-time throughout, but made a conscious effort not to work after dinner or on weekends. Weird as it may sound, this required some discipline. Breaking that habit is why I needed to decelerate.

We believe so much in the inner journey of the changemaker that it is a whole pillar of our curriculum at Amani Institute. We listened closely to many of the change leaders we most admired—Nobel laureates, UN chiefs, and community leaders—and saw a remarkably common pattern in their recommendations. It boiled down to the fact that if leadership programs don’t help change agents become resilient and personally sustainable, they won’t last the distance and may even cause harm.

As you can gather from the above, we are both still learning how to decelerate ourselves! But we wanted to share some insights from our journeys thus far:

Focus on the core.

Passionate entrepreneurs can easily get trapped in all kinds of activities that distract from the essential. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, calls this the clarity paradox: Clarity of purpose leads to success, which leads to more opportunities, which leads to diffused efforts, which undermines clarity of purpose. So when we are accelerating and find ourselves juggling too many balls at once, it’s wise to step back and review what’s really important. The secret of kung fu masters who can break through iron and bricks with a simple strike is that they focus their energy on a single point.

Build a practice of renewal.

Social change work can deplete energy rapidly. Some of the language we humans use to describe moods is telling: “I don’t have the energy for … ” or “It gives me so much energy to … ” This is no coincidence. To conserve and replenish our energy, we need to develop practices of renewal; we need to do things that energize us. This will vary from person to person; it could be spending time with family, physical exercise, spiritual practices, artistic endeavors, being in nature, or simply reading a book on a weekend morning. Like an arrow, we need to “rest back” to race forward.

Find your tribe.

Finding “a tribe” of people who are making similar life choices is critical for sustaining your energy. This is why so many fellowships exist in the social entrepreneurship sector—there is tremendous value in being with people who understand where you are coming from and rejoice in seeing you grow. In fact, the two of us met at THNK in Amsterdam—a magnet for members of our tribe. We’ve both received a great deal of personal and professional support from the THNK community, and we reconnect with it often. There are many similar communities out there, and it’s important that you find the one that resonates most with your being.

The social entrepreneurship sector in many parts of the world is rife with accelerators. In Nairobi, where Roshan is based, there is a wry joke that goes: “Throw a stone, hit an accelerator.” These organizations play an important role—there are good reasons for their existence. However, in this era where everything is accelerating, we’d like to put our hands up for the importance of deceleration. As the poet Tess Gallagher said: “You can’t go deep until you slow down.”

In this season of reflection—on the year that’s passed and the year to come—we invite you to think about your own deceleration practices and how these questions apply to your life and your work:

  • What’s truly essential to your mission, and do you really focus on it?
  • What is your practice of renewal, and are you doing it enough?
  • Who makes up your tribe, and do you connect with them often?
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  • BY Richard Brownsdon

    ON January 7, 2015 07:17 AM

    I’m with you.  I work at Impact Hub Westminster in London, designing the support programmes for other social entrepreneurs, but on the side run my own startup called Inspiring Adventures. 
    In fact I’m about to spend February with a group called Tribe Wanted, in Bali, working on our startups in a relaxed, decelerated way. 
    Hopefully in the future I can be part of designing more decelerators for my self, the impact hub network, and the wider social community.

    All the best,
    Richard Brownsdon

  • Joe Bute's avatar

    BY Joe Bute

    ON January 7, 2015 11:48 AM

    If living an exemplary life of sustainability habits and practices was the key to the movement for a sustainable world then our leaders would be Trappist monks, Quakers and Amish farmers.  Alas, the world is too much with us and disengagement or following the Ghandi plea that there is no way to peace but rather peace is the way don’t seem to move the needle while imperfect initiatives led by imperfect people on such issues as renewable energy, community-based agriculture and industrial products recycling do seem to create some progress - small that it may be.  I think it is a paradox of our time.

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON January 7, 2015 02:05 PM

    I fully understand what you’re talking about, as a result of my own 40 year effort to build volunteer-based systems of support for urban youth.  I started hosting networking events of peers in 1976 when I was first leading a tutor/mentor program in Chicago, while holding a full time advertising job. I did this out of self-interest. I learned from peers and was constantly renewed by the energy and support my peers offered me.  In 1993 I created the Tutor/Mentor Connection and in May 1994 I started hosting networking conferences in Chicago to enable others do connect and share ideas with me and each other, while also increasing visibility for the sector, with a goal of drawing more of the needed resources we each need, to all of us.

    I’m hosting the 43rd conference in May 2015. The web site is  I hope others who are burning out on their own journey will look on this as a place for renewal and new ideas. 

    While many have offered thanks for what I do, too few have provided the money needed, and I’ve put a lot of my own money, too much really, into this effort. I hope others step forward to share this burden, and to carry it forward in future years since the problems I was focusing on 40 years ago still persist today.

  • BY Nelson T. Enojo

    ON January 8, 2015 08:02 PM

    Dear Michael:

    Thanks for the above advice.  Honestly, finding a tribe is hard to come by.  I am just so thankful with the internet that I can express myself without being rediculed. Locally known as “psychogreen” more pleasant term of crazy, I’m in this state of mind.

    I’ve learned to appreciate that long ago and today, people especially relatives slowly appreciate it too.

    Your advice to go slow to move fast is timely.  I’ve changed job and, totally a new career.  Literally all new and have to double time coping the challenge.

    I am just thankful not to be infected by parasites or accidents to force us to slow down.  Anyway, with all sincerity, thanks for the advice.

  • BY Michael Bischoff

    ON January 9, 2015 06:16 AM

    When I saw the excerpt from your article on Facebook, “It’s ironic that the people who seek to create a more sustainable world often live the most unsustainable lives of all,” I was guessing the article was about the way people working environmental sustainability fly around the world and contribute more to carbon emissions than almost any other individuals. So I was a little surprised to see that one of your main slowing down examples was flying to Bali.

    Another paradox of mindful innovation for me is finding my truest tribe and most inspiring places, no matter where they are in the world—while also loving and committing to the place I am and the people I’m with right now as the shortest path to deep, generative slowness.

  • BY Heather Carmona

    ON January 9, 2015 07:57 AM

    Nicely stated. I actually decelerated enough to take the time to read!

  • BY Becky Margiotta

    ON February 4, 2015 11:27 AM

    Michael & Roshan,

    Great summary of skills for sustainable leadership: focus on the core, build a practice of renewal, and find your tribe.

    On “building a practice of renewal,” one thing I’d humbly suggest including - in addition to doing things that energize you - is not doing things that don’t energize you. I call that “knowing your NO!” (and honoring it). Sometimes leaders think they can’t say no, but I think it’s absolutely essential not only to set clear boundaries, but also to create a culture where that is welcome by everyone on the team.

    I first started this practice when I was the Director of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. I kept a “no notebook” where I scribbled down everything that I didn’t really want to do. I faced into how often I was doing things I didn’t actually want to do, clustered those activities, and identified colleagues who LOVED to do those things, and traded with them.

    One area where I see leaders in our course get stuck is they believe that if they have a “no” to doing something, everyone else on the team must find this distasteful, too, so they should “take one for the team.” Never underestimate the extent to which someone else on your team may enjoy something you don’t. Know your no!

    Thanks again for this great reminder!
    Becky Margiotta

  • Hi there,
    I lived through something similar and am now offering mindful leadership programs and consultancy for minorities and especially for women. Being human again and leading the way by showing people the path to reconnect with themselves and their core is truly a humbling and rewarding experience. We are all the architects of our own lives and we need to start living fully, now.

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