The Inner Journey of the Changemaker

How we manage ourselves and empathize with others are as important as professional management skills in creating social impact.

As a young person who felt strongly about environmental justice, I (Geraldine) planned to become a captain on a Greenpeace sailing ship, and save the whales and the world. I remember the stubborn anger I felt when my godmother sat me down and said, “Unless you know how to change yourself, you can’t change the world.” Wait … what? It seemed selfish to focus on myself when there were burning issues at hand.

Meanwhile, while running a global program to help social entrepreneurs figure out their scaling strategies, I (Roshan) was struck by the burnout so many well-known entrepreneurs experienced. Rather than discussing their global expansion plans, the question at the top of their minds was, “How much longer can I take this?”

These experiences, combined with advice from some of the most scaled-up social change leaders, led us to the conviction that we need to help young social change leaders begin a long-term conversation with themselves—to understand the journey they are on, lead themselves and their work, communicate effectively, and stay resilient in the long run. We believe that the insights, skills, and tools that help us manage ourselves and empathize with others are as important as professional skills in management and execution when it comes to creating social impact.

As we built the curriculum at Amani Institute, we began to see a pattern in the lives of global leaders like Nelson Mandela, local entrepreneurs we were working with, and our own lives and careers in the social sector. We also combed through leadership literature by modern-day titans like Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer, and ancient metaphors like The Hero’s Journey.

What are the guiding questions, best practices, skills, and tools social entrepreneurs need to navigate a very challenging and often life-long vocation? The “inner journey of the changemaker” seems to coalesce around these five stages:

1. Moment of Obligation: Why do I want to create change?

Understanding our deepest motives and the values that both anchor and drive us is powerful, and not least because it helps us stay true and focused in times of confusion and exhaustion. It’s no coincidence that most religions re-live their founding story on a regular basis, or that we celebrate beginnings annually – birthdays, anniversaries, independence days. For some, personal motivation comes out of a single transformative moment. For others, it’s more of a slow burn, a growing conviction that changemaking is necessary to live a fulfilling life. Understanding your moment of “obligation” serves as a compass or a source of energy renewal during your life as a changemaker.

2. Exploration: What are my options?

Knowing the source of your desire to make change is valuable, but what do you do with it? You begin a phase of learning, sensing what the world needs and how that intersects with your own interests. Your strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, and core skills all come into play as you seek work that will contribute to the change you want to see in the world and make a living at the same time. The Hedgehog Concept is an example of this inquiry. Gradually—and this can take years—you come to know what you must do.

3. Decision: Am I ready to jump?

People who’ve dedicated their lives to changemaking often have a story about the moment they actually decided to take a leap of faith and start walking their talk. Regardless of whether or not you are born with privilege, the temptation to choose the “safe option” is a large and legitimate barrier. Changemaking is not for the faint of heart; it sometimes means putting your livelihood, even your own life, on the line. Starting a dialogue with our deepest fears and those of people we love takes courage and the ability to commit. It can mean switching careers immediately, or honing a craft or gathering new experiences for a while before making a switch.

4. Action: How do I make my vision come alive?

The daily grind of social change work, which often brings more setbacks than victories, and the excruciatingly slow pace of genuine change requires that entrepreneurs carefully monitor their energy to avoid becoming prematurely cynical or utterly exhausted. Mentors and networks of like-minded people help immensely (an important reason for the proliferation of social entrepreneurship fellowships around the world), as do practices of renewal such as sport, art, travel, and spirituality. The point is to stay “alive” in the process of doing the work you choose, while building grit, resilience, and stamina along the way. Importantly, the personal work involved in building these capacities also helps you better understand how to change others’ mindsets, and thus becomes another tool for effectively working for change.

5. Transformation: Who have I become now, and what’s next?

The personal demands while leading social change shape us as individuals even as we shape a new world. Self-transformation is an inevitable part of social change work. Sometimes we change so much that we realize we must move on to a new project or career, which constitutes a new “moment of obligation,” and the cycle begins anew. The transformation phase also helps us reap the harvest of our work, and formulate lessons and insights that others begin to seek out from us as wisdom and teaching.

Decades later, Geraldine’s godmother’s advice rings out like a clarion call. It is insanely difficult to change the world. Doing yoga or meditation won’t help you avoid cynicism and burn out unless it's part of a deeper understanding of who you are. Depending on which stage you are in, you can examine your current reality and understand what you need to do to move forward. At the same time, you’ll understand how to support others in creating change in themselves and their communities as well.

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  • BY Alessandra Pigni

    ON November 15, 2014 01:38 PM

    “Doing yoga or meditation won’t help you avoid cynicism and burnout unless its part of a deeper understanding of whom you are.” Thanks for making this clear in a simple sentence. Burnout is often misunderstood. We prevent burnout by doing meaningful work which is recognised and appreciated. What is needed is self-knowledge at personal and organisational level, not stress management training. Personal and global transformation go hand-in-hand and the process takes more than a week-end retreat, it takes probably a lifetime…

  • BY Geraldine Hepp

    ON November 16, 2014 11:36 AM

    Dear Alessandra,

    I completely agree with you - which is why I like the concept of Personal Mastery (one of the people who brought this back into the organizational development conversation is Peter Senge in ‘The Fifth Discipline’). There is no one-fits-all solution and it IS a life long process of self-mastery really. What I find interesting is that there is a vast body of knowledge and experience out there but it almost seems as if the ‘personal development camp’ and the ‘activist/changemaker’ camp are not learning from each other as much as I think is possible.

    The saying by Gandhi ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ becomes less cliche when one really gets to work and sees how difficult it actually is to change.



  • BY Nicola Grace

    ON November 25, 2014 11:34 PM

    It’s encouraging to here you talk about self transformation being necessary for changemakers. I go so far to say that the #1 habit of highly effetive changemakers is to do the inner work. The more clear we are, the more self aware we are, the more able to overcome our own inner resistance and self sabotaging tendencies, then the more we will be able to tap into our ability to create the extraordinary.

  • Margaret Koshal 's avatar

    BY Margaret Koshal

    ON January 30, 2016 06:25 AM

    Decision making ,the elaboration that change making is nog for the faint is something to me since when facing challenges as I try to make change, this is a constant reminder that the journey is tough but with that bold decision a breakthrough always lies ahead.
    Moment of Obligation: Why do I want to create change?
    This gave me a chance to look into the past reflecting what I can do in the future.

  • BY Dave Ojay

    ON May 25, 2016 05:28 AM

    Deep and insightful. Change is a constant journey within and without. A very difficult one indeed.

  • Seyhan Han's avatar

    BY Seyhan Han

    ON July 4, 2016 01:10 PM

    This article reminds me one of the greatest Persian Sufi literature, ‘Conference of the Birds’; a long, symbolic, didactic poem..  It is mostly about a long life journey to find what is lacking in their life: a king they decide as means of true guidance/direction, a strong lead, a fulfilling purpose. They decide to embark on a journey to find the king, a legendary but mythological bird… But the ones who survive the journey are only a few of them due to virtues they showed during the hardships and uncertainties, unpredictable journey they started.. When they reached the destination after all that hardship to find the greatest bird, they realise after all, the king is themselves (a reflection of their own images on the lake, they find out) So, the five pillars above are our guidance for our journey that we want to embark to find our king. grin We need to ask ourselves these questions honestly, have introspective at all times, understand what drives us and continue the journey by changing ourselves as we dare to make some change in this world. wink

  • BY Geraldine Hepp

    ON July 4, 2016 01:50 PM

    Thanks Seyhan for your comment - this is a beautiful story. Do you have a link to that?

  • BY Erica Marcos

    ON July 4, 2016 02:31 PM

    The inner journey of the changemaker is quite challenging because I find there is a lot of resistance from the outside world trying to hold us back to avoid change and keep the status quo. Yet,  in my personal case, whenever I am being challenged to continue pursuing a deep change to come alive, I remind myself the purpose behind my actions, my inner purpose. Whenever I do this, I gain energy back because the purpose is something beyond my personal will. To me, the purpose comes from another source, a source different from the ego. The inner purpose comes from a level of consciousness that talks to us in a reassuring way, it’s like a voice from the intuitional level that says “this is the right thing to do, trust it, even if you don’t fully understand it.”

  • Seyhan Han's avatar

    BY Seyhan Han

    ON July 4, 2016 04:39 PM

    Thanks Geraldine, although conscious of the emoticons appeared when posted, but next time I know not how to do that..  It’s “The Conference of the Birds”, by 12th Century Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din Attar, from Penguin on Amazon: http://amzn.to/29kBtAX  - Online PDF but much earlier, first different translation: http://bit.ly/29m51PZ 
    It’s surely full of allegories related to Sufi mysticism so may appear like a religious text but it has many interpretations, deep meanings underneath. Many years ago, Peter Brook made a play from it, first performed in Africa.  [Hoopoe advises his avian followers. Exhorting them to glide, fly, and soar, he cries: “Love loves difficult things. We’re on our way! ]

  • Quinta Onditi's avatar

    BY Quinta Onditi

    ON July 7, 2016 08:51 AM

    I believe as illustrated in this article, that moment of obligation is the most important stage in the inner journey of a change maker. One must take upon themselves change as an obligation before they are even able to explore the factors of change in identifying an area of interest. Even for those naturally born with a drive for change, that decision to obligate themselves to it comes as a challenge which is how procrastinators of change exist in the first place. Taking action as mentioned has to be by far the most difficult stage in change making because the challenges come to life but with resilience one is able to see the beauty in transformation as an end result. Thank you for not only highlighting but also describing these stages in the journey of change making. Having taken change making as an obligation I intend to use each one as a source of fuel in my journey as a change maker to avoid any burn outs.

  • BY Geraldine Hepp

    ON July 7, 2016 10:11 AM

    Dear Quinta, indeed - procrastination is connected to that - our moments of obligation can also serve as an anchor or ‘guiding start’ when we are overwhelmed with all the different options or the fact that perhaps we can’t find the ‘perfect’ work/job or know how to achieve what we want to achieve. It is also helpful in the moment of decision, where a lot of holding back and making excuses happens as well and in the stalling of action when we get overwhelmed with our own ineptitudes and fallacies to make change happen efficiently. To take a step back and say, in any case, all of this may be difficult and I may even sabotage myself or the work at times, I know that I am committed to being engaged with the world in this way and I will keep testing the best way to do this work. - Thanks for your comments!!! And please do share what you do as well smile

  • Carolina Arteman's avatar

    BY Carolina Arteman

    ON July 8, 2016 07:32 PM

    We starts our inner journey when we stop to understand the world better, when we went through some difficulties, when we realize we are not happy with the way of our life, when we simply feel we do not fit in this sick world! This is the spark needed to start a fire that will take your heart and that will require you atitutes to make the world a better place!

  • Quinta Onditi's avatar

    BY Quinta Onditi

    ON July 10, 2016 01:44 PM

    Dear Geraldine, apologies for being unable to write back to you sooner. I highly appreciate your response and I’m glad that you second my point on procrastination. I wish you well in your commitment to finding the best way to engage with the world, I believe you will find it and look forward to hearing about your progress on it. I will most certainly be sharing with you what steps i take towards this goal and hopefully we can compare notes and learn from each other. I’m very excited about that. Thank you very much for the insight grin

  • nJeriKan's avatar

    BY nJeriKan

    ON July 14, 2016 01:19 PM

    We are, and will keep, loosing when we think that we need to be fixing things out there (and there’s a lot that needs fixing in the world) but we MUST focus on self-fixing and self-maintenance in order to be fit to “fix” what we put our hearts and minds to. It is important to keep track of self, from point of realization/identifying of purpose. .When a leader comes to a place of asking it it all worth it, they need to be able to find their answer in the original purpose. It may sound easy but it serves as an anchor when the storms of life hit and you want to jump your own ship. It’s a life-long journey that we must commit to, and NOT a destination. When you think you have arrived you stop taking inward reflections and you start to loose touch with others.

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