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?