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.