How might we change the way we do the work of social change?

Today, the first “business day” of the year, I opted to spend my morning hiking. This choice was intentional, informed by a paradox that I’ve noticed since I launched Optimistic Anthropology this past summer.  On the days I spend my mornings swimming or hiking, I tend to be incredibly productive and creative, in fact more productive and creative than when I spend the whole day at my computer.

There is science that backs up my anecdotal evidence up (see: Blue Mind, The Nature Fix), but what I've observed is that:

  • While I’m in the water or out on a jaunt, my brain starts making connections and coming up with ideas very organically;
  • After a swim or hike, I feel energized and open-minded as I settle down to work, and as a result the work ends up being more generative; and
  •  I am far more focused after a swim or a hike, and thus I am able to get more done on my own or with my clients and collaborators in less time.
Steps on the Laurel Canyon Trail, Berkeley, CA

Steps on the Laurel Canyon Trail, Berkeley, CA

Trees on the Laurel Canyon Trail, Berkeley, CA

Put simply, my work seems to benefit greatly from the time I spend getting to a state of openness.  In a recent blog post, I tried to describe the characteristics of places and spaces and activities that make people most open to the world.  I called it the “openness equation” and it’s a fairly simple formula:


You can read more about how I describe all these concepts here.

I originally came up with the openness equation in the context of the personal development work I call life sabbatical. But, this morning as I hiked one of my favorite trails in the Berkeley Hills, I was experiencing the right mix of boredom (putting one foot in front of the other on a hike I know very well), awe (a hawk swooped so close to me I cursed out loud), and joy (it was just a beautiful day to be out for a ramble) that I was really open to the world.  My mind started sparking about the openness equation's implications for social change work.  And, in particular, why so many of us who do work we truly believe in and recognize is important for the world, feel so burnt out from doing that very work, and so pessimistic about the progress we are making to solve our world’s toughest problems.

In social change work, there is real urgency.  Our work is about life and liberty, it’s about safety and equity, at its best, it not only saves lives and communities, it supports their success and vibrancy. Which means that when we fail, the stakes can be far greater than what happens when our colleagues who do other types of work miss a deadline or underperform.  We social change-makers are millions of people working in all sectors who are attempting to solve 1000s of intense and meaningful social, economic, and environmental problems with relatively limited resources given the history and scope of what we’re up against.

And we have internalized a scarcity mindset, the belief that there will never be enough money, people, policies, expertise, time, or whatever else we need to do the work as it should be done.  We say that it will take too much time to build meaningful relationships, to engage the community in an authentic way, to do the in-depth research, to learn from others, to build our own organization’s culture and capacity.  We treat the time to learn and analyze and synthesize and build trusting relationships and skills as nice-to-haves, not foundational to developing and implementing meaningful solutions. 

As a result, we sacrifice ourselves and our missions.  Instead of going deep into the work, we end up spreading ourselves thin.  We book too many meetings and jump on too many calls, we work on a lot of projects at once and get whiplash moving between them, we develop strategies from the limited information we already have and hope they will work, we try to conform to unrealistic expectations of solving problems in 3 years that have taken decades, sometimes centuries to create.  And that doesn’t even touch on raising money and attracting and developing great people with the right set of skills.

We’ve become unfocused, and we’ve also become narrow.  At our worst, we only take on the things that we think we can solve, we only use the approaches and strategies we already know how to execute, we only work with the people and organizations we already know.

I write these things, because I've been there.  I've lived this reality, and its heart-breaking and soul-crushing. But, I don't believe that it has to be this way.

So, how might we change the culture of the social change-makers?  How might we move from unfocused to focused? From narrowness to openness?  As individuals, how might we structure the way we work differently so that everyone can have their version of a swim or a hike?  As organizations, how might we shape our culture and strategies differently?  How might we carve out spaces for boredom, awe, and joy?  And how might this help us create even greater and more effective solutions? It’s a new year, what’s stopping us from starting today?

View from the top of Wildcat Peak, Berkeley, CA

Another view from the top of Wildcat Peak (this one has cows), Berkeley, CA

How are you or your team/organization of social-changemakers working to bring openness and focus to your work?  Say hello if you're interested in exploring this with us more!  Or share your story in the comments or on social media using #optimisticanthro.

A couple of recent resources inspired this post which might also be of interest to you: