Stop Trying to Change the World

Many of us have heard this message over and over again: You can change the world. Yes, you. No matter who you are or what you do, you can change the world. 

A lovely idealism fuels this sentiment. We want to feel empowered and to empower others. We want every individual to be motivated to do something meaningful. From schoolteachers and CEOs to baristas and politicians, we want to believe that we each can do something to move humanity forward.  

But for those who fully embrace this ideal, the weight of it may feel particularly heavy. We must give everything we have to the work we feel called to. Mustn’t we? Yet history tells us that meaningful change rarely happens quickly, and it certainly doesn’t happen because of the efforts of one single individual. 

Consider the work of nonprofits and humanitarian organizations. The most impactful social movements, from abolition to women’s suffrage, civil rights to decolonization, lasted years, and oftentimes decades. These movements took multiple generations of activists advocating for progress. And many of them are still at work today. 

To work hard and work well, then, is to be pulled into two realities: The desire to change the world is good, yet each of us is only human with limited capacities. We want to accomplish something big and meaningful as soon as possible. But we must also acknowledge that there is only so much we can do. The fruit of our work or progress we hope to see may not happen in our lifetimes. The slow progress of change is a reality often ignored. And when we ignore it, the risk of burnout only grows.

Just this month, a report by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that, among the nearly 300 nonprofit leaders surveyed, almost all of them expressed concern about burnout. Another survey by Nonprofit HR found that 45 percent of nonprofit employees were planning to look for a different job by the year 2025; nearly a quarter of those individuals were looking to leave the nonprofit sector altogether. 

Rates of burnout can be even higher among certain personality types. Highly sensitive and empathic individuals are often drawn to social change work because of their sensitivity toward suffering and injustice, and their compassionate idealism. In a survey I conducted of more than 200 individuals who identified as highly sensitive, empathic, or introverted, about six out of ten respondents said they had burned out while engaged in social justice work. Among those, over 90 percent had experienced burnout multiple times, with nearly one-third saying that they had felt burned out five or more times. 

The consequences of such high rates of burnout cannot be underestimated. On an ongoing basis, our most valuable efforts lose dedicated, talented, and experienced individuals because they are too exhausted to continue. The voluntary turnover rate within the nonprofit sector is 19 percent, significantly higher than the typical 12 percent turnover rate in the overall labor market. How — in an arena that is all about caring for people — are we unintentionally perpetuating such harm?

There are a few proven ways to combat this: We need to pace ourselves. We need to balance our engagement  with rest, recovery, and reflection. We need to prioritize joy and play, to give our hearts and minds an interlude from the pain we see around us. We need to nurture our spirits, souls, and bodies with rhythms of healthy practices. We cannot, and should not, be trying to change the world all the time.

To actually operate at a sustainable pace, we have to believe that doing so is more important than responding to that ubiquitous sense of urgency. We have to understand that rest and pace and health are not selfish but actually are for the greater good. And it’s more than self-care. Why?

1. Connecting to our own humanity, including our limitations, helps us remember the humanity of others.

It’s surprisingly easy to convince ourselves that we are above basic human needs. Who needs rest when the world is burning? But over time, the more we ignore our own needs, the easier it becomes to ignore the needs of others. And by habit we may begin to expect our peers to also neglect their own needs for the sake of a higher cause. 

Alternatively, being kind and compassionate toward ourselves helps grow our capacity to be kind and compassionate to others. “When we practice empathy with ourselves and others, we create more empathy,” Brené Brown explains on the podcast Unlocking Us. “The surest way to ensure that you have a reserve of compassion and empathy for others is to attend to your own feelings.”

2. Pacing ourselves actually allows us to do more over a longer period of time.

It is truly a marathon, not a sprint. When you compare someone who engages in meaningful work intensively for a few years to someone who intermittently engages in purposeful activities for decades, the math makes this clear: We can accomplish far more if we sustain our energy level over time. To spread out our efforts over time is beneficial to ourselves and to the broader community on the receiving end of that work.

3. Prioritizing rest and sustainability allows us to build greater institutional knowledge and generational wisdom.

Most activists who burn out end up leaving their field and never returning. When one person goes, they often take some hard-earned knowledge and wisdom with them. What are the mistakes they learned from? What are the best practices they’ve acquired? What are the relationships and networks they’ve built? 

This institutional knowledge established with time and experience is irreplaceable. The loss of this knowledge is also at risk when one generation of an organization or institution replaces another. What we know and can do as young adults looks very different from what we can do in our middle age and beyond. 

That loss can look like “movements … plagued by fragmentation, lack of reflection and discussion, and ‘wheel reinventing’ that keeps them from moving their agendas forward,” Jen Plyler explains in the essay “How to Keep on Keeping On: Sustaining Ourselves in Community Organizing and Social Justice Struggles.” If veteran activists are present to pass on all they know to younger individuals, their efforts would multiply and build upon each other over time for greater impact.

There are sustainable ways to do the work to which we are called. The world will change, but so must we.

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