How Activists Can Set Boundaries and Stay Sane

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white text on purple background, 'Keep Calm' meme: 'Keep Calm and Do Less'

‘My goal is no longer to get more done, but rather to have less to do’ – Francine Jay

Have you ever felt like you wanted your life back from activism or change work? Although you enjoy what you do, now and then do you wish you’d remained blissfully unaware, or that someone would just ‘sort it’ all so you can go back to doing what else your life path might have taken you on?

Crux defines ‘activism’ as any work undertaken in the public sphere that is unpaid; or that is over and above what you are being paid for because you are committed to something intended to bring about change, whether you are a full time volunteer, or accepting lesser rates/doing extra/pro bono work around paid consultancy; or whether you’ve been handed/taken on extra responsibilities to create change as an add-on to your ‘real’ job.

Whatever you’re working on, there are times when it can feel like little headway is being made. Maybe you’ve suffered a major setback or defeat – hopefully only temporary, but it still feels like an effort to generate the psychological energy to keep going.

I was highly amused when the satirical news site The Onion released this piece, ‘Nation’s Experts Give Up’ – change agents working across areas including health, sustainability and safety will smile at the sentiment, and daydream about similarly being able to throw their hands up and let all care go:

WASHINGTON, DC — Citing years of frustration over their advice being misunderstood, misrepresented or simply ignored, America’s foremost experts in every field collectively tendered their resignation Monday.

“Despite all our efforts to advise this nation, America still throws out its recyclables, keeps its guns in unlocked cabinets where children have easy access, eats three times as much red meat as is recommended, watches seven hours of TV per day, swims less than 10 minutes after eating, and leaves halogen lights on while unattended,” said Dr. Simon Peavy, vice-president of the National Association of Experts. “Since you don’t seem to care about things you don’t understand, screw you. We quit.

“Go ahead…you don’t need us. Watch all the topsoil go down the Mississippi. Transport your children in baskets on top of your SUV deathmobiles. Keep playing with your cute and cuddly pal, the atom. Press your nose against the TV screen for even more educational 3rd Rock From The Sun enjoyment. Use plentiful gasoline to burn book-readers at the stake. Don’t eat anything but sugared pork lard. Do whatever you want.”

Excellent. Yes, let’s leave them to it. Can we go to the pub now?

When it seems the vast majority of people don’t know or care about what you’re working on, it’s understandable to hit a few ‘why do I bother?’ moments.

After all, you could be doing something entirely selfish with your discretionary time. You could be spending it with your family, on a cherished hobby, generating a better income so you can worry less about bills, or just ‘doing’ nothing.

And yet because you believe that what you are doing can and does make a difference, here you are, reading another report, writing another submission, participating in another online debate, responding to another request, planning another event…

What your efforts demonstrate to others is that you are a willing person, and the reward for doing such work and doing it well is: more work. More requests for your time, involvement, input.

On the one hand, this is positive – it means you are considered an influencer, and that you have leadership qualities that people look to.

On the other, as you become more influential, the demands for your time and advice will multiply, and being able to decide which to respond to, which to delegate and which to let pass will determine how effective you are.

Here are some thoughts on how change agents can set boundaries for themselves, and retain their sanity:

1. You do not have to respond to every email, accept every meeting request, or attend every event

Have you ever received a communication or request from someone that was so vague or open-ended, you simply did not know what the person wanted, nor how to respond (these drive me mad – I’m not a mind-reader). If it’s not following rules 3 and 4 of the Email Charter, there’s a good chance that, these days, I’m not willing to spend the energy interpreting what is wanted if the sender is not willing to spend the energy framing it so it is clear.

Maybe you suspect the request may have found its way to you because you can be relied on to take an action or do the research that others will not. There is a reason this site was created. Not all questions people will want to ask you are ‘dumb’ of course, but there’s a difference between asking for your personal input or guidance and being plain lazy. Do not fall for this trap!

For years, I persisted with a ‘service’ ethic and mindset that if someone needed my help, I should provide it. We’re all working to the same objectives, on the same team, right? Because I had the knowledge they needed around green procurement, or where/how to recycle whatever, I should share it.

Because I could, I should (see #5).

This placed me in a reactionary space where I found I was always responding to others’ ideas and needs rather than being proactive with my own work and intentions.

Some years back, I emailed UK columnist and author George Monbiot and received an automated reply, which included a thank you for anyone sending kind comments and an assurance that all messages were read; that speaking enquiries could be directed to a nominated contact, and similar pre-emptive responses.

It ended with words to the effect of: ‘I have found that I can either be polite or do my work, and unfortunately it is the politeness that has to go’.

Although I realised that meant I would not get a reply to my question, I thought this was brilliant! How true, and how honest.

I could easily fill my evenings and weekends with any one of a number of workshops, seminars, events on a range of issues – there is always something on. Sometimes I go. Sometimes I’d rather relax, play a game with my dog and not have to rush off somewhere, or think, even if whatever it is worthwhile, which it usually is.

Be aware that if you attend a meeting or event, it will (if it has been an effective gathering) generate motion in terms of things that need doing. Are you prepared to take on any of those things? Because once you’re there, and you’ve provided input to/spoken in support of a course of action, are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?

2. Put the work back on to the people who need to do the work

If you notice that people are overtly handing you work that you’re not in a position to influence (see #6), or subtly throwing out bait to see if you will bite and take something on, ask ‘who really needs to do this work?’

A classic situation is that of the organisational ‘greening’ or ‘sustainability’ champion – in many cases, the issue becomes identified with a particular person rather than becoming embedded as everyone’s responsibility. When that person leaves or is absent, efforts fall over. The change work has become bound up with an individual, and not the organisation.

In Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of LeadingHarvard University’s Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky warn of the dangers associated with becoming the issue, rather than ‘orchestrating the conflict’ inherent in change:

(Leaders) can rarely can afford to embody one issue. They need to keep their hands free so they can orchestrate conflicts, rather than become the object of conflict…when you take on the issue, you become the issue, and the way to get rid of the issue is to get rid of you…you stay alive in the practice of leadership by reducing the extent to which you become the target of people’s frustrations. The best way to stay out of range is to think constantly about giving the work back to the people who need to take responsibility. Place the work within and between the factions who are faced with the challenge…

Making yourself the hero/ine or taking on the responsibility of change that belongs to a wider group means making the change work vulnerable.

3. Protect your mental & auditory environment

If you work in an open plan environment or anywhere that leaves you exposed to distractions or interruptions, or you are dealing with a level of ‘stuff’ on a day to day basis beyond your brain’s capability to deal with any superfluous mental stimuli, invest in a good pair of ear plugs, or listen to this via your computer or mobile device.

The same goes for mental intrusions that interrupt flow. Mobile tech in the form of remote email access, wi-fi and smartphones is both a blessing in terms of flexibility and connectivity, and a curse as an electronic leash. Be the master, not the slave, of your tools. One of my friends has his phone confiscated by his partner while on holiday and locked in the hotel safe for the duration of the break, and is not allowed the safe combination! Maybe all homes should have such a safe :)

Mental down-time is critical, especially if you’re switching back and forth between a range of different things. Meditation to quiet the mind is always good, but its even better to stop becoming mentally over-busy and frazzled to begin with.

stylised image of brain with 'out of order' sign on it

4. Beware of prestige

Don’t agree to do something because it will look good on your CV or impress others. Think about what it will cost you in time and attention to divert your energies from existing objectives, and to do the new role, task or position justice.

In particular, beware of ‘prestige’ – in his article How To Do What You Love, Paul Graham offers an important insight when he cautions:

If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

‘Prestige’ also means the spotlight, and attention – and even a way of ‘neutralising’ your efforts. Perhaps your work can be most effectively carried out under the radar?

Weigh up any potential opportunity or request by considering how well you can truly fulfil it, and how well it also serves your existing objectives – not what packaging it comes in.

5. Kill the word ‘should’

There are probably a lot of things you can do. That’s why people look to you. Even so, it doesn’t mean you ‘should’ do anything – ‘should’ is an awful, judgmental word we inflict on ourselves in many areas of our lives. It’s responsible for guilt, and ultimately resentment if we end up doing things purely out of a sense of ‘should’, especially when we no longer enjoy them or feel we are achieving anything as a result.

‘Should’…pffft! Who said?!

There’s only one instance in which the use of this word is acceptable: you should get rid of the word ‘should’!

6. Know your scope of influence

Is the request or opportunity within your ability to influence via your knowledge, contacts or ability to leverage things needed? Consider every request for help or involvement, but ensure it is worth the effort to engage, not only for yourself but for that person or organisation – because if you are not able to contribute to furthering what a group is working on in some way, then you are wasting their time as well as yours.

Sometimes, a conversation or meeting with no clear purpose can yield the unexpected and will turn out to be worthwhile. Yet too often, you can end up frustrated at having spent time doing something that you could have spent better elsewhere.

It’s tricky to pick the difference, but your intuition will usually guide you. Be honest. If you don’t have the time or mental bandwith, you are short-changing yourself and the people and organisation you’ve agreed to assist.

And above all – don’t waste your precious time in any kind of group where others repeatedly show they are only committed to wasting time.

some-e-card of men around a table, caption: 'I'm not convinced we've wasted enough time on this'

Of course, these suggestions apply to all work environments and practices, but they are extra critical to change agents (and indeed any volunteers who are intrinsically motivated and/or emotional captives of their work) for two reasons:

if you’re doing activism around your paid work, you’re managing two such situations not one, and will have even more demands on your time from more people for less available hours, so there is an even greater need to be extra vigilant about time thieves

if you’re not in paid work, there’s often an assumption that your time is much more discretionary – without the structure and boundaries of paid work that ‘quarantine’ you to some extent, your time can quickly become fair game and be chipped away at, a bit at a time, until you feel completely fragmented

It all feels so horribly ruthless at first: saying no, declining to do something for any one of a myriad of worthwhile initiatives. Even worse is the guilt associated with giving up existing associations. But it’s an evolution – you’ll progress from not being able to say ‘no’, to saying ‘no, because (justifying your decision)’, and eventually you’ll just be able to say ‘no’.

Recognise the positive aspects of such an approach – it enables you do what you have committed to doing more effectively, and leaves open the possibility for those who can commit the time and energy to step up.

Remember: be the change, but not all of it!

How do you set and protect your boundaries?

Have you ever given up a position, a role that you felt obliged to continue with, or an emotional attachment to? 

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Surviving Personal Attacks – A Guide for Change Agents

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Bugs and Daffy from 'Rabbit Season/Duck Season' skit, with sign on tree altered to read 'Messenger Season'

Image credit: Up The Hammers/Warner Bros

By definition, change agents are ‘the messenger’ – and one thing change agents can be certain of is that as messengers, shots will be fired at them.

‘Shooting the messenger’ is considered a subdivision of an ad hominem attack, which is:

…insulting or belittling one’s opponent in order to attack his claim or invalidate his argument, but can also involve pointing out true character flaws or actions that are irrelevant to the opponent’s argument. This is logically fallacious because it relates to the opponent’s personal character, which has nothing to do with the logical merit of the opponent’s argument.

A lay term for ‘ad hominem‘ is ‘playing the man and not the ball’, an expression from various codes of football, where a player targets the body of the player with no intention of attempting to tackle to take possession of the ball.

It’s against the rules because players are supposed to be focused on the ball (the issue or debate in question), not taking out an opposing player (engaging in character assassination or ridicule intended to undermine an opponent’s position).

How should a change agent manage their response to messenger-shooting and/or an ad hominem attack?

Firstly, be aware of the nature of the response you receive. Even if you have become the target of hostility, be aware that it is your message, not you personally, that the person or group is reacting to. When people attack the person delivering the message instead of debating the issue raised by their message, they are reacting to someone placing them in a state of cognitive dissonance – or where their view of the world is suddenly interrupted and made uncomfortable by new information or ideas that conflicts with their established understanding and belief system. The reaction is because your message has clashed with an individual or group’s ‘belief grid’, or challenged values they hold dear.

Secondly, manage your own response. Like most human beings, your initial reaction to hostility is unlikely to be rational, as such an attack triggers ‘survival’ mode, bypassing the conscious mind and going straight to the ‘older’ parts of the brain. Physical reactions may include a racing heart, a surge of adrenaline, a flushed face, perhaps even shaking hands or voice. You may feel your temper rising, the need to defend yourself and your argument, or the overwhelming desire to sting the person who has stung you (how dare they!).


First, make sure you listen to what the other person is saying – really listen, as the words they are speaking might not be exactly what they are reacting against, there may be a deeper issue. Reflect back to the person what you have heard for two reasons – to make sure you’ve understood them, and so that they know they have been heard, and that you’ve not been preparing a counter-argument while they’ve been speaking.

Often, a few moments of silence can work wonders to cool an inflamed situation. Pause before answering. Take a slow, deep breath.

Visualise a white light around yourself – allow yourself to be present, and respond, but without internalising hostile energy.

Ask strategic questions. Create effective conversations by being curious without being judgmental. Practice empathy.

small vial with a green potion labelled 'empathy'

Bottle label reads: ‘Empathy is the ability of blurring the line between self and other’

Image credit: Viralmente

Most of all, realise and accept that your role is to take the heat for being the bearer of change. It’s hard – hard when people arc up, hard when they’re attacking positions you yourself hold to be true, very hard when you’re being attacked personally and/or dismissively ‘shot down’, especially when someone has misinterpreted something you said. The most unbelievably frustrating scenario is when people are attacking something you didn’t even say!

Remember – amazing leaders would be found everywhere if it was easy!

Helpful resources Crux has discovered and recommends include:

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of Leading by Harvard University’s Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky includes guidance on ‘Anchoring Yourself’, ‘Holding Steady’/’Taking the Heat’ and ‘Controlling the Temperature’; some excerpts below:

When you take ‘personal’ attacks personally, you unwittingly conspire in one of the common ways you can be taken out of action – you make yourself the issue.

Adaptive work generates ‘heat’ and resistance, which present forms of danger to leaders…Learning to take the heat and receive people’s anger in a way that does not undermine your initiative is one of the toughest tasks of leadership.

Leadership takes the capacity to stomach hostility so that you can stay connected to people…Receiving anger is a sacred task, because it tests us in our most sensitive places. It demands that we remain true to a purpose beyond ourselves, and stand by people compassionately, even when they unleash demons. Taking the heat with grace communicates respect for the pains of change.

It’s a deep and natural human impulse to seek order and calm, and organizations and communities can only tolerate so much distress before recoiling. Raise the heat enough to that people sit up, pay attention and deal with threats/challenges – no distress means no incentive for change. But lower the temperature when necessary to reduce counterproductive tension.

The book also makes the point that you may also be facing resistance from friends and allies, as well as those opposing you – people who want you to calm things down, not stir them up, because the upheaval has become uncomfortable for them. It also provides useful insights into other tactics often used to neutralise or marginalise those undertaking change work.

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle – Tolle experienced a profound transformation aged 29 when he was on the verge of suicide, and heard himself saying ‘I can no longer live with myself’. This very statement enabled him to wonder ‘who is this self I cannot live with?’ and to begin to separate his egoic self from his true being. A New Earth examines the current collective and individual egoic state of humanity, and how a shift in consciousness is the evolutionary leap we need to make to survive. Here are some selected quotes from Tolle’s chapters on ego, which are highly relevant for the change agent:

Most people are so completely identified with the voice in the head – the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it – that we may describe them as being possessed by their mind. As long as you are completely unaware of this, you take the thinker to be who you are. This is the egoic mind…

The ego isn’t wrong; its just unconscious. When you observe the ego in yourself, you are beginning to go beyond it. Don’t take the ego too seriously. When you detect egoic behavior in yourself, smile…

Nonreaction to the ego in others is one of the most effective ways…of going beyond ego in yourself…but you can only be in a state of nonreaction if you can recognize someone’s behavior as coming from the ego…when you realize its not personal, there is no longer a compulsion to react as if it were…somebody becomes an enemy if you personalize the unconsciousness that is the ego. Non reaction is not weakness but strength…

All that is require to become free of the ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible. Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment. This is why we may also call it Presence.

Please note, this is very much about the role of your own ego in any kind of exchange, as well as that of anyone you are engaging with. In the moment you become the target of an attack, the kind of reaction you may begin to feel manifesting is the ego in ‘damage repair mode’ – Tolle uses the example of road rage, the abuse of other drivers with language and gesture. By definition, the attacks cannot be personal, as you do not know the others involved, but if you are on the receiving end of aggression, you are likely to have an emotional/instinctual reaction before your rational brain has even engaged.

Becoming aware of your reaction – ‘oh, it’s just the ego, going into damage repair mode’ – and being aware that ‘you’ are not your ego, can help you take a step back at a critical time and enable you to offer a considered, compassionate response instead of a kneejerk reaction.

The Lotus Leadership Guide provides a succinct summary of nine essential leadership capacities. They are all important, but perhaps the most critical ones for when the heat is on are:

Being Present means being fully aware and awake in the present moment – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This includes connecting to others, the environment around you and current reality.

Suspension and Letting Go is the ability to actively experience and observe a thought, assumption, judgment, habitual pattern, emotion or sensation like fear, confusion, conflict or desire, and then refraining from immediately reacting or responding to the situation.

Compassion is having unconditional acceptance and kindness toward all the dimensions of oneself and others, regardless of circumstance. Compassion involves the ability to reflect upon oneself and others without judgment, but with recognition and trust that others are doing the best they can in any given situation.

If you have practiced yoga, or if you meditate, you might already be aware of ‘becoming the witness’ – consciously becoming a detached observer of your own thoughts, letting them come, noticing them, letting them go, without judgment or attachment. It is this technique that both Tolle and the Lotus guide are referring to when separating from one’s ego (being aware of one’s own thoughts), and practicing suspension and letting go.

Leadership and change involves being prepared to take some heat. While nothing replaces the baptism of fire of a real situation, investing some effort into creating an ’emotional hazmat suit’ is well worth the time and an effective way of developing your leadership skills.

And with practice, you won’t merely survive ad hominem attacks, you’ll be able to turn a conversation around from what could have been a potentially destructive situation, and instead create a positive, empowering space for everyone involved.

Have you ever been attacked personally and publicly for breaching a taboo, or saying something that went against what appeared to be the general consensus of a group? How did it feel? How did you handle it?

What tactics have you developed to allow yourself to speak out, without internalising or reacting to others’ anger, frustration or fear? 

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Money Martyrdom – I’m Not Buying It

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One of the wonderful things about change work and the sustainability movement is meeting so many people who are willing to give.

I have been a giver, and also a grateful receiver of the gifts of other givers. I wouldn’t be who I am today without their time, their willingness to share their knowledge and their mentoring.

But there is a flip side to change work – the frustrations, the defeats, the burnout, as I’ve previously discussed in ‘Be The Change – But Not All Of It! I deeply empathise with those who’ve experienced this, as I’ve been there, done that. No doubt many of you have too.

And then there’s the personal financial sacrifice.

Often the work needed to shift the status quo, particularly in the early stages of a shift such as getting climate change into mainstream debate, equates with no means of generating an income from doing this work.

It’s not until the hearts-and-minds-changers, and the practitioners plugging away on small but working prototypes, have built enough momentum to move things to a tipping point that feasible ways of creating an income emerge.

You would have struggled to get paid gigs doing carbon footprinting ten years ago.

Right now, I can think of three friends of mine (and no doubt you can think of many people you know too) who have spent a huge amount of time making a contribution to the greater good, including:

  • one who took over running a Facebook page that helps reunite lost pets and owners, who spends hours and hours of her time contributing to this community service, utilised by almost 5,000 people
  • another who is running a high profile campaign in the UK, but because its goals are for the public interest (and because it’s not the kind of work that will attract funding easily), he is earning far less than what he would be if he was working in business as usual, rather than trying to change BAU for the wider societal interest
  • one who was teetering on the edge of personal bankruptcy after donating thousands of hours of time to community education over many years, time that could have been used to undertaken income-generating, BAU consultancy work

Is it their choice? Absolutely.

Although when people are intrinsically motivated by their values, they often don’t have a choice. They simply can’t not do the work they are called to do.

Do they lack the entrepreneurship nous and business skills to monetise their work?

Possibly, but not always – sometimes it’s because they are too far ahead of the pack and the demand for their expertise is not yet there, or their work is challenging something that will prevent them from being able to go down this path. Sometimes they don’t have the know-how, or access to the mentoring they need.

Regardless, when my ‘lost pets’ Facebook friend was invited to come to the city from her country home to be interviewed about her work, she needed her car brakes fixed to make the trip.

Now, why isn’t there some way for her to ‘withdraw’ on the social contribution she ‘deposits’ so that she could get this service she needed?

These examples are replicated hundreds of thousands of times across our societies, and our societies are carried on the backs of volunteers – life as we know it would not only be less pleasant, but would likely cease to function without them.

The importance of the voluntary sector is best illustrated by the fact that many larger non profits now have ‘volunteer managers’ – people who are paid to manage the unpaid. This is not to disparage people in these positions, which are necessary because there are people who want to volunteer and they do need to be managed so that their energy is channeled – but it’s still an ironic sign of the times.

In recent years, we’ve begun to see new forms of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship emerging, which is demonstrating new models and possibilities for the nonprofit/voluntary sector.

But for the vast majority of people out there who are volunteering, it’s about time we found ways of placing some kind of value – monetary or otherwise – on work that is donated into the community so that the individuals who donate it can use to meet their needs.

Time banks and local currencies are just two of the methods that can go some way to redressing this situation, but they are transacted from one person to another, either directly or indirectly, not between an individual and ‘the commons’.

However money, or any type of ‘receive’ in exchange for ‘give’, remains a contentious topic in the environment/social change/sustainability movements, and some folks within them seem to have an almost ideological opposition to money.

cartoon with dollar bill on psychiatrist's couch asking 'how would you feel if everyone said you were the root of all evil?'

The ‘Money Martyrdom’ Playlist

Here are the Top 5 reasons for ‘money martyrdom’ I’ve encountered in the sustainability movement – many of the reasons are closely related, or overlap:

#1 – perception that money is part of ‘the system’ they are working to change

Those working for social change sometimes have an aversion to money, as ‘lack of money’ and ‘resourcing’ are typically the cited (and constant) barriers to doing anything worthwhile that contributes to the integrity of living systems and the wellbeing of people.

Money is seen as the agent of ‘business as usual’, a necessary evil that one must use, but should not accept, invite or desire.

What about approaching money as a technology for facilitating exchange? Any technology can be used for good or ill. So use it mindfully, rather than hamstringing yourself from doing the work and living your life by trying to opt-out of the system.

#2 – belief that doing something for money somehow diminishes the value of the work

Oh, it’s so mercenary, isn’t it? How could one possibly expect, let alone accept, any kind of personal reward for work we do out of the goodness of our hearts? Doesn’t that make us no better than…them? 

This is the same mentality that gave rise to scathing criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement – those protesting the system, but using the products and the bathroom facilities of multinational corporations. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi ripped this one to bits in a recent article:

OWS (was accused of being) “Starbucks-sipping, Levi’s-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters denouncing corporate America even as they weep for Steve Jobs, corporate titan, billionaire eight times over.”

Apparently, because Goldman and Citibank are corporations, no protester can ever consume a corporate product – not jeans, not cellphones and definitely not coffee – if he also wants to complain about tax money going to pay off some billionaire banker’s bets against his own crappy mortgages.

Let’s not be too precious, people. That brain you apply to resolving the problems and injustices of the world? It needs fuel. Those hands need tools to give the work effect. The spirit and physical form that drives it all needs to be kept safe.

There’s a happy medium between hedonistic excess and money-grubbing, and self-imposed sacrifice.

#3 – fear of being seen as compromising one’s ‘noble selflessness’

You’ve developed knowledge of, or produced something incredibly useful for people, but you can’t possibly put a price on it because that would be undermining the ethos of what you’re saying – especially if what you’re saying is that money isn’t everything, and we need to change the world so that money doesn’t shape so much of what we do with our lives.

This is the same mindset that many artists and cultural creatives carry ie. it’s the work that matters, not money. Mark McGuiness of Lateral Action dismantled this one in his articles 7 Reasons Creative People Don’t Talk About Money and 4 Ways Money Can Support Your Creativity:

We live in a world obsessed with money, where human beings are treated according to their bank balance, not their intrinsic worth, and we instinctively revolt against this…(yet) from a creative perspective, the best thing about having money in the bank and your finances under control is not having to worry about money. It’s not a problem, and you are free to turn your mind to more inspiring subjects.

And if you’ve had the cheek to want to earn and spend money on not just necessities, but on fun? Tut, tut.

Choosing simplicity is wise. Choosing poverty is foolish.

Remembering you’re also on this earth to live and enjoy your life is vital.

#4 – reluctance to admit that money matters because of peer pressure to not care about money

The ‘peer pressure’ within these movements to ‘not care’ about money because ‘money should not be your motivation’ is misplaced, misguided and even dangerous.

You can sing the ‘money doesn’t matter’ tune for a while, but whether you like it or not, eventually it will. 

Circumstances change. Children come along. Health fails. Relationships break down. You get sick of existing on two minute noodles, and living in a cramped, crappy flat.

Define your goals, your purpose, live your meaning – use money to do this, where necessary. Make it your servant, not your master.

If you don’t want money to control you, be aware that a lack of money created by this mindset can also control you.

#5 – avoiding accusations of hypocrisy, and the guilt/trade off/justification game

Have you ever found yourself justifying something you’ve done, something you have, or something you’ve purchased? That’s you pre-empting the money (and subsequent carbon and consumption) guilt trips that we place on ourselves and others, so that we aren’t seen as conspicuous consumers.

‘I bought a new computer – but I’ve had my old one for years…’

‘I flew to x but it was for something I really had to be there for, and you know, I ride to work every day…’

The conversation dynamic becomes a moral high ground issue, and before you know it, some innocuous comment has you in danger of being cast as a hypocrite.

Conversely, if you pride yourself on being someone who ‘doesn’t need money’ and overly zealous about consumption, you become a caricature of self-denial and guilt, and that only reinforces to those who don’t identify as part of the sustainability movement that this is not something they want to be part of.

Yes, we need to be mindful about money (and consumption). No, money is not everything. But going from one extreme to the other, and especially invoking guilt or blame games (either implied or direct), is unlikely to create an example for others to aspire to either.

I understand where all of these come from, and I’ve felt the same way myself. I still struggle with it all.

I know that money has commodified what used to be exchanged as gifts, and broken the social bonds that came with those exchanges. I’m aware that the process by which money is created and controlled is a major part of our environmental and social dysfunction.

But I’m calling ‘bullshit’ on all of this ‘money martyrdom’.

The system that we live in, right now, requires us to do certain things to meet our needs for food, shelter and services, as well as our wants.

Right now, most (but not all) of those needs and wants are met through the need to exchange our labour to earn money to pay for it.

That’s just the way it is – right now.

Remember: we’re all working on changing what constitutes ‘right now’.

And even though we might vehemently disagree with aspects of ‘the system’, sustaining oneself is critical for being able to do that change work.

You cannot do your best work for the world when you are worrying about paying the rent and the mortgage, or putting food on the table.

Your dentist doesn’t have a problem charging you when you get your teeth checked up. Your mechanic is just fine with billing you for time and materials needed to make sure your car’s running well and the brakes are working.

A colleague who has worked in this area for many years put it eloquently:

…money is just a symbolic representation of the things we need such as food, shelter, clothing etc. Does anyone apologise for needing those things? I know our society has got very good at specialising, but it’s like some people have delegated the hard moral stuff to others, and part of that includes expecting them to somehow be above these basic requirements, like they can be nourished exclusively on some moral plane. Sorry folks, we do not accept the delegation!

She makes an important point here – why should the financial sacrifice of change work fall on the shoulders of a relatively small number of people in society?

And secondly, even if there is some value recognition attached to this work, true change is not going to come if the rest of society is not part of it:

The world will be saved when people realize we all have to pitch in. You can’t just pay your money and hope that someone else will do the job right.

Pete Seeger

Right now, there’s a huge imbalance of both money and energy out there.

So, change agents, don’t shy away from looking to monetise your work, or develop opportunities which can help you free up your time – or at least your brain – from financial concerns, so you can concentrate on what truly matters to you.

The most important thing change agents can do to ensure they are able to continue to do whatever it is they’re passionate about is to look after their own security and wellbeing, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – AND financial.

And don’t apologise for it.

Have you ever encountered ‘money martyrdom’, in the sustainability movement or elsewhere? What do you think motivated it?

Did you challenge it? If so, what happened?

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Be The Change – But Not All Of It!

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heart shaped yellow candy with 'Just Say No' imprinted on it in redWhen Gandhi said ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’, he didn’t mean we had to be ALL of it, all the time.

I was saddened to learn recently that a friend and colleague of mine, who is working in both paid and unpaid roles in what I will call ‘deep sustainability’, and who has worked at senior levels in both the corporate and academic world, has fallen into the grip of depression. He is now off work indefinitely, and I have not been able to get in contact with him via phone or email (he lives interstate). I have no idea how he is.

The person in question is usually so optimistic, full of humour and ideas and energy that this came as a shock to me, even though I know he has previously battled a similar situation. It is a huge loss to those collaborating with and learning from him, and where his input will be absent for the forseeable future, because he’s been involved in so many things, and contributed so much.

And maybe that is part of the problem.

I’ve wanted to say something about this for a long time.

My friend is just the latest in a long list of ‘sustainability’ people I know who have found themselves in a state of burnout.

Now, this is not to say that only people who work in sustainability (which captures a wide range of environmental, social, development and change management work) become burned out, sick or affected by depression. It’s not to say that others do not suffer, and face real trauma or struggles in their work, or that other social movements throughout history have not faced profound challenges and times of despair, especially for those change agents who put their body on the line.

But from personal experience, and from discussion with many others working in this area, I know that there is a unique emotional angle to the work that is a factor in burnout and depression in sustainability folk. This is different to dealing with an immediate trauma, tragedy or emergency; it’s different to other social movements where people are at the point where they are engaged, ready to take action, or a campaign is underway, and the power struggle has commenced, however violent or difficult it may be.

The difference here is that those working in sustainability are deeply worried about not only what is already here, but what is to come. They are acutely aware of what James Howard Kunstler calls ‘the long emergency’ or what Paul Gilding calls ‘the great disruption’. They knowing what’s coming, that it’s global, that it has most likely already begun, that the range of consequences could be catastrophic, and that the scale of response is either too small, too slow, or not on the horizon at all.

Despite all the positive things that are happening out there, and reminders to focus on what is possible, to stay upbeat, there is no getting away from the reasons we are engaged in this work, or pretending they don’t exist – because they do.

Our work is to avert humanity from bringing about its own demise through ecosystems collapse and social breakdown.

And we are trying to do this through articulating positive futures for people to aspire to, yet at the same time, constant exposure to examples and warnings of ecological and social crises on a daily basis take their toll. Yet it’s a frequency we must tune into, in order to know what is going on, so we can do our work. And then it becomes a burden of knowledge – having ‘borne witness’, one cannot then simply ignore what one knows.

quote by albert einstein 'those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act'

It’s a combination of  frustration, panic and despair akin to what someone on the bow of the Titantic would have felt, trying frantically to get a message to the bridge to change course, but those on the bridge – or enjoying themselves drinking and dancing in the ballroom – are not hearing the message. Or worse still, you are ignored, laughed at, or characterised as a doomsdayer who is in love with the drama. And yet you feel that because you can see that iceberg, the responsibility falls upon you to act. So you must shout louder, harder, or find a way to shout more effectively.

So you take on another task, another role, another responsibility. Because you must ‘be the change’, right?

There is absolutely a link between working in this space and, at a minimum, mental and emotional stress, or at worst, depression and suicide.

Anyone who doesn’t work in this space might say – ‘well, just stop doing it. Stop reading, thinking and talking about it! What a bunch of sooks – why don’t you try working in a really tough job, like an emergency room, or with abused kids, or in a country where there is brutal, systematic oppression?’

Like any work where there is a deep personal commitment and intrinsic motivation, its not so easy to ‘let go’. Although other types of work involving trauma absolutely have their own emotional strains (many of which are manifestations of the same dysfunction sustainability seeks to address), it shouldn’t mean that the impacts borne by sustainability folk as a result of their work are considered any less valid. Unless you are in this space, you cannot judge those who are.

Having ‘borne witness’ and internalised the concern, it is not us who can’t let go of the work – its the work that won’t let us go.

The American ecologist Aldo Leopold said:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

It is interesting that he uses the metaphor of a doctor. Just as people working in caring and healing professions – doctors, nurses, emergency services, carers – feel an intrinsic responsibility at the scale of human beings, so those of us working in sustainability are people who take responsibility at the macro scale for the wider world. Just as the former don’t live in a world where they can down tools when they’ve worked longer than their shift, because people depend on them, sustainability folk cannot simply detach and not care. Many of them care so much about the work they need to do that they sacrifice income, professional opportunities and status they would otherwise have, time and health.

I’d wager that everyone who is working on sustainability issues is likely to have experienced some level of physical, mental or emotional burnout, or all three.

To be clear: I’m not talking about tiredness – I’m talking about burnout. There is a huge difference.

Burnout – My Experience

I’ve found myself in burnout more than once. First in the mid 90s, in my final year of undergrad university, where I was also working a five full days a week in a voluntary capacity with an NGO around uni contact hours. I completely wrecked my health and it took about 12 months to recover fully. Because I worked voluntarily and did little to no paid work, I also sacrificed at least $100,000 (working on $10/hour) over five years of involvement. Even so, I still wouldn’t change it, because I learned so much and had so many opportunities, and I know I had a much more interesting life than I would have in a paid job!

Then five years later, following an internship in the US, I embarked on months of ‘extracurricular’ work to bring the ideas and message of the Ecological Footprint and overshoot to my community, while still working my full time job.

And almost again last year, while working full time, and coming home to do a ‘second shift’ of activism – writing, networking, social media-ing until well after midnight most nights.

There are only 24 hours in the day. Time, it turns out, is as much of a non-negotiable limiting factor as the physical limits of one planet.

When you push limits, something always gets sacrificed.

Oh yeah – sleep. Exercise. A social life. As much as you love what you’re doing, you can start to get resentful of not getting around to those essentials. But there’s always one more thing to do. And if you don’t do it, who will?

You’d think I would have learned after the first time. Or the second. But you tell yourself that its all worthwhile, essential, that its rewarding work. And it is. But NOT when it comes at the expense of your own health.

You can’t do any planet-saving if you’ve trashed your health, or are worrying about how you are going to support yourself. It costs a lot of time, effort, money and angst to fix. If we want our work to be strong, we must be well rested, nourished, not strung out, and able to have the time and the energy to enjoy OUR lives – whether that’s spending more time with family, friends and people we care about, or doing those activities we keep saving for when the ‘work’ is done.

Guess what!? The work will still be there when you get back.

But even though we know this, when its the early hours of the morning and we’re replying to one last email; or we’ve agreed yet again to take on something else that is important to us personally even though we’re already stretched, all that gets bargained away.

Like the very culture we’re trying to shift, we prioritise the short term gain over the longer term risk management.

Now, there is reams of advice out there on ways and means to better manage ourselves, and its all good, sound advice. You can probably guess what it is. Meditate and do yoga (or something physical). Garden, reconnect with nature. Slow down. All valid.

But this depends on people’s ability to set boundaries in order to give those things the priority they deserve. And although some people have mastered the art of setting boundaries, many of us haven’t – I’ve been one of them, and still am, at times.

I’ve been working in this since 1993, and I’ve done it all, made all the mistakes, I know all the advice for managing work life balance and don’t always follow it (which is why I’m writing this post now instead of going out for a walk), but I have this year discovered the most powerful weapon in the battle for work-life balance:

The word ‘No’.

Wow – that’s it? What a revelation, right? </sarcasm>

I’m not telling you anything new. We all know this. We just don’t DO it. Like so much sage advice, we intellectually take it on board, but somehow do not act on it. Again, like the very culture we are trying to shift!

And contrary to most of the literature out there, this isn’t about setting boundaries with difficult people, its about being ruthless with yourself!

In order to throw a ‘circuit-breaker’ on myself, I took some of my long service leave and had some time out this year. A sabbatical. One of the reasons was to focus on some of that voluntary activism work, and to free my brain up from the mental demands of my paid work to do so. I also had plans to progress a couple of other things I’d long been wanting to do, one of which was initiating and developing this blog.

As soon as the word got out that I was taking ‘a year off’ – and those quotes are there because I have done a lot of hard work this year – I got an incessant stream of requests from people I’ve worked with (including virtually, and never met) to do x, y, and z ‘now that I had all this time on my hands’. Augh! Of course, everyone thinks their one request is just one little request. I’ve spent all year batting them away despite making it clear over and over that I was taking the time out to do two or three specific things that I really needed mental focus for, and that was it.

While its lovely that people think enough of me and what contribution I could make to seek my involvement (caution: do not let your ego let you say ‘yes’ because of this!), it was difficult for the people-pleaser in me to constantly have to decline requests and have to explain why over and over.

I’m now on ‘holiday’ even from the voluntary work – an absolute break. Annual leave from my unpaid work, as one friend put it. I’ve made a pact with myself to say no, whatever it is, no matter who is asking, because for my own sake, I must. And yet I still feel compelled to offer justifications for this decision, when perhaps I am perfectly entitled to make it with no reason needed, so that I can spend a day or two here and there doing absolutely bloody nothing. Our increasingly hyper, 24/7 culture is suspicious of people wanting to do nothing – well, it’s lazy isn’t it? Selfish, even, After all, you could be doing something productive. Yet we forget that rest and regeneration is productive.

It still feels wrong to say no to things I could help out with, including things that I personally feel are valuable initiatives, and ones that could be good personal opportunities. But I am determined I will not go back to paid work in January feeling as burnt out as I did when I left. And I am certainly not going back to fourteen hour days (half paid, half unpaid) and spending more time interacting with my computer than my family and friends.

Not only am I now being ruthless about what I do agree to, I’m also shedding previous responsibilities that I can no longer give time to, and have been feeling guilty about not making time for them!

Taking on too much – if its ‘for the world’, or for justice for others – can and will make you sick and tired. And when you are forced to worry about your wellbeing, which includes your material and financial survival, you are no good to anyone or anything. You can’t offer the world your best work.

You know those air safety videos which recommend that you put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? The same principle applies to sustaining change agents.

To be your best for the work that has chosen you, set boundaries, say no, don’t feel guilty about saying no, and recognise that we first need to ‘sustain the sustainers’.

And to my friend – be well. Hope to speak to you soon, and get back to sharing ideas, insights and those much-needed laughs.

Have you ever found yourself in a state of burnout? How did you get back on track?

Did you make any changes to prevent this from happening again?

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