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Walking the Talk
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint:
How to Avoid Burnout in Social Impact Careers

Here, Roshan Paul and Ilaina Rabbat, co-founders of the Amani Institute, provide a dashboard for both aspiring and established changemakers to reflect on their motivation, their limitations and their overall fortitude for life in a social impact career.

The following is an excerpt from The New Reason to Work: How to Build a Career That Will Change the World (Lioncrest, 2021), by Roshan Paul and Ilaina Rabbat.

Thrivers and survivors on the changemaking marathon

One of the most over- looked aspects of impact-first work is that it’s like a marathon, not a sprint. No social problem will be ‘solved’ in a couple of years or with a quick fix; you must prepare for the long run. So many talented and committed people abandon the race because they aren’t properly prepared for it; others keep running but stop enjoying it, just thinking about the finish line. And yet there are others who seem to be able to run one mara thon after another.

When we consulted with global experts while building the Amani Institute curriculum, many confessed that their organizations had become a burden, diminishing both their happiness and their impact. Many got divorced because of their work; others no longer believed the world could become a better place. These stories got me wondering why some changemakers feel exhausted and always on the verge of physical and mental exhaustion, while others seem hopeful and happy with their lives. A few years ago, I (Ilaina) pursued a master’s in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania to try and understand this. Based on my research, we designed a dashboard to help people navigate the twists and turns of this marathon journey of changemaking, survive the bumps in the road, and enjoy the beautiful vistas they will pass along the way. In other words, to sustain themselves and their impact across decades. We need thriving changemakers over the long haul, not social impact martyrs.

The dashboard has eight variables that spread across a continuum. Depending on your response (a definite yes or a definite no) to the question each variable poses, you might find yourself closer to the extreme right — thriver — or closer to the extreme left — survivor.

Thrivers believe their work is worth pursuing because they are making a difference in people’s lives. People who work from a sense of purpose, as thrivers do, tend to be more productive, committed, motivated and efficient; have more positive relationships; and above all, are happier. On the other hand, survivors may be deeply committed to their cause (or not) but can’t seem to find happiness. They enter a vicious cycle where they experience negative job satisfaction and performance, and see declines even in their overall life satisfaction, but still don’t quit their jobs. Survivors experience more negative than positive outcomes from their social impact work.

Prevention being better than the cure, it’s wise to consider this issue from the beginning and not when you’re burning out.

Dashboard for your inner journey

The first question to answer is: Are you intrinsically motivated? In general, changemakers act because they feel a deep connection with humanity and/or the planet and want to do something to improve the status quo. They recognize that their motivation isn’t primarily linked to money or status, but to living out their calling. Impact-first professionals are internally – or intrinsically - driven. When someone is intrinsically motivated, they come closer to reaching their potential and being happy with their work and their lives.

However, sometimes we think we’re acting from intrinsic motivation but are either not identifying our motivation accurately or masking our true motivations. The most common ways this happens in impact-first work are the motivations to avoid guilt, feed our ego through external recognition, and heal our own wounds. This is a trap you should avoid.

Feelings of guilt due to our privilege is something we’ve heard repeatedly over the years. Privilege isn’t just about economic status but also comes from educational backgrounds, skin color, gender, the loving family we had, or even unfavorable life events or circumstances that allowed us to learn and grow rather than falling apart. We’re born with some of these privileges, and you cannot escape a privilege once you have it. No matter how much someone tries to deny their past, or donate their inherited wealth, the privilege remains. What you can decide is how to relate to your privilege.

Some changemakers feel guilty, even ashamed that they ‘have so much;’ and often this drives their motivation to act. While that motivation may be well-intentioned, acting from guilt can have negative consequences down the road. For instance, the changemaker unintentionally begins to behave in a paternalistic way, since he or she is also working to relieve their own feelings of guilt and shame. They start to imagine they are acting for or acting on behalf of instead of the more effective acting with. As a famous quote sometimes attributed to Lilla Watson goes, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

It’s very common for people to drift from their intrinsic motives and start being driven by salary increases, climbing the title hierarchy, appearances in the press, summing up the funds they have raised, awards they have won, their likes and followers on social media, and even tracking obsessively the number of people they’ve impacted. Those types of numbers may be good indicators or goals, but they shouldn’t be the real drivers of our actions — the reason we wake up every morning to work — or it will start to feel stale after a while.

A traumatic event or psychological ‘wound’ can also confuse our intrinsic motivation. Geraldine Hepp, a founding staff member of Amani Institute, describes what’s called the ‘wound-gift concept,’ in which someone decides to work on a social problem because they have suffered themselves from that problem; sometimes, perhaps without noticing, what they’re really trying to do is to heal themselves. Most social entrepreneurs have a personal story linked to the challenge they are facing. This is not wrong; it’s often very helpful to be personally affected by your cause. However, when we act from the wound itself, then emotions like sadness, anger, and hate will drive our actions.

Understanding our intrinsic motivation means asking specific, not generic, questions. A generic question would be: Why do you wish to work in education or to prevent malaria? A generic answer — ‘because malaria is bad’ or ‘children should be in school’ — obscures a proper understanding of your convictions. You need to dig deeply for clarity of purpose.

Finally, if you can’t connect with the people around you, it doesn’t matter how much impact you strive for. It’s critical to connect authentically with others, even if only for a few seconds. Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan calls these ‘high-quality connections’ — daily interactions that may seem small and insignificant, but are marked by mindfulness, positive mutual consideration, trust, and active participation on both sides.

In a high-quality connection, people are more open to learning and have better cognitive functioning, creativity, commitment; and, above all, health and happiness. It’s easy to focus on the desired impact and forget that much of the motivation we need comes from making high-quality connections on a daily basis.

Most leading changemakers accept that they will sacrifice time with their families and financial rewards to realize their impact. This brings us to another variable: Are you explicitly choosing the life you lead? Sacrifice is neither bad nor good. The important thing is whether the sacrifice is consciously or resentfully made. Common phrases such as, ‘I have to work this weekend because there is a deadline on Monday,’ or, ‘I can’t take a vacation when there are people who need my support,’ or, ‘I must go to this meeting even though I’m sick because it’s a unique opportunity,’ demonstrate an admirable sense of duty. However, it would be very different to say, ‘I choose to work this weekend because the deadline is Monday,’ ‘I don’t want to go on vacation when there are people who need my support,’ or ‘I want to go to this meeting no matter how sick I am, because it is a unique opportunity.’

The difference between the two types of statements reflects one’s level of autonomy — a major driver of life satisfaction. When you have to do something, it’s often because you think something is expected of you — and you lose autonomy. When we speak of ‘wanting to’ instead of ‘having to,’ our sense of autonomy is restored. And there’s always the possibility to choose our path, even in the worst circumstances. When you consciously choose to sacrifice your weekend, you start enjoying the process itself. ‘Working on a weekend’ thus becomes a ‘day without distractions.’

But note that we are neither advocating for nor against working over the weekend. We just want you to consciously choose your life’s path and accept the consequences. It’s about asking, Are you living an integrated life? Talking of a ‘work-life balance’ implies a trade-off or a zero-sum game, as if life does not include work. Many changemakers feel a need to choose between ‘my family versus my mission’ or ‘a meaningful job versus financial well-being.’ When you fall into this kind of binary thinking, life gets more stressful. You begin to feel guilty, that what you do is never enough, that you’re always missing out on important events. You feel off-balance. On the other hand, if you reframe it as work-life integration, then there’s no false dichotomy — your work and personal life are complementary, not competing, priorities.

Stewart Friedman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that successful people integrate the different spheres of their life: self, home, work, and community. In other words, your work is part of your life and thus must be integrated, not separated. It also means that if all you do is work, without looking at other spheres of life, things go awry.

For instance, if you neglect your health because you’re too busy at work, the resulting negative health outcomes will reduce your productivity. Once you understand that it’s both possible and necessary to integrate different spheres of your life, then you see how things like spending time with your family or practicing your hobbies ultimately also enriches your social impact.”

It’s also important to ask, Are you aware of what you can and cannot change? Thriving changemakers are clear where the limits are of what they are trying to achieve, and where they can be most effective and impactful. They know where their circles of control and circles of influence start and end. They understand that theirs is a part of the contribution of a larger group of people, all striving for the same goal in different ways. When you take on unlimited responsibility, like ‘fighting poverty,’ you’re up against a seemingly immovable system. Your motivation decreases and your frustration increases. Your resources to change the world are limited; therefore, it’s wise to establish goals that are challenging but doable. Don’t try to do it all!”

Empathy is almost an inherent attribute of changemakers. However, you need to manage it carefully, which is another variable in the dashboard: Can you retain but not become overwhelmed by your empathy? According to Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale, there are many definitions of empathy, so he distinguishes between two main terms: sympathy and compassion. He defines sympathy as ‘the ability to put yourself in the other’s shoes and feel what you think they are feeling’; whereas compassion is the ‘ability to care about others’ well-being, but without necessarily feeling their pain.’ It’s very common for changemakers to be moved by the context that surrounds them, which usually means the presence of people in distress. Those who feel the pain of others for a long time may come to suffer from empathy fatigue, a gradual decrease in compassion over time, which makes them lose hope and motivation with regard to the cause they’ve been fighting for.

Furthermore, an excess of sympathy can lead to decision-making guided only by strong emotions and not rationality, even decisions that may be morally wrong. By setting limits on our empathy, we are better able to critically analyze situations and solve problems more efficiently.

Another question to ask yourself: Are you taking care of yourself as much as you take care of others?

Although most changemakers recognize the risk of burnout, they aren’t always great at taking care of themselves. By contrast, thriving changemakers prioritize both themselves and the other. They understand there’s an interdependent relationship between themselves and others, so the best thing they can do for their long-term impact is to preserve themselves. Changemakers also often de-prioritize themselves financially. Many take huge financial risks that eventually force them to ‘drop out’ of the marathon because they can no longer sustain their family. It’s vital to make an income that allows for a decent life. Otherwise, you’ll always worry about money, taking your focus away from the impact.

Beyond finances, prioritizing both yourself and the other also means taking breaks for rest, setting limits on your availabil- ity, and spending time with loved ones without feeling guilty. Changemakers need to understand the close relationship of self-care with social impact.

Now that you know an impact-first career is akin to a marathon, what concerns you about your “fitness” for such a career? How can you improve your ability to sustain an impact-first career over the long haul, knowing there’ll be a deep fulfillment from the impact you create?