Pausing to Get Ahead

For those of you who follow this blog, you might have noticed there hasn’t been a new post for almost six months. Yours truly was on an unintended hiatus. My mind needed an extended break and frankly, I just haven’t been overly inspired. But that is not to say there haven’t been much activity at EWB in Vancouver. There was a big push for Run to End Poverty and I got to take part in the half-marathon along with other EWBers, new and alumni, students and professionals, local and out-of-town. (I loved the training runs leading up to the half-marathon–thanks Will, Carolyn, and Jon!) At work, I was leading the charge to raise money for the EWB Draft. There was a lot of organizing and running around. On top of that were the regular EWB gatherings and send-offs for Colleen (to Ghana) and Jon (also to Ghana).

While there’s a lot of excitement around positive change initiatives, if the change agents behind these initiatives don’t have an internal reservoir of energy, then eventually the excitement wears out and the initiatives sputter and spiral to the ground. I didn’t experience burnout; in fact I responded by listening to my body and mind by respecting my limits and taking time off from doing Member Learning.

EWB is made up of extremely motivated, high capacity volunteers who are passionate about “Doing it for Dorothy.” There are always new ventures, new frameworks, new discussions. Invitations to Google hangouts, survey questionnaires, and yes, even request for comments on the latest blog post on Intelligent Development Musings pile in your email inbox. More can always be done but there always seems to be too few people (or bodies) to do the work. It’s almost like if nobody pilots these fresh ideas that are brimming with potential, then there’s a risk they’ll never see the light of day and die unceremoniously. We who are involved with system change and promoting a better future (remember the grad class of 2036?) are often susceptible to burnout. The myriad of activities to transform the world into a better place fight for our attention and we feel we need give more and more of our time for these causes. We fall into the cycle of working for the betterment of Dorothy without giving ourselves any compassion. And soon we might find ourselves burned out.

Psychologist Michael Bader in his article “Being Progressive Shouldn’t Be Hazardous to Your Health” says leaders in social change routinely take a toll on their lives to put the movement ahead of their needs.

Too many leaders and organizers are already inclined to view constant conflict and crisis as normal, to readily shoulder feelings of omnipotent responsibility, and to be self-sacrificing martyrs for the “cause.”

Bader argues that these leaders might have a hard time dealing with burnout because they have an subconscious struggle of achieving the mission of the cause while fearing the desire of taking care of oneself with good things. He says “Activists frequently relate stories of unbearably long work hours with an ironic sense of pride, inviting admiration for their abilities to work harder and longer than anyone else.”

Self-care, showing oneself compassion, has been neglected in our results driven society. Self-care is especially important for those of us who are volunteering for a social change NGO. Taking time to rest does much to renew one’s passion, curiosity, and imagination, attributes that are so important EWB. We need members who are excited to tackle new challenges, not just struggling to go through the motions of being at meetings.

I’d like to argue that creativity–yes, engineers are creative beings!–is absolutely fundamental to EWB and any other organization. Designer Stefan Sagmeister in this TED video lauds the benefits of taking regular sabbaticals.

How do you seek self-care? What do you get out of taking a sabbatical?


One response to “Pausing to Get Ahead”

  1. Jonathan Haley (@jonrhaley) says :

    Good call Ken! This is a super important part of being an effective change agent and needs to be explicitly acknowledged in the organization. I feel like I am taking a sabbatical this year, even though I’ll be working on EWB ful time. I guess it’s just important to switch things up from time to time.

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