Investing in Yourself May be One of Surest Routes to Social Change



Bold Idea: The most influential, and happiest, agents of change have a valuable lesson to teach: self-concern is as essential as your desire to help others.


Image: Alexia Vernon's Moxie Camp 2012 by Carrie Leonard

Over the past quarter of a century, Echoing Green has learned a thing or two about what distinguishes successful solutionists from those who simply care about a social problem. With front row seats to some of the world’s most successful social change agents' lives and work, we’ve noticed some similarities among them—including a strong commitment to bettering the world and themselves at the same time.

When we compared our Fellows’ profiles to the best contemporary research, we saw this theme echoed in Adam Grant’s research on Givers. You may have read about it a few weeks ago in The New York Times magazine piece, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?”

Grant categorizes people into three categories: Givers, Matchers, and Takers. He defines Givers as those who are motivated to act in a pro-social way. In the words of the Times piece, they are “overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders.”

What’s the difference between Givers who succeed and those who do not? Simply put, Grant found that it is their commitment to their own fulfillment and success. Givers who rate low in self-concern too often wind up giving to Takers, depleting themselves in the process and making their efforts less effective. Givers who rate high in self-concern, on the other hand, won’t let themselves give to Takers for very long, and put more of their focus on giving to Matchers or other Givers, and as a result lift themselves up even as they lift others.

In Echoing Green’s Work on Purpose program, we’ve identified three ways in which our social entrepreneurship Fellows have leveraged their concern for themselves to make them better advocates for others. Anyone who wants to make a social impact can follow their examples.

Focus on work that matters to you

Our Fellows work on issues that are connected to their core. Research shows that this makes a person more likely to continue working when times get tough, and more innovative in their approach to the issue itself. For instance, as the visionary and driving force behind iFoster, 2012 Echoing Green Fellow Serita Cox brings her personal experience of having been raised in foster care to the development of innovative programs working to support over 4 million foster children. She offers them the things she herself would have wanted—life-changing resources to put them on the path to becoming independent, successful adults. While many of our Fellows’ connections to the issues they work on are not as obvious as Serita’s, again and again we see that in one way or another they are healing themselves and the world at the same time.

Call on your own unique talents

Our Fellows actively apply their own unique genius—their natural skills, strengths, and assets—to the issues they address. For example, 2005 Echoing Green Fellow Clive Stafford Smith is building upon over twenty successful years as a lawyer, and his personal belief that “liberty is eroded at the margins” (the driving force behind his new book, The Injustice System) to effect change at Guantanamo Bay. We’ve seen that when our Fellows put their innate talents to work in this way, they are more energized, engaged, and fulfilled.

Pay attention to your own needs

Finally, they take care of themselves in a number of ways. Echoing Green’s 2012 Black Male Achievement Fellow Amaha Kassa launched African Communities Together, an organization that aims to improve the lives of Africans in America and on the African continent with a national network that provides direct services, grassroots organizing, and policy advocacy. His work is very focused on giving to others. At the same time, however, he is thoughtful about taking time out for himself. For instance, he has started to prioritize playing rugby, one of his favorite forms of exercise. Amaha puts it this way: “Compare your work in social change to making music, and remember you have think of yourself as the instrument. If you are damaged and you are not taking care of your instrument, you are going to limit the quality of the sound, and the impact it can have on others.”

Think Big: You don’t have to be a social entrepreneur to invest in yourself and others at the same time. Are you addressing your own needs and the needs of others? Think about times in your life when this alignment worked, when it felt out of whack, and what you might be able to do in the future to be the most effective you you can be.