I love and admire progressive activists so much I wrote a whole book for them, The Lifelong Activist. I began it thusly:
I wrote this book because I believe that progressive activists are the world’s most precious resource. We tackle the most difficult and important problems—including hunger, war, disease, poverty, violence, cruelty and exploitation—and work to further humanity’s evolution in the direction of compassion and kindness. Conservatives may create more wealth, but we create more of the values, including justice, equality and freedom, that make life worth living. As history has repeatedly shown us, and as we are unfortunately witnessing in the United States today, wealth without the tempering of progressive values and mores leads inevitably to corruption and despair.
Imagine how different the world would be if there were twice—or ten times!—as many progressive activists as there are now, and if those activists were happy and effective and enjoying long full-time or part-time careers. Entire societies and cultures, and quite possibly every society and culture, would be transformed...
Your task, therefore, is this: to work to visualize and create a more liberated self at the same time you work to visualize and create a more liberated society. Picture yourself as someone who does activism as part of a happy, healthy and well-balanced life, and then work, using this book as a guide, to make that vision happen. Get past the stereotype, if it afflicts you, that activists are supposed to be ultra-serious and humorless. Get past the stereotype that they are supposed to suffer for their cause. Get past the stereotype that they are supposed to be poor. Envision a new mode of activism for yourself that is built on joyous involvement with the world. As Julia Butterfly Hill says, “Activism is so much more than just a response to something that is wrong. Activism is a celebration of life itself. It is a manifestation of the miracle of being alive. And isn’t that something to celebrate!”
There's no doubt, however, that activism, for all its glories, can be a tough endeavor. Many activists are stressed, many don't have enough money, and many are in various stages of burn out. The problem is pretty obvious: the need for activism is urgent and basically infinite, and yet your time, money and other resources are limited. And let's not forget that fighting an oppressive status quo is probably the hardest work there is -- and doesn't tend to pay well. Activism also aims not simply for change, but growth and evolution, and mandates that you yourself grow and evolve. (As Gandhi famously said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world.")
There are some things you can do to make it easier:
1) Do your mission work, which begins and ends with you being honest about yourself, your values, your capabilities, and your willingness to invest and sacrifice for your various goals. This honesty is not always easy to achieve, but it is the foundation for a life of productivity and happiness. From The Lifelong Activist:
The secret to success as an activist, as well as in life itself, is to live a life that is as much as possible an expression of your core values. The Lifelong Activist is a guidebook for doing so, and it is based on the premise that you succeed by making conscious choices about your life, specifically in the crucial areas of your mission, time, fears and relationships. Self-actualization—a term coined by the late psychologist Abraham Maslow that refers to the cultivation of your unique strengths, talents and character—should be your primary goal, since the more self-actualized you are, the more creativity, energy, focus and other positive attributes you will be able to bring to your activism and other endeavors. Self-actualization is also, as I discuss in Part IV, entirely congruent with your progressive ethic and mission.
Self-actualization begins with breaking free of other people’s inappropriate influence and control over your life. Some of these people might mean well, while others might mean ill; still others might not care about you at all but are simply pursuing their own agenda. Some might even be other activists trying to bully you into working on their cause or meeting their standard of ideological purity. You need to break free of all of these inappropriate influences so that you can start to build a life in keeping with your values.
2) Do your time management, set and defend your boundaries, and don't overgive. Overgiving is, of course, a huge issue among activists both because there's no shortage of work to be done, and because they tend to be caring, generous people. Overgiving is a nobler problem than, say, selfishness or exploitativeness, but it's still a problem, from a productivity standpoint and many others. Here is more on overgiving, including solutions.
3) Don't work for anyone, or any organization, that's mismanaged or chaotic - your own effectiveness and growth depend largely on the people you surround yourself with. Particularly, though not exclusively, when you're at the beginning of your career, you should surround yourself with competent and caring mentors. Along the same lines:
4) Don't work for anyone, or any organization, that abuses or exploits you. It doesn't matter how noble their mission is, or how important or charismatic they happen to be. Workplace abuse is not just psychologically damaging, but a frequent catalyst for perfectionism and a block. There are plenty of just, kind, compassionate organizations and individuals in the world, so work with them. If you can't find one, do nonactivist work until you do.
5) Remember that, as discussed in my book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific, procrastination and blocks are not due to laziness, lack of commitment, lack of discipline, etc. but disempowerment: you are blocked from using your energy, strengths, skills, etc. The forces mentioned above are the major ones that could disempower you, but there are probably others as well, including some unique to your situation. (Personal problems will naturally also have an effect on your ability to produce.) Uncover, and deal with, the disempowering forces in your life, and you will "magically" regain your energy, commitment, focus, discipline, etc., and your productivity will soar.
6) Take strategy seriously. Strategy means you plan your actions working backwards from your goals. Because activism is tough and often scary, vast numbers of activists do not work from strategy — they do what famed animal activist Henry Spira called "hyperactivism," a form of fruitless workaholism — and that means their efforts are largely wasted. But activists who work from strategy can truly change the world.
If you don't know how to work from strategy, then your goal should be to work with, and learn from, activists who do. They will probably also know how to manage their time and other resources, not overgive, and also follow the other advice on this page, so you'll get good all-around mentorship.
7) Manage your money. There are plenty of resources on and off the Web related to personal finance. I strongly recommend The Millionaire Next Door, which discusses how people of ordinary means accumulate wealth. A key difference between those who accumulate wealth and those who don't is that the former devote nearly twice as much time to the amount of time they devote to managing their money each week, with Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth (their category) spending around five nearly the amount of time each month managing their finances and investments as Under Accumulator of Wealth (4.6 versus around 27 hours). Yes, I know money management can be boring. In The Seven Secrets of the Prolific I advise you what to do if you find money management boring and/or stressful. Please note that in the below passage the word "investment" refers to a time (not money) investment, and is activity that yields a return in terms of success, happiness or other criteria. Writing, exercise, relationships, and planning are all investments, and so is money management:
Most investments are fun...and when an investment isn't it's often because we're being perfectionist about it. Many people struggle with money management, for instance (and I was one of them), but approached the right way it is interesting and engaging, and definitely empowering. The solution, when you can't get motivated do something you absolutely must do, is to: (1) work to overcome your perfectionism and internalized oppression around it, using the techniques in this book; (2) go deeper into it, so that it becomes an interesting intellectual challenge instead of a tedious chore you're trying to force yourself through; (3) reframe it as empowerment (which all investments really are); and (4) work in community. Even the least enjoyable investments, such as dealing with a chronic health problem, become much more palatable with these steps.
8 ) Invest in a lot of self-care - you need it, and you've earned it. Also, educate yourself on compassion fatigue, a psychological problem in which you experience "second-hand" trauma after interacting with people who have been traumatized. Every activist should familiarize themselves with the symptoms, and if you think you might be experiencing it, you should consult a specialist.
You'll find advice and solutions to all of the above in The 7 Secrets of the Prolific. For fastest progress, try coaching. If you want me to give a workshop for your activist organization or group click here.
It is my strongest personal and professional mission to help progressive activists succeed, so please do not hesitate to email me with your questions and ideas.
In an age where so much work is meaningless and even destructive, it is a great privilege to be able to earn one's living by helping others and doing good. Moreover, you leave a terrific legacy. Here's the brilliant English novelist George Eliot writing of Dorothea Brooke, the altruistic protagonist of her novel Middlemarch:
Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
A great legacy!
Peace and Freedom for All,