There’s an old saying that 95% of people try to change the world around them and only 5% try to change themselves.
This came to mind as I was thinking about the large number of sustainability professionals I meet who are facing exhaustion and burnout as they seek to bring change to their companies in an effort to confront the numerous environmental and social challenges of our age.
I recognise this pattern because I sometimes suffer from it myself. Of course, life seems to be busy and complex for everyone these days, but working to defuse the ticking timebomb of catastrophic climate change, rising extinction levels and growing social disruption can add a seemingly cruel and stressful edge.
There’s too much to do, too little time to do it in and whatever we achieve seems to be futile when set against the monumental task. Yet if we fail, the consequences are too terrible to stomach.
As if that is not enough, many of us also need to contend with the psychological trap of feeling like a fraud: “If I am unable to radically change my own lifestyle, then how can I be urging other people to take action?”
All this is a recipe for feeling powerless with a great big dollop of guilt thrown in for good measure. Paradoxically, these feelings often push us to work even harder to try to prove we are good people after all.
I also see many sustainability directors and managers flip-flopping between hope and despair, which can be exhausting in itself. One sustainability director of a multinational company emailed me the other week saying how depressed he is at the lack of progress in the corporate world. Half an hour later I got another email saying we mustn’t give up and we should be cheered by plenty of early signs of change.
So what is the way through this minefield, of staying effective in the outside world while also feeling joyful and fresh on the inside?
From a personal perspective, I treated myself by spending the Easter break with nearly 1,000 people at a five-day retreat with the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh at Nottingham University. Thay, as he is known by his hundreds of thousands of supporters around the world, provides an extremely welcome opportunity to challenge established patterns of belief and behaviour. The retreat also offers the chance to slow down and be more mindful in my breathing, walking, eating and talking.
One of Thay’s central themes is the importance of loving ourselves if we are to be effective change agents. How can we be compassionate with another person, for example, if we cannot be compassionate with ourselves.
I understand the power of this on a personal level, having spent a long time during my thirties in a self-development group before I could even bring myself to say that I loved myself. I remember a decade later coaching the deputy head of a large London comprehensive school who struggled to find even one good thing to say about himself. His colleagues would have been shocked had they known this.
This lack of self-appreciation is often a hidden dynamic, but the reason it is so important to bring into awareness is that continually giving without the ability to receive is a bit like running a car without a dynamo. Sooner or later it will run out of power. That’s what burnout is all about.
Thay also talks about the importance of going into our suffering and embracing it like a mother holding her crying child. As one of the monks said to me: “The extent of someone’s true happiness and joy is a reflection of the extent to which they have dealt with their suffering.”
This is in contrast to the tendency of most people in modern society, which is to seek to avoid suffering altogether.
In fact we have discovered countless methods for avoiding pain, which has resulted in the very unsustainable consumption we are now seeking to address.
The result tends to be either depression or relentless optimism. I got a strong sense of this latter response at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford last week. There was a wonderful can-do sense among the hundreds of social entrepreneurs, which is to be welcomed, but also a sense of this enthusiasm in some cases being manufactured rather than deeply felt.
It’s an important distinction because we all know the difference between someone who embodies the change we are looking for and someone who is just using the right words. That’s why we revere true leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Ghandi.
Perhaps the strongest learning I came away with from the retreat was about taking refuge in the very things we are seeking to protect; in other words the people we love and our spectacular planet.
By appreciating the beauty of nature, the joy of friends and family and the mystery of life, we recognise the importance of the work we do and the real reason we do it. This can sustain us and keep us connected to our passion.
I saw on Easter Monday that one of the most popular stories on the Guardian website was about a palliative nurse who recorded the most common regrets of the dying; wishing they had had the courage to live a life true to themselves and to express their real feelings, wishing they had not worked so hard and not lost touch with friends, and wishing they had allowed themselves to be happier and more playful.
The best way we can help those who have passed on with such regrets is to not make the same mistakes. That’s why I have always loved the Buddhist idea of living every day as though it is our last, even though I have failed miserably to do that.
One piece of advice that I did take to heart and acted upon, came from a colleague of mine when I was the business and finance news editor of the Daily Telegraph.
Having worked late on a number of consecutive days, he came over and looked into my bloodshot eyes and said: “Jo, go home and just remember that the cemeteries of England are full of people who thought they were indispensable.”
Share your experiences
I would really welcome your thoughts on what methods you use to stay effective in the outside world while still feeling joyful on the inside. What advice or suggestions do you have for peers who may be struggling? Let us know below in the comments section.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010