Every Day as a Social Changemaker: the Need for Space

Last week, Akhila, a fellow Gen-Y social changemaker and blogger friend, wrote an article on why the work-life balance is a myth for young people who care about social justice:

“The emphasis on balancing your life with work, which often means time away from work, limits social change and the career development of 20 something professionals. Instead, we need to stop focusing on working less and figure out how to work smarter and more deliberately.”

Maybe it’s because I’m embarking on a profession where instead of 9-5 being the norm, we have had to fight to limit resident’s work hours to 80 hours per week with a maximum shift-length of 16 hours. In signing up for the medical route to social service, I’ve already committed myself to extraordinary hours and can hardly expect to find myself rising in leadership or social impact in my profession through the hours-worked-per-week meric.

Perhaps influenced by this context (or maybe not), I propose a different model for doing more for social change: one based on space and inspiration.

  • Space is a hard-won resource in a busy schedule, but I consider that self-centered, me-based time to be fundamental to the inspiration essential to doing good work. It requires focusing and prioritizing the activities that matter in your life and performing them not for the sake of achieving perfection but for efficiency and effectiveness. I choose to take the space to write this blog post and to cook a wholesome meal with my boyfriend, instead of spending more time studying for my cardiovascular physiology exam. I know studying with the time remaining will give me enough knowledge to pass, even if I will not get the highest score or know everything there is to know about the cardiovascular system. It’s a trade-off that I make because I know that otherwise I lose my inspiration and my sense of why I am in medical school in the first place.
  • Inspiration is the reason I get myself up in the morning and the ineffable quality that allows what should be “working” practically all the time (with a difficult course-load, a host of extracurricular obligations and spending nearly all my “free” time here, on twitter, and reading materials related to health and nonprofit work) not work at all. That is the beauty of cause-filled rather than profit-driven living: if you are working for a cause, the work may be never ending but it also is not truly work if it is also your passion and mission in life. It is true that even the most nonprofit-y and self-determined careers and lifestyles are also filled with a fair amount of drudgery, but there is no sense in making that drudgery your life, or to equate your cause with ceaseless work.

In the end, I partially agree with Akhila, in that work-life balance does not really play into the equation. What is far more important for me is maintaining my passion for what I am doing. That requires not just balance and increased productivity, but taking the space to write blog posts like this one and remembering why I am doing what I am doing, so I can go back to pursuing my passions with every waking moment that I can.

Photo Credit: John Althouse Cohen

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  • http://akhilak.com/blog Akhila

    Love this post, and thank you for challenging my thoughts in a meaningful way!

    I definitely agree that we are living “cause filled lives” and perhaps, this was actually the point I was attempting to make – though I should have made it more subtly, more eloquently. I think I was too harsh, because work-life balance means a different thing to everyone else. My goal was to say we need to move beyond the 9-5 mindset which many non-profits do have, but I did not mean to say we should work 24/7 with no break or breathing room. Everyone does need a break, and god knows I do too.

    Also, work-life balance means something different to each person. What burns me out may not burn you out and vice versa. People need to find their comfort zone where they are working hard but also enjoying life. All I mean to say is doing this work in a lackluster or half-hearted manner is not enough. You have to put your entire heart into it because the goal is to live a “cause filled life” as you have said. If taking a break to regain inspiration allows you to be more effective, so be it :)

    • Anonymous

      I think in the end, as I noted in my post, our opinions overlap quite a bit. I don’t think that the pursuit of work-life balance or the 9-5 lifestyle has anything to do with it. Instead, it has something to do with finding work that fits with your own passions and your life (what Allison terms “work-life fit” below, so that it isn’t work at all — though it may consume your life.

      I think to do that requires a constant replenishing of your passions through inspiration and allowing yourself the space to feel like you still are in control of your life, despite your full schedule and all the things that you are doing. For me, that’s the tough part – harder than the work of finding new impactful projects and coming up with ways of doing them efficiently – but that may be, as I acknowledge, because of my current position at a medical school.

      Your point of what burns you out vs. what burns me out is a good one. For me, going on twitter and having these conversations with you all is my “break” from the constant slog of studying because it reminds me that I’m not alone and there are some very good reasons for why I am doing what I’m doing. For you and others more active in the social media space, unplugging every now and again may be a better break…

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  • http://twitter.com/ajlovesya Allison Jones

    LOVE this post and so happy I came across your blog. I think you hit on some incredibly important points here when it comes to having access to things that help us stay committed to our work (space and inspiration).

    What I am taking away from this post an from your comments on Akhila’s piece is that ultimately we are looking for work/life fit. This approach is more meaningful as we can define what we need to stay passionate about social change.

    I think where concern comes in is where we feel we cant pursue work/life fit for fear of not being taken seriously, not being seen as committed, or, even worse, being taken advantage of by organizations that are supposed to value and empower human beings. What we need also is a shift from individual needs to organizations recognizing the need for work/life fit.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Anonymous

      I understand your fear about our society not valuing work-life fit.

      Luckily though, I am currently back in academia where I am encouraged to pursue my passions (especially since I currently don’t have to be pursuing grant money!). Here, the difficulty is not finding new projects that are exciting, but making sure that they are able to fit into my busy schedule, verifying that they really do fit my goals and passions and ensuring that I do not get burned out while doing them by allowing myself the space to remain inspired and empowered in doing this work.

      I think this last bit is something that is common to all social justice focused work, so I shared it as such, acknowledging that there are other issues, like an organizational attitude towards work-life balance or work-life fit, that I simply cannot speak to as thoroughly because my situation is currently that of a student rather than a nonprofit professional.

      Thanks as always for your insightful comment and welcome to my blog!

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