Lesson #4: What is change? (Part 2: Well-being, well-doing, and integrity)
External results and internal processes
We tend to think of change as the novel outcomes we wish to bring about in ourselves and the world. We want to see policy, belief, or behavior change. We want to see tangible results that produce tangible benefits to public health, poverty alleviation, environmental protection, social justice, and so on.
This is change from an outsider’s perspective, observed from afar. This is how change is typically recorded in the newspaper or history books.
But change is not only results that one can witness. Change is also the processes that we undergo within ourselves, our communities, and our organizations that produce those results. In other words, we might think of change not only as the ends we as change agents seek, but the means we use to achieve those ends.
But what exactly are these processes that reliably elicit meaningful growth? What are the core actions or disciplines change agents practice in order to produce the tangible outcomes they seek?
The stew of change
Too often, we as change agents, and perhaps even humans in general, are singularly minded in our approach. We think about our own personal growth without thinking of those around us. We focus on driving change out in the world without taking care of or changing ourselves. Or we focus so much on our relationships with others that we don’t nurture our relationship with ourselves.
Our approach to change can become uniform and monolithic. Every problem or situation becomes a nail for which our trusty old hammer is the solution.
Think of change more like a stew. A broth is uniform and consistent. It is just one thing. In contrast, a stew is many different ingredients interacting with and blending together to bring out the right taste and texture. And the recipe involves more than simply tossing all the ingredients together in a bowl, like a salad. It requires heat and time for the elements to coalesce and cook just right.
Change is never just one ingredient. It is a confluence of many ingredients that enhance and build off one another. Maybe it’s even like a witch’s potion bubbling up in a cauldron. When all the right ingredients and circumstances come together, something new and surprising emerges, as if by magic
We might think of change as built on three core, overlapping processes or main ingredients: 1) cultivating well-being, 2) driving well-doing, and 3) practicing integrity. To be their most impactful, change agents commit to and master all three processes, acknowledging they are all pieces to the same puzzle of change. Or put another way, these are the gears of change. Without one turning, the whole thing shuts down.
Well-being is the sustained state of being healthy and feeling truly alive – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is the affirming and enlivening experience of wholeness, abundance, and inner peace,
Cultivating well-being involves attuning to ourselves to understand what we need, refueling our internal reservoirs so that we can do what is needed in the world, and growing our internal capacity so that we have more to draw on in trying times. Through cultivating our well-being, we not only experience life more positively and abundantly, we have more to offer the world. While it looks different for everyone and in different moments, cultivating well-being often involves physical exercise, creative expression, building meaningful relationships and community, meditation or other mindfulness or spiritual practices, therapy or somatic work, eating nourishing food, resting, and pursuing passions.
Without well-being, one cannot be a change agent, at least not for long. Without sustained well-being, they won’t have the internal energy to do the demanding work needed out in the world. It would be as if we are trying to start a car while the battery is dead. Some pit self-care and social impact against one another, as if they are competing against one another for our limited resources. In reality, it’s quite the opposite. Self-care generates the energy necessary to drive social impact.
However, we can also arguably focus too much on our own well-being, especially for aspiring change agents. We can hoard an overabundance of internal resources that we do not share with others. We become so focused on our own well-being that we forget to apply our internal resources to those in greater need. It becomes like trying to charge a phone or car when it’s already full. For change agents, when our battery is truly full, it’s time to start driving.
Well-doing is our ongoing, active commitment to the well-being of the people, institutions, communities, and social and natural systems around us. It is an orientation of service to the greater good.
Driving well-doing is the process of attuning to what is needed in the world, expending our internal resources in service to that need, and continuously learning to do so more holistically, efficiently, and strategically. It is what we usually think of when we think of enacting change: volunteering, attending a protest, picking up garbage, planting a tree, leading a change initiative at your organization, adopting more conscious consumption habits, or mentoring someone in need.
When an aspiring change agent does not prioritize well-doing, they can feel their lives are empty and rudderless Though they have many resources at their disposal, their lives have no greater purpose or meaning. Ultimately, they may be successful or perhaps even happy, but they are not change agents. Change agents by definition use the resources at their disposal to serve something beyond themselves.
Yet still, one can arguably overprioritize well-doing. In fact, this is quite common among change agents today. We keep doing more, more, more, out of the belief that what we have done isn’t enough. We believe we must be at all times “productive.” We ourselves must do it all. We ourselves must save the whole world. When we act in this way, we not only quickly burn out (and thus diminish our capacity to do good over the long term), we also teach and pressure others to do the same. We create a world where people are valued solely for what they do, rather than who they are. We create a world where it is less accepted and possible for others to practice self-care for themselves.
Integrity is the alignment of our efforts to foster well-being and well-doing with our core values. Machiavelli famously argued that the ends justify the means. In contrast, integrity is when the means and ends align with and mutually reinforce one another.
The American founding fathers were arguably out of integrity. They famously proclaimed that all men are endowed with the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, they became wealthy and powerful by enslaving men, women, and children. Climate advocates who regularly fly around the world to give speeches about the importance of bold climate action are arguably out of integrity. Therapists who encourage their clients to practice self-care, but don’t afford themselves that same grace are out of integrity. They espouse a value to others but are not actually willing or able to put it into practice themselves.
Practicing integrity involves articulating your core values to yourself, declaring them to the world, and guiding your actions accordingly. It is saying what you believe to be right and actually doing what you say to be right. By practicing integrity, we not only advocate for change, we embody it. Even when we don’t achieve the tangible outcomes we seek, we still succeed. The process itself becomes the change. Through integrity, we learn to be the change we want to see in the world, rather than grow it outside of ourselves.
When we don’t practice integrity, we show the world that the values we espouse are insincere or impractical. We actually make the case for why others should not listen to or support our cause because we don’t actually truly believe in it ourselves. Perhaps more importantly, we teach them that they cannot truly trust us. We show them that our words are hollow.
However, like with well-being and well-doing, we can also overprioritize integrity. A rigid, uncompromising focus on integrity often manifests as the “perfect being the enemy of the good.”. The purity or completeness of the means becomes so sacrosanct that no ends actually get accomplished. Our values loom so large in our psyches that they become an impediment to change, rather than a guide.
The gears of change
Cultivating well-being, driving well-doing, and practicing integrity are not only innately compatible but mutually reinforcing and interdependent. We are better able to foster an experience of inner well-being when we are doing something meaningful and impactful in the world and have a felt sense of purpose. We are better able to do something meaningful in the world when our internal batteries are full. And by practicing integrity, we not only garner self-respect (and thus well-being), we generate trust and respect from others and thus galvanize support and momentum for our well-doing endeavors.
This stew of change is delicious and profound, But it is also perhaps bittersweet. Cultivating well-being, driving well-doing, and practicing integrity are disciplines we engage in, not ends we can fully achieve for any lasting period of time. We never truly achieve lasting, permanent well-being. We must recharge our batteries over and over throughout our lifetimes. There is always more change and well-doing needed in the world. As soon as we solve one challenge, another appears. And true, absolute integrity is always just a bit beyond our reach when engaging in this messy, imperfect, complex world of ours. There will always be a more perfect, more complete expression of our deepest values.
We will never achieve lasting well-being, well-doing, or integrity. The change agent is constantly recommitting to, fine-tuning, and balancing these processes, ensuring they are all active and in right relationship with one another. And while we tend to one, another will likely fall out of balance and soon need further tending.
We will never arrive. Fortunately, we don’t have to. When we engage in all three of these internal processes just enough, however incompletely or imperfectly, we create the conditions out of which growth can and will emerge. The goal is not to achieve any lasting state of being, but rather
simply to get these three core internal gears turning within us.