External results and internal processes
When viewed over long spans of time, change can be seen clearly as giant leaps forward in our capacity and consciousness. But in practice every day, it manifests as growth – small, bite-sized expansions and unfoldings.
This is how change is seen from an outsider’s perspective, observed from afar.
But change is not only the results that one can witness. Change is also the process that we undergo within ourselves, our communities, or our organizations that produces those effects out in the world.
If we are going to have a robust understanding of what change really is, we cannot simply describe the external effects. We need to understand the internal processes that bring them about.
The stew of change
Too often, we as change agents are singularly minded. We think about our own personal growth without thinking of those around us. We focus on driving change out in the world without making sure to take care of ourselves or recharge our batteries. Or we focus so much on our relationships with others that we don’t nurture our relationship with ourselves.
Think of change more like a stew. It requires many different ingredients interacting with and blending together to bring out the right taste and texture. There is more than one ingredient and the recipe involves more than simply tossing all the ingredients together in a bowl. It requires heat and time for the elements to all coalesce.
In Change 101, we think of change as built through three core processes: 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.
Well-being is the sustained state of being healthy and fulfilled – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is the affirming and enlivening experience of wholeness, purpose, and prosperity,
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, building meaningful relationships and community, meditation or other mindfulness or spiritual practices, therapy, eating nourishing food, resting, reading empowering books, and pursuing our passions.
Without well-being, one cannot be a change agent, at least not for long. They won’t have the internal capacity to do work out in the world. However, we can also focus too much on our well-being, hoarding an overabundance of internal resources that we do not share with others. When our tank 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 efficiently and strategically. It is what we usually think of when we think of enacting change: volunteering, attending a protest, leading a change initiative at your organization, adopting more conscious consumption habits, etc.
When one does not prioritize well-doing, they can feel their lives are empty and rudderless. They may be successful or even happy, but they are not change agents. Change agents by definition serve something beyond themselves.
But again, one can overprioritize well-doing. In fact, this is quite common among change agents. When we do so, we not only burn out, we teach others to do so as well. We create a world where people are valued solely for what they do, rather than who they are.
Integrity is the alignment of our 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 cohere with, mutually reinforce, and enhance 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 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 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 also doing what you say to be right. By practicing integrity, we not only advocate for change, we embody it. In doing so, we build trust and respect. We prove change is possible, even when we don’t achieve the tangible outcomes we seek. The process itself becomes the change. Through integrity, we practice being the change we want to see in the world.
When we don’t practice integrity, we show ourselves and the values we espouse to be insincere or impractical. However, a rigid, uncompromising focus on integrity can lead to the “perfect being the enemy of the good.” The purity of the process is so sacrosanct that nothing ever actually gets accomplished.
These three core processes are not only innately compatible but mutually reinforcing and interdependent. They build off one another. We are better able to foster an experience of well-being when we are doing something meaningful in the world. We are better able to do something meaningful in the world when our tank is full. And by practicing integrity, we not only garner self-respect (and thus well-being), we generate trust and respect, and thus galvanize support for our well-doing.
These processes cohere together almost like magic, accelerating and catalyzing profound growth and transformation.
However, they are also perhaps bittersweet. We never truly achieve lasting, permanent well-being. There is always more change and well-doing needed in the world. And true, absolute integrity is always just a bit beyond our reach. While we tend to one, another might find itself out of balance. They are ongoing aspirations and processes, rather than destinations that can be reached.
The change agent is constantly fine-tuning and balancing these processes, ensuring they are all active and in right relationship with one another. And when they are, they set the foundation for growth and change. They create the conditions from which they can harness their genius.