In which the newsletter writer has an existential crisis and plots a career pivot
When is a newsletter not a newsletter? When half a year passes between editions.
This newsletter never tried to be weekly or even monthly, and so never aspired to be your key source on the world of social change. It aimed to occasionally share ideas and stories that could help you do better work. For that, quality matters more than quantity. The model was: raise expectations for value, lower expectations for frequency.
Delivering infrequent value still took time. For each edition, I caught up on my various feeds: my RSS, my backlogged “read later folder” (I use Instapaper, usually filled from twitter), and other newsletters I follow. Catching up and finding items worth sharing usually took longer than the actual writing. I found that personally valuable, as preparing the newsletter has been a good mechanism for keeping myself up-to-date on the sector and looking broadly for new ideas and new connections.
More recently, I’ve found less value in going broad and processing the wide range of ideas out in the world. Increasingly, I’d rather go deep, focusing more time on client work and a book project.
So in that theme, this edition of the newsletter is a narrower update for the readers who are interested in my professional work, and less of the review of new ideas and practices that you may have come to expect (infrequently) from me.
Strategy is downstream of culture
Last winter and spring were tough for a lot of folks I know in the social change sectors. Several people in my professional networks faced some form of burnout, fueled by the sense of a never-ending pandemic, a flood of geopolitical crises, and work stresses.
In March, I wrote that presence is a privilege—by which I meant that, for many of us, our professional “value-add” comes from our ability to focus (to be present). However, that ability to focus is being undermined by what’s known as social determinants of mental health (aka “all of this mess”).
I felt this too, with crunches on client projects and stressors at home. The biggest challenge I faced was also a blessing: at the start of the year, my wife was going through the first trimester of pregnancy. It was a joy and a wonder but also a tough time. Two years ago, in the early weeks of the COVID pandemic, she had also been pregnant: it ended in a still birth at 22 weeks—a loss that was traumatic for both of us, though certainly more for her than me. We still don’t know what caused it, but we know it was a high-stress period. So this time, our plan to reduce her stress involved her resting while I did the bulk of childcare and domestic work.
That meant handling our high-energy 4-year-old (who wasn’t yet vaccine-eligible) through a series of school COVID exposures (and resulting shutdowns), and trying to keep her occupied without indoor playdates when it was too cold to take her outside. Also, dealing with a brutal sleep regression. Plus the bulk of the groceries, cooking, dishes, etc.
The effects of this compounded until I truly hit a wall in April. I reached a level of burnout that I haven’t felt since before I was a parent, when taking time to recover was easier. I stepped back from one project for a week while I focused on another. Then I gave myself a few weeks of grace to step away from my desk whenever I felt unfocused, to take afternoon naps, to work on something that wasn’t work, to do whatever I needed to rest.
In May, that space led to a piece on how workplaces become toxic—not because any of my recent clients face toxic work environments, but because my writing on presence had brought me around to some earlier scraps of ideas I’d drafted years ago on better ways to think about work culture and why “toxic” is such a challenging term to use.
In nine years as a consultant, I’ve been using strategy, research, and facilitation as entry points for changing how organizations work. But those are often just round-about ways to shift the less tangible substructure of organizational mindsets, expectations, norms, and habits: in a word, culture. While consulting has allowed me to work with a broad range of clients, it limits the depth of change I can affect at any given organization. I don’t like to over-sell what a strategy process can do: it might be an important pivot point for a team, but it’s just one experience in the long shift toward better work.
Two (or more) roads diverging
That thinking has led me to a hard career choice: I think I’m ready to leave independent consulting. I’ve loved making connections across a wide range of organizations, but I feel like I’ve maxed out what I can do in this particular role. I miss that depth of impact you can have over years of day-in, day-out engagement.
I’m not in any rush to make a change, but I’ve started to look more seriously at moving “in-house” with one of my clients or a similar organization advancing democracy, justice, political reform, peacebuilding, movements, and more, domestically in the U.S. and globally. That might mean doing something similar to what I do now (e.g., as a strategy lead) or a more general management role (drawing on my last full-time role as a managing director).
While I explore those options, I’m being more selective with the client projects I take on. I’m also carving out more time for the book project (working title: Together) that I’ve been slowly working on over the past few years.
Finally, I’m starting to develop some smaller projects on organizational culture change. In particular, I’m exploring how to help social change organizations adopt permanent remote/distributed and hybrid models. Too many organizations are still planning on defaulting to the pre-COVID “in-office” normal. I’d like to see more of them seize this opportunity to shift toward human-centered work and help their team members be more grounded in their communities.
All of which is to say that I’m in a more divergent, exploratory mode. If you’ve ever thought about dropping me a line to chat or pick my brain on anything at all, now’s the time: feel free to reply to this message or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org (my primary email).
Regardless of where I land next, I hope to continue writing and sharing what I’m learning from the work—it just might not be a regular newsletter.
Coda: As mentioned above, my wife is pregnant and we’re expecting a new baby joining our family soon. So I leave you with a poem: “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith.