Even now, after a decade of working with and within numerous and varied social/sustainability change-oriented fields, I often have to remind myself why I do what I do. Or, more honestly, why I care. Because doing ‘good’ can really hurt sometimes.

I’m not talking only of the financial pain, or the bad days when the uphill battle weighs you down and fractures your spirit. I’m not even alluding to the emotional turmoil that being an isolated operator brings, nor the exhaustion from batting the status quo and the endless outside forces that seem intent on breaking you. No, the hurt I’m talking about is often self-inflicted, and fed from the constant deep seated desire to do good. Many of you will know it all too well, the internal fire that fuels your passion and drives you forward – that’s the engine room for the hurt that I’m talking about. For me it hurts because it never goes away.  A constant desire to participate in the creation of a more equitable society is like a dull ache that can’t be remedied, but from that same place comes intense joy and reward.

I have founded a few social enterprise businesses, completed a PhD, executed countless projects, and now have become widely known for my provocative approach to challenging the ways in which people view and engage with social change and environmental sustainability – specifically through design and innovation. Recently, I have spent time reflecting on how my external and internal frustrations and upsets that seem to go hand in hand with being a change maker have actually been instrumental in the success of my work. So here are the three critical things I have learnt from a distillation of these reflections.    

1 | Fail hard, learn fast
What would we get out of success if it was too easy? Challenge makes for far more interesting results. Look at nature, evolution has delivered to our planet some of the most amazing creatures and adaptations as a direct result of adversity, challenge and necessity. Of course, it feels disastrous directly after a failure, when an outside force blocks progress or when hard work seems to amount to nothing. But failing is truly the best way to learn – and learn fast!

Experience is one of the most effective educators and a mechanism for making a better you, a better project, a better change agent. Someone once said to me when I was having a particularly rough time, “think of all of this as a jigsaw puzzle, and while each piece might not make sense in isolation, once you have put them all together you will be able to see the full picture and all the little parts will have their place in making up the whole”. I’m not saying things have to be hard, but they undoubtedly will be at times, and when they are: stop and learn from it. Take the time to gain knowledge and power from these valuable experiences, if you don’t they may end up breaking you, which would be a terrible shame as you could be using them as a crucial force for making your project or passion more successful. 

2 | Challenge leads to change
I’m definitely one who loves a good verbal battle (that’s why I started Verbal Fight Club). It’s been said to me on more than one occasion that I argue like a boxer fights – which has proven both detrimental and handy at various times. Given that making change is about challenging and provoking people and systems, there is bound to be resistance. This often ends up with individuals vehemently (and sometimes violently) disagreeing with you. I am constantly having to justify my every little choice, as the perception of a person working within a ‘morally-high stakes’ arena equates somehow to the fact that I should therefore stand as a beacon of pure morality. I have to accept now that my every action will be critiqued, and as a result I have come to accept that hypocrisy is part of life for everyone. After all, we all live on this beautiful hot mess of a planet and operate in a society that places particular demands on us, doing good as your profession does not somehow excuse you from the rest of life’s pressures, joys and difficulties. 

Challenge is a parameter for change, and most of us seek to effect change through the things we do because we have seen a problem that we believe needs to be remedied. In essence, we define the challenge for ourselves. Challenge also drives creativity and forces us to be agile and flexible in the ways in which we approach being a positive influencer in the world. I have come to accept that I use challenge as a way of driving myself and my work further, to be more creative and effective in how I operate in the world. I have also learnt to embrace the challengers, partly because I believe everyone should be challenged on their convictions. I don’t have all the answers by any means, but challenge helps me to refine and solidify my ideas and my stance. It also helps in the acknowledgement that we are all explorers in life, challenging ourselves to find a better way forward personally and professionally.

3 | Cultivate courage
Curiosity is the mother of creativity in my opinion, and from curiosity comes courage. This often undervalued yet fundamental human asset is something that I have personally spent much time trying to cultivate, for it is the antidote to the pain that making change can often bring. I don’t believe that courage is just about having strength, it is both a broader and deeper concept than that, affecting every aspect of a person’s internal and external thought processes.

When you are inventing and establishing a profession as you go along, as one often must do when paving new ground, it can prove tricky explaining where exactly you fit in to the status quo. Most people tend to prefer clear cut versions of the world, and when something or someone doesn’t fit in their version of it, they attempt to put you ‘back in your box’. You quickly become a contortionist and eventually end up a magician of sorts, figuring out nimble ways of escaping the pigeonholes that people put you in. One of the strangest things I have personally had to overcome is the perception of what I should and shouldn’t do based on my gender. I don’t think people mean to be condescending, but there are still many preconceived assumptions about the roles women play in the world and for me it just keeps getting amplified the more high-stake environments I am working within.  

In saying all of this though, I must admit that for me, I have the most amazing job in the world. I don’t see what I do as traditional ‘work’, I play – I am able to creatively challenge myself and the people around me, I get to see change in the world and I can choose to invest my time in learning, growing and evolving my own position and perspectives of the world, using this new knowledge as a way of participating in positive change. These things far outweigh the pain and angst. To be honest, I’m actually glad it hurts sometimes, because it’s through the challenges that I get better at what I do, get stronger and more courageous, and from courage comes change. So I say to you, own your hurt, and turn it back on itself – use it to make yourself, the world, and everything you do more useful, more valuable, more beneficial and more world changing.

Leyla is running a 3 part deep dive workshop series ‘Your Brain on Change’ at the AIGA National Design Centre on 5th Ave over three Tuesday evenings in November starting on the 4th, covering a range of topics cultural, social and behavioral change. Tickets: Your Brain on Change Deep Dive Workshop Series

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From the Editor
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