With the release date of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship now upon us, I have decided to publish the first five pages now on my blog as a way to give you a taste for the book. It ends with me at a crossroads in my life, at age 33, needing to decide how to arrest my downward trajectory – which evoked a dramatic and tragic end for one of my heroes that is where the book opens.
“Hello, this is Alex,” I answered hurriedly from my desk in a small office near the U.S. Capitol. It was a Friday afternoon in July, 1990. Back then, before the advent of caller ID, most people just picked up their phones, not knowing who to expect on the other end.
At the time, I was nine months into what would be a three-year interlude based in Washington, D.C., between my two stints in Bangladesh. I was the legislative director for RESULTS, an aggressive, controversial, but widely respected international nonprofit organization dedicated to anti-hunger advocacy. It was a preposterously senior role for someone who was just 22 years old, but my previous association as a Fulbright scholar with Grameen Bank and its illustrious founder, Muhammad Yunus, was already opening doors for me.
“Hi, Alex, this is Mitch Snyder,” said the voice on the other end of the line. That got my attention.
Mitch was the driving spirit behind the Center for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), an organization that served and advocated for the homeless. I had read about Mitch and his battles with President Reagan. In one successful confrontation, he’d gone on a hunger strike in order to pressure the administration into giving an abandoned federal building in Washington to his group for a homeless shelter. Fifty-one days into Mitch’s fast, the government agreed to his demands. Like many in the nonprofit world, I considered Mitch Snyder a legend.
“Can your organization sign on to a letter about homelessness that we have prepared?” he asked. I was a bit surprised—and impressed. Here was a celebrated provocateur and activist doing the spade work of calling around to get co-signers on a rather mundane advocacy letter. I’ve always admired leaders who don’t delegate all of the unglamorous, practical parts of their work to others but rather pitch in themselves.
“Sure, fax it over,” I promptly replied. I planned to talk to my colleagues about endorsing the letter after reviewing it over the weekend.
It didn’t work out that way. On Monday morning, I read in the Washington Post that Mitch had hanged himself over the weekend.
The news left me shocked, dismayed, and confused. How could Mitch be diligently plugging away at his latest project one moment only to take his life a few hours later? I wondered whether I had been the last person he had spoken to.
It was a sobering lesson about the psychic toll that dedicating your life to a noble cause can sometimes take. But seeing what can happen to another person isn’t always enough to make us change our own behaviors.
In little over a decade, I found myself facing my own existential crisis. I had returned from my second tour in Bangladesh, which had lasted five years. I was running Grameen Foundation, an organization that I had founded a few years earlier to advance the humanitarian ideals of Muhammad Yunus, the iconic Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, which I’d adopted as my own. On the surface, things were going well. But just below the surface, trouble was building fast.
Starting during my final years in Bangladesh, when I was behind a desk more and exploring the realities of the rural countryside less, I had been gaining three to five pounds per year. This was just one symptom of the contradictions I was living. I exercised fairly regularly, but not enough to stave off ballooning weight and borderline high cholesterol. I had the job of my dreams, but often was a bundle of nerves. I was driving my employees and family crazy, and I had virtually no interests beyond my work. I’d been successful at raising more money than ever before, but I was also feeling increasingly insecure and anxious.
From time to time, I wondered whether I might I end up like Mitch, plugging away on some project to advance the common good one moment, hanging from the rafters the next. My worries only deepened as I observed other nonprofit leaders battle depression, adopt unhealthy habits, get divorced, belittle their own achievements, and become enveloped in cynicism.
My crisis came to a head in December, 2000. At Grameen Foundation’s annual holiday party at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, I rose to give a thank-you speech to the staff. I attempted to strike a balance between our big fund-raising successes that year—most notably pulling in $1 million for our work in India with the help of Steve Rockefeller, Jr.—and all the things we had not yet accomplished. Sometimes I give very effective speeches to teams I have led, but this was one of my worst ever. The team members in attendance applauded politely, then went back to partying.
At around nine p.m., someone announced to everyone still at the party that we had paid for more alcohol than we had consumed. The bar was open for business, big time! Seeking some fun and release, I started drinking shots with colleagues. For the first and only time since my college years, I concluded the night by throwing up.
The next morning, one of the first people I saw was Howie Erichson, a brilliant law school professor who was in town on business and had stayed overnight in our basement apartment on Capitol Hill. Howie had served as a mentor of mine since I was fourteen, and he’s one of the people I most admire. I was deeply embarrassed to let him see me stumble home and, the next morning, in my hung-over state. After he left, I did something else I had never done before: I cancelled a business trip I’d planned for that day. I was feeling too miserable to travel.
A few weeks later, it was New Year’s Day, 2001. After a morning workout, I jumped onto the digital scale in the Atlantic Health Club on the Jersey shore, and I saw a really big number shouting back at me. My years of self-neglect now meant that I was 25 pounds overweight.
Driving back to Washington later that day gave me a chance to reflect on what had happened to me.
I was a mess. My mental and physical health was fragile, at best. My wife Emily and I had little in the way of savings. I had a small but stubborn credit card debt that I never seemed to be able to pay off. I buried my worries in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream each night and then rallied myself to show up at work the next morning to pump the adrenaline needed for me to play the part of the leader who had all the answers—despite the fact that I sometimes felt as if I had few answers to give my small but growing staff team.
This profile of inner stagnation and decay wasn’t unfamiliar to me. Mitch Snyder wasn’t the only gifted social activist I’d seen in similar straits. I had once sat with a microfinance legend, often mentioned in the same breath as Yunus, who lamented to me that he felt that everything he had done for the past 40 years had essentially failed. Now he was hoping to make up for all that carnage with one final Hail Mary pass—a domestic lending initiative that ended up being a fiasco. It was a tragic waste of money and energy, and a needless blot on what had actually been an admirable and accomplished career.
I observed another leader pick up a succession of bad habits due to the stress of running an activist organization. At one point she had to change jobs—but not before letting her health insurance lapse and experiencing a health crisis that has caused her to suffer from intense pain and be unable to work ever since. Years later, over a cup of coffee with me, she reminisced about her journey from being a nationally recognized advocate for low-income people to someone who sometimes had to choose between buying food and medicine.
Now, at the age of thirty-three, I was becoming one of those leaders: successful enough to attract some funding and talent, clever enough to make even modest accomplishments sound significant, but unhealthy and unhappy to the core.
I realized it was past time for me to turn things around.
To read how I turned things around, and much more, pick up a copy of my book today.