but too vulnerable?
The social entrepreneurship movement is on the rise globally in terms of size, scope, and degree of available support. Gen Y (also known as Millennials) and early-Gen Z, known to be more socially conscious and engaged, now comprise the majority of the workforce in many countries.
These change agents will increasingly be the driving force behind societal change, tackling issues that society and governments can’t or won’t, and addressing concerns brushed aside by others. They take the issue of social purpose as a personal calling and are ready to level-up global consciousness.
Those who are already social entrepreneurs are often looked up to as heroes of humanity – regarded as visionary, fierce and bold rebels who challenge what is, push boundaries, question authority, and make way for innovative and sustainable models of business and human development.
It’s almost too good to be true. The largest generation on this planet is firmly vested in social matters and global responsibility above titles, success, and personal gain. They’re driven by a conviction that they have the potential to impact the world.
But the Achilles’ heel of this generation, upon which we hang our hopes for a brighter tomorrow, is that their greater social investment seems to be coupled with one of the lowest levels of emotional resilience in history.
It appears that Generations Y and Z, despite their strong drive and tenacity, are perhaps the most anxious and depressed generations of all time. There is not yet any conclusive answer as to why this is, but there does seems to be consensus on at least two major contributing factors.
The first being our increased focus on mental health today, as compared to in previous generations (and the consequent rise in the number of discovered cases). The second, is that these generations are the first to have grown up with social media, leading to an exaggerated version of ‘comparison syndrome’ in which they compare both themselves and their lives with the unrealistic standards portrayed on social media. Whenever members of Gen’s Y and Z feel they have failed to live up to their own and others’ ideals and standards, they are left both depressed and anxious.
The vicious cycle of anxiety is easily reinforced, as whenever they feel lonely or unwell, ‘Millennials’ and ‘Zoomers’ try to numb the feeling by distracting themselves with more social media. This pattern of behaviour only follows the blueprint created for them, with social media designed to trigger the brain’s center for pleasure. Consequently, with human interaction being important for the mental state, they substitute real-life interactions for their virtual social network.
Short of mastering their inner life and emotions, everyday challenges can turn into insurmountable obstacles for these generations, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and potentially reliant on unhealthy coping strategies, such as avoidance, isolation, and self-medication which harms their wellbeing.
So the question becomes: Is this generation potentially unfit for the huge task we – and they – are putting on their shoulders?
From my work with changemakers, I notice that many are of a special breed, whose raw lived experiences have shaped their purpose and their passion.
Often, impacted by a deeply transformative or traumatic experience in their early years, they have transformed the bruises that life dealt them into post-traumatic wisdom, which they use as a driving force to become changemakers for new structural changes and new ways of living, in turn creating a better world for all.
They are pioneers in their field, and though they feel respected, they often don’t feel seen nor understood in their work and vision. This leaves them isolated, lacking someone to turn or consult when needed.
Add to this, that inner wellbeing remains a critical issue for many. Even if they have transcended their lived experiences, personal wounds and scar tissue often remain, making them feel vulnerable and victimized when left unhealed and repressed.
In their relentless focus on serving humanity, these social changemakers can be incredibly inhumane towards themselves. Neglecting their own needs and scars, believing self-care to be a sign of weakness, they sacrifice themselves for their purpose. A purpose which, in actuality, does not require this sacrifice and only becomes stronger when they work on their vision from the inside-out.
Vulnerability is opportunity
So, how can we help set them up for success in their pursuit of improving society on behalf of us all, and not just leave them struggling on their own?
The task may seem daunting, but in fact it only takes a simple paradigm shift to see that, with insight and support, their greatest challenge can become their greatest strength.
Vulnerability is only a weakness if suppressed. Pushing it away is like trying to keep a balloon under the water so nobody sees it: it leaves one exhausted. However, if embraced, it’s no longer a liability, but a strength and force that both fuels and drives. If used with wisdom, it’s a power to harness. Vulnerability invites the changemaker to become whole, and to unlock their full potential.
To become complete means embracing all parts of ourselves – all the imperfections and complexities – instead of clinging to an impossible ideal or hiding behind a façade of faux-strength, worn to appease others whilst protecting oneself from rejection or judgement.
Self-acceptance fosters self-worth, courage, and strength. In other words: self-love builds resilience. By breaking the shackles of our perceived limitations, we realize it is possible to be both wild and vulnerable at the same time; to be brave and to feel fear. With that authenticity comes a sense of freedom.
This is where we come to understand the paradox: that one become stronger because of one’s vulnerability.
It’s simple, but not easy! Often, my mentees – with their wounds at the very genesis of their cause – start out feeling like victims instead of heroes, acting out this victimhood instead of taking responsibility. However, with time, owning their full story increases the power of their cause exponentially, and empowers them to embrace their leadership role instead of shying away from it.
They realize that, as diamonds need intense pressure to transform from basic carbon into a gem, they are turned into shining transformative leaders because of their background, not in spite of it.
The wellbeing and resilience of the individual changemaker undeniably influences the entire organization’s resilience. Daring to be vulnerable as a leader involves a change in mindset that enables us to see through the eyes of the people we lead. When we are our authentic, grounded selves, it becomes easier to feel compassion for others, to embrace their flaws, and to build stronger relationships.
The vulnerability of a leader inspires and fosters a growth-mindset culture within their organization, creating a sense of safety that allows employees to move beyond their comfort-zones and embrace innovation. This is crucial to entrepreneurs as they blaze new territory in a world of complexity and volatility.
Next gen role models
Exactly because these social entrepreneurs know the other side of the coin – what fragility and lack of resilience feels like – they can speak with authority. As a generation comfortable sharing mental health struggles, these changemakers are uniquely positioned to change the notion of vulnerability and resilience for their peers. They are an example, not for what they are doing, but for who they are being.
They can become the trimtab initiating these changes; role models for an entire generation of youth. By showing their peers the path to completeness and inner wellbeing, they are showing them the connection between inner work and outer impact. Thus,they can demonstrate how essential vulnerability is as a quality in today’s entrepreneur, and can become breaking new ground within the subject of wellbeing.
Inner work, outer change
There is a strong connection between inner development and effective social change. This begs the question: How do we support and empower the increasing number of social changemakers waiting in the wings to discover their own authenticity, so that they can in turn impact their generation at large and use their creativity to forge a better world?
It takes a village….
Fortunately, the number and scope of organizations and initiatives supporting social entrepreneurs and their inner wellbeing has been increasing in recent years. They include incubators, accelerators, academia, associations such as Ashoka, and initiatives combining various institutions, such as the Wellbeing Project. The network is expanding, but it needs to become mainstream and widely accessible.
Another effective means of support is found in mentors, who have the theoretical and practical experience to support changemakers on each step of their personal and entrepreneurial journey.
Whilst it‘s easy to deflect responsibility for tackling this challenge – onto society, institutions or our educational systems – it’s important to take personal responsibility. We each have an important role to play here, as individuals and community.
Anyone can offer changemakers mental support; the chance to be truly seen and engaged with, to feel understood, and thereby a genuine a sense of belonging. This energy, this kindness, is the fuel they often lack, and a fuel which can power a changemaker for hours, days and weeks. When we as individuals support others in this way, we forge a path for someone else to do the same.
Leaders, mentors, and professionals who have already walked this path can actively pay forward, committing to taking one or two young social entrepreneurs under their wing with professional guidance, and preparing them to fly – and fly high. This should be done on the condition that the changemaker in turn offers themselves as a leader and role model in their community, and would increase our rate of positive societal change exponentially.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a global community to raise a hero of humanity.