Five Principles Social Innovators Live By

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I spoke to a group at UCLA about social innovation and the future of the human species. After the talk, the students from Bruin Entrepreneurs asked me the following question over email: You’ve worked with hundreds of startups, some succeeding and some failing. I assume you’ve started to see trends as to what works and what doesn’t. What characteristics do successful teams usually have? I ended up writing so much in response that we decided to publish it as an essay!


What makes a great innovator? Many of our cultural ideas about success and failure are heavily tied to money and fame. But these turn out to be pretty bad tools for valuing innovation. Great innovators fail all the time, and mediocre teams often achieve some mainstream success. (As an analogy, think about how many great musicians struggled to get by while Nickelback sold out stadiums.)

When I think about innovation, I take a species-level perspective. Consider our present reality: for the first time in the modern history of Homo Sapiens, we face extinction level threats to our species. Climate change is wrecking our planet at an accelerating rate. Nuclear weapons could do the job even quicker. Billions of people suffer from poverty and injustice. All the while, systems of unchecked greed hinder progress in the name of personal profit.

Unsettling questions abound. What will humans do if machines take 80% of jobs? What if our environment is strained to the breaking point, refugees converge on cities, water is scarce, and billions fall into deep poverty? Can we develop the intellectual and moral capacity to control our worst impulses?

These are the stakes. Utopia is still possible, but we’re accelerating toward a dystopian cliff. For the sake of our species, we need to make some changes. In this context, great innovators are those people who advance the possibility of a future worth living in.

Fortunately, plenty of these people exist. I’m lucky enough to spend most of my life working with many of them. Ranging from NASA’s head of science who just announced one of the biggest scientific discoveries of all time, a world record-setting Olympic swimmer, Forbes 30 Under 30 peers, and thousands of the world’s most innovative students… I learn a lot about innovation by proximity.

Some of them are taking on the big issues directly. Others are working on small-scale local projects to make life better in their community. All are social innovators. One of my favorite mottos is do what you can with what’s in front of you.

Reflecting on my friends and myself, I have noticed some principles that many of us seem to share. I want to say right away that I’m not trying to position myself as the paragon of social innovation. My own implementation of these principles is far from perfect, and I’m not the sole authority on how social innovators live. But I’ve been fortunate to learn a lot from amazing people, so imperfections aside, I’ll share some common principles I’ve observed in the social innovators who inspire me:

Five Principles Social Innovators Live By

  1. We start with pragmatic optimism
  2. We take action
  3. We seek to understand morality and power
  4. We speak the truth and expose lies
  5. We build communities that respect autonomy

I’ll write a little bit about how I’ve seen each of these principles manifest in the people who give me the most hope. I hope these will be helpful and practical for your own life!

1. Starting with pragmatic optimism

All innovators are optimists. I agree with Noam Chomsky that “optimism is a strategy for making a better future.” If we don’t believe a better future is possible, we won’t step up to make it so. At the same time, optimism is most useful when it is pragmatic. In my view, pragmatic optimism requires me to be radically open and radically skeptical at the same time. I believe a better future is possible, but I also believe getting there will require serious consideration of strategy and tactics. Here are some behaviors I’ve noticed in pragmatic optimists:

Experience wonder. Wonder might be my favorite word. It can mean curiosity (“I wonder..?”) or awe (“I’m struck with wonder!”). Innovators bring curiosity into every situation and we allow ourselves to be awe-inspired on a regular basis. In this way, innovators aren’t so different from children. Everywhere we look we see something new and exciting! And we tend to awaken (or reawaken) that spirit in the people around us.

Illuminate possibilities. Have you ever felt trapped by your situation, like you have no good options? This seems like a common feeling in the 21st century, and yet Thich Nhat Hanh says that “we have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” Even if our situation seems dire, are there possibilities for positive action? In optiMize, the social innovation community I help lead, we illuminate possibilities for each other on a regular basis. I rarely feel stuck in place because so many people are constantly helping me identify positive steps to take.

Appreciate our strengths. We have all been raised in a consumer culture that makes a lot of money convincing us we need to fix all the things that are wrong with us. (“By buying our product!”) Innovators spend more time appreciating our own strengths than fretting over our weaknesses. Insecurity about flaws creates downward spirals. Appreciation spirals upward — as we understand our strengths, we utilize them more. This of course improves our ability to make positive impact, and helps us learn how to build lives where we spend more time doing things we are good at and love doing. From there, we can work with partners who have diverse skill sets and interests to make up for our weaker areas.

Appreciate each other. Sometimes it’s hard to find our own strengths when we’ve been so conditioned to focus on flaws. But it’s easier for me to spot strengths in my friend! It might be even easier than it is for her to spot her own. We can help each other by creating cultures of appreciation in our groups. If I see you’re great at something, I’ll make sure to tell you I appreciate your strength. You’ll do the same for me, and we’ll all get better (and happier) over time.

Create positive visions. We can constantly create visions for how a better future might look. Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s might be vision’s greatest champion. He teaches us how to imagine (and write down!) inspiring, strategically sound futures that we can work toward. According to Ari, anyone can become a visionary in 30 minutes! If you take one action after reading this essay, try using 30 minutes to do the exercise in that link. I promise it will be worth it! If you’re feeling stuck, reach out to me and I’ll help you through the process.

Ask “Why not me?” If you see a problem and think, “Someone needs to do something about that!” I challenge you to ask yourself, “Why not me?” Lots of people might tell you you’re not qualified to take action. Be very skeptical of these people. Sometimes they’re telling the truth, and it’s important to be humble and honest when you assess possibilities. I wouldn’t try to lead a NASA science mission (because it requires specific training) or designate myself as a spokesperson for the experience of transgender people (because it requires specific lived experience). But in more cases than you think, people who discourage you are overestimating their own “expertise.” In most cases, you are already prepared to take action!

2. Taking action

After reading a draft of this essay, my friend Paul Stefanski said, “I think you can make a connection between optimism and action. I feel most able to take action when I’m feeling optimistic.” I couldn’t agree more. Optimism is a rich source of energy that can be channeled into productive action. And of course we can’t bring our visions to life without taking action. It seems simple, and yet so many of us live passively, letting life happen to us, always reacting to things and never proactively driving things forward. Over the years I’ve observed some traits in the most action-oriented people I know:

Have a bias for action. The moment to act is never going to be exactly right, and that stops some people from ever taking action. The best innovators I know create ideas constantly. And they move from idea to action quickly. Give yourself deadlines and take the best possible action.

Remember your vision. If you weren’t already convinced to check out Ari Weinzweig’s vision work, I’ll give it a second plug! When you have a vision, every action can be coherent in the context of that vision, and failure doesn’t stop you from taking more action, because the vision remains in tact.

Reframe failure, because great things take a long time. We all want results. And it’s always disappointing when something doesn’t go according to plan. But as long as we haven’t crossed ethical lines, everything is an opportunity to learn and improve. Act. Observe. Reflect. Adapt. Act again.

Do everything… sequentially. My mentor Ken Ludwig constantly reminds me: doing something great requires focus. You can’t do everything at once. If you’re creative, this is hard because you’re constantly getting new ideas. I get lots of ideas that are exciting, but not appropriate for the present moment. It’s good to have ideas on a “back burner” to return to when you have the proper resources (time, people, money, etc) available.

Consider risk in decisions. Acting quickly is no excuse to act recklessly. In fact, a bias for action requires us to think about the stakeholders who will be affected by our actions. Before making a decision, it’s crucial to prepare seriously and to consider the harm our actions could cause. And if we decide the risk is too great, sometimes the best action is non-action.

Own the consequences of our actions. It’s tempting to take credit for positive impact while deflecting or ignoring the harm we cause. We need to be honest and reflective about the consequences of our actions. This is the only way to learn and grow.

Keep taking action. Living actively instead of passively is a lifelong practice that makes life more fun!

3. Understanding morality and power

Clearly I love taking action. But action isn’t necessarily a good thing. Our actions might cause harm or they might be ineffective. To avoid harm, we need to figure out what we believe about morality, ethics, and what is good. Just as important, if we want to be effective, we need to understand how power operates and how we can use it to achieve our goals. Great innovators see power and ethics in every decision they make. This might seem intimidating at first, but even if we haven’t thought explicitly about this stuff before, there are things we can do to improve our insight and understanding. This topic is worth exploring far beyond what I can capture here, but here are a few starting points:

Seek moral understanding. Making change is one thing. Making a change that’s useful, beautiful, or positive for humanity is quite another. To accomplish the latter, moral consideration must be the foundation of all action. In the world around us, lots of people take moral shortcuts to achieve “success” more quickly. These shortcuts are tempting to take because they’re usually as simple as ignoring a moral consideration that really deserves our attention.

There’s a lot to learn about morality and more to discover, and we should absolutely dedicate brain time to it. I didn’t really understand the depth of moral consideration until I spent lots of time with my 72 year-old mentor and saw how carefully he considered his actions. Aside from personal experience, we can learn from lots of places. Philosophy and religion have provided venues for moral debates that are worth learning about and building on. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created by representatives from across the world after WWII, is a moral milestone that we ought to learn about and fight to implement. We can also rely on our own reflection and reasoning to decide what we believe. The main point is that this pursuit is ongoing and inherently allergic to dogma.

Seek to understand power. Once you understand something about power, you gain a new awareness of how change really happens — or why it sometimes maddeningly does not. (For instance, why have we not transitioned to renewable energy?) You can use these insights to advance your own ideas or interests.

As with morality, there’s serious learning to be done about power. How does power operate? How do we acquire it, and how can we use it? How can it be used to benefit or harm humanity? Why do some of us salivate at the opportunity to exercise power and while others tremble at the prospect? Does the nature of power change when it is either concentrated or dispersed? You might be able to guess my answers to some of these questions, but they’re all worth exploring more deeply.

Great innovators are skilled and responsible wielders of power. As for myself, I learn a lot from experience and I’ve also read some fantastic books. Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky dramatically advanced my perspective on power. Another good one is The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh. And of course the ancient military treatises offer great insight.

Don’t idolize powerful people. Many great innovators stand up against status quo power structures. Just because someone is powerful doesn’t mean we have to go along with what they say.

Don’t underestimate power. Even if we don’t agree with a powerful person’s ideas, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them seriously. Most powerful people are skilled at accumulating and wielding power. We need to take that seriously if we hope to advance our own ideas and defeat bad ones.

Require justification for authority. This is one of the most crucial principles I live by. I’ve never done well with authority figures telling me what to do. Now that I’ve gained some power, I work to make sure I only exercise authority if it’s justified. It turns out that justifying authority is more difficult than I anticipated. As a result, I rarely impose authority even when I have the opportunity. I talk more about this in the closing section on community and autonomy.

4. Speaking the truth and exposing lies

This one comes directly from a 1967 essay called The Responsibility of Intellectuals. That essay is worth reading in full, but here I’ll talk about a few traits that serious innovators practice every day:

Learn enough about things to hold a serious position. For years, I ran my mouth on things I really didn’t understand. I’m working to change that, but plenty of people don’t care to change— just watch the news for 10 minutes and you’ll see plenty of pundits talking about things they don’t understand. Don’t be one of those people. If we want to be serious in life, we need to learn enough about a topic to develop a serious position. Forming serious positions requires curiosity, honesty, humility, and openness to change. And lots of time and effort!

Be honest. We need to apply the same standards to ourselves as we do to others. Our capacity for self-delusion is terrifying. We need to recognize that awful capacity and be vigilant with our thoughts and ideas. As we practice serious honesty on all fronts, we start to see things more clearly.

Step up to expose lies and bad ideas. It’s easy to sit back and do nothing while bad ideas or outright lies are spread. These often originate from governments or corporate advertisers and then get disseminated through everyday conversation. Maybe we aren’t convinced by an idea we hear but we can’t muster the courage to speak out against it. This is a missed opportunity, and by now we’ve seen the destruction that bad ideas can cause on a global scale. Even if it feels risky, I try to speak up when I hear bad ideas and do my best to persuade people toward better ones. To me this is a core process of innovation, because innovation inherently challenges a status quo we refuse to accept. Speaking out isn’t about shaming anyone. Many people with bad ideas have been deceived themselves. Effective persuasion usually requires listening and trying to find common ground before offering a different perspective. It’s a slow and frustrating process, but as Shakespeare wrote, eventually the truth will out.

Say what we mean and do what we say. The more we can align our beliefs, speech, and actions in every moment, the more we will be able to make a positive impact on ourselves, the people around us, and humanity. This kind of rigorous consistency builds trust and deepens relationships.

5. Building community that respects autonomy

I think I’m probably known more as a community builder than anything else. Appropriately, I think building community is one of the most important things a social innovator can do. Here are some of my thoughts on how to build innovation communities:

Cultivate supportive communities. Working for innovation or change can be extremely isolating and exhausting. It’s crucial to find a group of people who support each other, re-energize each other, and illuminate possibilities for each other. If you have your principles and beliefs clear, it’ll be easy to attract like-minded people. Building community has been optiMize’s strong suit. It’s allowed us to scale dramatically the number of innovative projects happening on our campus, and it’s increased the longevity of those projects.

Respect every person’s autonomy. Working together doesn’t mean we give up our individual autonomy. It’s crucial that we respect everyone’s right to make their own decisions about their own lives, free from coercion. In fact, community is only worth having if you start from a foundation of respect for individual autonomy. Without a respect for autonomy, communities can slip into a condition where members are coerced into actions they didn’t freely choose, which assaults the human spirit.

Share ideas openly and often. Innovation happens when ideas flow freely. At optiMize, we share our ideas pretty openly. I’m not worried that someone might “steal my ideas.” I hope they do! I’ve found that by putting my ideas out to the world, I get a lot back in return. When we repurpose and remix each other’s work, great ideas get even better and more people get excited about implementing them in the world. As we innovate toward a future worth living in, I hope everyone will participate freely. Check out Creative Commons to learn more about why information sharing is so exciting.

Value diversity. Solving great challenges requires great creativity. As far as I’ve seen, creativity thrives when diversity thrives. We make the best decisions when we have access to (and input from) a diverse range of perspectives. For us at optiMize, creating a diverse group requires intentionality, inclusivity, and widespread openness to changing our minds. There’s a lot more to say about this, but I’ll save that for another essay.

Collaborate voluntarily. Once you respect individual autonomy, collaboration becomes a beautiful process. When we collaborate it’s because we recognize that we all benefit from working together. As we like to say, we compete with bad ideas… not each other! Voluntary collaboration is a lot more fun than competing with each other, and we tend to make each other better when we do it.

Develop a shared brain. I’ve noticed that in the optiMize community, we’ve begun to develop a shared brain that functions in addition to each individual’s own unique perspective. Notice I said in addition to and not in place of. We all maintain our individualism, but we also start to operate as a part of something bigger than ourselves. More and more, I think about how my everyday actions will affect the optiMize community. I notice the influence of my fellow optiMizers in my thinking and decision-making. And I often stop and think, “Should this decision be made by the group?”

One optiMizer suggested that we are becoming an “autonomous community.” We’ve become a collective organism that is made up of other equally important individual organisms. Together we develop ideas with far more texture, depth, and insight than any of us could discover on our own. Sometimes this happens without any of us consciously realizing it’s happening. Whatever we call it, it’s certainly one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.

Operate democratically. At optiMize, we make decisions by consensus. Just last weekend we allocated $200,000 to 18 teams out of more than 40 who were in consideration, and the decisions on all 18 were made by consensus among a group of 20 people. It took us 20 hours in total, but the decisions were so much richer, deeper, and more inclusive than would be possible with an autocratic decision structure. It’s extremely rare to see such participatory decision-making models. I see this as one of the greatest innovations we’ve accomplished yet at optiMize.

Serve your community. Even if we’re all working on our own projects, we share a common project of cultivating our community. Maybe someone needs help with something specific, maybe they need emotional support, or maybe they need caring mentorship when they’ve screwed up. At optiMize we step up to serve each other whenever we can.

Have a lot of fun! We all know from experience that fun is worthwhile in its own right. And it turns out it’s good for innovation, too! People who have more fun tend to get more done. I believe this so much that I use it as a way to decide how I spend my time. I ask myself, am I having more fun than a barrel of monkeys doing this? If we’re having fun together, we’re generating a sustainable source of positive energy. We’ll need this if we’re going to keep innovating for the rest of our lives!

In conclusion

This is certainly a non-exhaustive list that’s reflective of my thinking at the current moment. I’m constantly evolving, so maybe we’ll meet in a few months and I’ll have changed my mind on something I wrote!

I’ll close with one final principle of innovators who sustain our work year after year: we practice compassion. Practicing compassion begins with compassion for myself. If I’m treating myself unkindly, how can I treat others better?

I still find it difficult to be consistently kind to myself. I fail every day to live up to the principles I’ve described above. To deal with this, I remind myself that I’m on a journey of growth. I’ve also made a personal distinction between guilt and shame. Brené Brown’s work helped me a lot with this. If I fall short of my ideals, I allow myself to feel the guilt. That helps me know what I need to change. But I try not to let it turn into shame that sticks with me for days, weeks, or months. I go to bed and tell myself, “I did what I could today.”

And so, with this post, I did what I could. I hope something in here is helpful to you! I would love to hear your thoughts — send me a message on Facebook or email me at jpsorens@umich.edu and we’ll chat.

Keep optimizing and innovating toward a sustainable, positive future!


Heartfelt appreciation to Ana Patchin, Ari Weinzweig, Azba Gurm, Candace Sorensen, Ken Ludwig, Laura Murphy, Paul Sorensen, Paul Stefanski, and Ryan Aliapoulios for your thoughtful feedback and encouragement during the drafting of this essay.