Doing good from the inside out

This article explores the significance of our inner lives in shaping a better future.

What if the aim of every organisation, or every act of development, made the world a better place? Not only to be the best in the world, but to be the best for the world. Returning shareholder value at the same time as creating social and ecological benefit. These are the questions that international groups like Conscious Capitalism, B-Corporation, and International Living Future Institute have been asking for a number of years.

To realize this vision of a more meaningful prosperity, this century has seen the rise of a myriad of business relevant, purpose driven concepts, including Impact Investment, Social Enterprise, Ecological Sustainable Design and Shared Value to name a few.

A key realisation coming from this ‘doing good’ movement is that; it’s not enough to address the doing of good through disruptive innovation alone. To realise the potential of these concepts and make a meaningful difference, we need to also be willing, and able, to work on our inner lives.

More specifically, we need to be willing, and able, to develop our mindsets.

What’s inside — manifests outside

“We need to change the way we think… when we shine a light on all the things that need to change…. what we find most profoundly, is that it’s us of course that has to change, that the light shines most brightly back in our eyes” Jason McLennan

In Places to Intervene in a System, Donella Meadows states that the most influential system leaver for creating profound systemic change is the mindset out of which the systems arise. Mindsets are the sources of systems, where the smallest shifts can produce big changes.

Figure 1: Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system.

Mindsets can be understood as the deeply held stories we tell ourselves about the nature of reality, which intern, shapes our ability to perceive and understand the world. It influences our behaviours and actions, and has a cascading, self-fulfilling effect on reality.

This means there is no way to avoid the subconscious influence of our mindsets. Its hidden web of influence permeates everything, all the time. What’s inside us — our beliefs, values and higher purpose — manifests outside — shaping the lives we lead, the actions we take, and the future possibilities of the interconnected world we live in.

Creating profound systems change

While we can aspire to be the first generation to end extreme poverty, or the last generation to be threatened by climate change, there is a case to be made that it’s only going to be systemically possible if we are also open, and able, to developing our mindsets.

Therefore, to actualise future possibilities ‘out there’ in the world, requires us to connect with how we must also develop ourselves in our inner lives. Being able to consciously discover how our mindsets manifest on a larger scale, and being open and able to shift them, is the essence of creating profound systems change.

Regardless of which ‘doing good’ initiative you are implementing — say designing a green building (leverage points 6–8) or becoming a B-Corp (leverage point 4) — the initiative’s effectiveness is inseparable from the participant’s mindset (leverage point 1).

This understanding partly explains why so many well intentioned change programs fail to make a real world impact. They spend too much time focused on creating low leverage change ‘out there’ in the world, and tend to neglect addressing the higher leverage patterns of our inner lives.

Change your mindset, change the future

This emerging insight is challenging ‘doing good’ practitioners to develop pathways for people to do this deeply human work. There is now a rich variety of programs, including leadership fellowships and disruptive schools, new institutes like Lifehack, The Change School and Centre for Healthy Minds, as well as emerging tools like the Benefit Mindset that are helping people nourish their inner lives.

Doing this inner work leads to the realisation that you don’t need to be a hero leader like Martin Luther King or Al Gore to make a difference. Nor do you need to be especially talented. You just need to genuinely care — and be willing to work on yourself. As Jane Goodall said;

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make”. — Jane Goodall

The thing is, once people successfully shift their mindsets, it’s something they carry around with them for the rest of their lives. It changes everything about the everyday lives they lead, and the everyday actions they take. It inspires new ways of living and working — something we desperately need if we truly want to shape a better future.

Creating ripples of change

‘Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.’ — Rumi

Therefore, if you’re in the business of creating lasting change — guess what, you’re also in the business of developing mindsets — starting with yourself. It’s where, as Donella Meadows suggests, the real leverage lies.

Imagine what would be possible if more change programs tapped into the high leverage potential of our inner lives. Imagine how developing mindsets would positively impact the performance of a green building, or a social enterprise. Imagine the ripples of change that would be possible, if practitioners in sustainability and social innovation became exemplars of this inner work.

In many ways, these insights highlight just how integral healthy minds are for shaping a healthy world. And with such a rich variety of pathways for doing inner work, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future.

What do you think? If you’d like to share, please leave a comment below.