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STORIES OF SELF INQUIRY

Social entrepreneurs, system entrepreneurs, philanthropists and founders share their stories of self inquiry

Over an eighteen-month period, we conducted in-depth interviews with more than two dozen social change leaders to identify what they discovered about themselves through self-inquiry (sometimes referred to as inner work or self-care). Our research project is featured in the article “Self-Inquiry for Social Change Leaders”, published by Stanford Social Innovation Review in April 2020.

These interviews are copyrighted by Jeff Walker & Katherine Milligan. Please do not reproduce without permission and reference the article Self-Inquiry for Social Change Leaders in any citations.

We believe these stories offer profound revelations about the power of self-inquiry and merit publication in their entirety for use as “case studies” that entrepreneurs, philanthropists, non-profit executives, and other leaders can discuss with others in determining what self-inquiry practices may work best for them. We are so grateful for these leaders’ time and trust in sharing their self-inquiry journey and hope their personal stories resonate deeply with readers. And we felt it only was fair to turn the mirror on ourselves, so we’ve taken the liberty of adding our own stories of self-inquiry at the end. – Jeff Walker & Katherine Milligan.

Peggy Dulany, Founder and Chair, Synergos

What were the initial reasons you started self-inquiry?

I have been interested in it all my life. My mother was fascinated with psychology and neuroses, and she talked about it at the dining room table. I was predisposed to be interested. I had a fair amount of therapy in my 20s and 30s, which helped me overcome some insecurities and behaviors that didn’t help me along in life or made me less joyful.

In the late 1990s, I was burned out. Activists and social entrepreneurs are always pushing themselves, and I did too. I wasn’t doing things to nourish myself and renew my energy and passion. So I moved to the wilderness in Montana, which allowed me to connect to a larger whole and a larger purpose. That connectedness helps me hold my hope and compassion and commitment in the midst of so many awful things happening in the world.

In the early 2000s I did a big dive into meditation workshops with Jon Kabat-Zinn and became familiar with Otto Scharmer’s U Theory. I started talking with Michael Rennie about “getting to the bottom of the U” and using the U process to do something useful in the world. We led a vision quest experience at the Montana ranch, and I found the combination of meditation, self-inquiry questions, and fasting in isolation in the wildness for 3 days to be very, very powerful. I could see how much impact it had on me and on the participants. Then we decided to do it on a regular basis and I became a guide. Many members of Synergos’ network go through retreats like this that Synergos offers — and the consensus is that it is life changing. It changed my life. That’s the other part that inspired me.

How has your self-inquiry practice shifted your thinking?

The biggest factor for me personally and for the groups we lead in retreats – to create the kinds of shifts in each of us that are needed – is to feel safe enough to be vulnerable. The tendency is to protect our wounds or to build defenses around them. That often means putting on a mask to keep ourselves safe. I had a mask. Every year, when people come to our retreats, they tell their story to protect their public self-image and omit the places where they feel scared, shame, or traumatized. When we’re defensive, we go towards judgement.

If we can be curious, our imagination opens up and we become more creative. Our role is to create a safe space where people can talk about what lies underneath. And we believe that’s so important because Synergos is focused on bridging leadership. To be a good bridging leader, you need to get past your inner obstacles and behaviors. Only then can we act out of our best selves in the work we do in the world, and work with others in ways that are built on trust and shared values.

What does your current self-inquiry practice look like?

I have not kept up with meditation as much as I should, but physical exercise is a big piece of my practice, like yoga, hiking, horseback riding, ideally in the wilderness. I have chronic anxiety and I need that endorphin release. One of my practices is to spend time with trees. The biggest thing is it forces you to slow down. Just being on the land, having my feet in the grass – that’s my biggest practice.

I also really benefit from intentional group interactions like retreats. Leading these group retreats helps me learn all of the time. I try to start meetings with a short meditation or personal check-in, or sometimes recite a poem.

I am also part of a couple of different friend groups that prioritize spending meaningful time together, not just chit chat. We explore our hopes and our fears and check in with each other on where we are in our lives.

How has your behavior and leadership style shifted as a result of self-inquiry?

I see it so clearly and I’m still working on it. I’m very driven, as most activists are. I received feedback that people thought I expected them to work as hard as I did. It really helped me step back from my expectations – first about myself, because I’ve burned out and I don’t want to do that again – but also my colleagues. I’m more open in my life, I’m more patient.

When people feel a greater sense of wellbeing, the way they do their work is different. I make sure there is time in the workday to interact on a human level. Let’s pay attention to a colleague who is facing a crisis at home. How can we be supportive? We have to be committed to being out there in the world, but we have to be human-centered.

How has your practice affected your work with others in the social change space?

Before I started doing this more personal development work, I worked in a driven way. I didn’t create a safe space within which the work could happen. There’s a correlation between coming to feel safe within myself, rather than scared and threatened, and the sense of security and safety that other people feel around me.

People project things onto me in terms of wealth and power. It’s not necessarily true, but they project it. The more human I can be, the more difficult it is for them to maintain whatever their stereotype about what a rich person is like. So then they can interact from a place of vulnerability. That’s what I mean by being a bridging leader. You’re secure enough in yourself to reach out across divides to interact with all the stakeholders to create the space in which people feel comfortable saying their version of the truth. Sometimes it will be in a confrontational way. But you can listen and take in those perspectives.

It’s a whole way of being based on an increased sense of agency and humility and willingness to open oneself to the other stakeholders that, as a philanthropist, I might fund rather than coming in with a fixed position. To me, philanthropy is so much more than the money applied. It’s using all our assets – our personality, contacts, skill sets – and bringing those assets with us as we figure out where we put our money.

What reflections on personal development would you like to share based on all that you’ve seen and experienced cultivating “bridging leaders” around the world?

When many people come into positions in power, that power becomes their safety. They use their power to cover up their lack of capacity. I’ve come to believe that ego and aggression comes out of a place of feeling wounded. Look around the world – so many countries have this type of leadership at the top.

Shifting from aggressiveness to humility is about acknowledging you don’t know it all. It requires you to be curious enough to listen to what others think and understand what others have experienced, and then build a collective solution from there.

In our work with teams around the world – let’s say a government ministry – their starting position is often, “We know what the solution is and what the policy should be.” But what they really need is to build trust among themselves and allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to admit they don’t know what the solution is. Once they begin to feel safer with each other, they can take risks and admit they don’t know it all – and then together, they can come up with better answers. In our experience, that often leads to government agencies being more willing to interact with other sectors like civil society – and crucially, more willing to listen.

When people can let go of their defenses, they become humble, and that in turn attracts other people. This is bridging leadership. It’s how you become an inspiring leader.

Jose Mari Luzarraga, Co-Founder, Mondragon Team Academy (MTA World)

What were the initial reasons you embraced self-inquiry?

I spent a lot of time on inner development when I was young as part of my Catholic faith, so those religious teachings helped me face challenges over the years in a positive way. But in 2015, I faced an extremely difficult period. My model, which had replicated successfully in Europe, was struggling in China, where I had relocated with my wife and three young children. Then my two partners moved on to focus on other things. It was all too much, and the tools I had cultivated in the past weren’t enough.

How has your self-inquiry process shifted your thinking?

The Catholic tradition teaches us that to love others, you must first love yourself. Despite these teachings, for years I had a different mindset that I must serve others at any cost to myself. My mission was weighing me down like a burden, a heavy backpack on my shoulders.

The most profound shift for me is a new mindset that in order to take care of others, I need to take care of myself. As a result, I no longer see my mission as a burden, but as an adventure. I embrace the image of a surfer and of waves coming at me every day. Whenever I feel fear or anxiety, I ask myself, ‘Do I want to ride that wave?’

What does your current self-inquiry practice look like?

I put a priority on meditation, awareness, and personal time, but in some moments I get overloaded and it falls off my priority list. The most important ingredient for me now is family time with my wife and children. I try to drop my kids off and pick them up from school several days a week. Before, I spent too many evenings at the office or at events. I was too focused on my mission. Now I am home in the evenings.

How has your leadership shifted as a result of self-inquiry?

I am much better about refraining from judging others. I am able to see myself with perspective and able to see others with perspective. I see certain behaviors and rather than feel insulted or offended, instead I ask myself, ‘How can I help this person?’ Those who are in it for themselves, or protecting their turf, I now see them as fighting their own internal battle. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, and I can engage with them.

In addition, I don’t feel the need to control everything. I am aware of my ego and I am much more able to see the positive actions needed to improve the education system as a whole. When you are so in love with something, you can get too close to it. When you have the capacity to step back and see the whole system, it’s not as emotionally stressful. It’s not about me. It’s about shifting the system to greater impact.

Bedriye Hulya, Founder and CEO of B-Fit, Turkey

What were the initial reasons you started self-inquiry?

I felt trapped. Even though I wanted out, I couldn’t see it. I was angry a lot of the time.

Describe your self-inquiry process with The Wellbeing Project.

It helped me see that self-inquiry is a continuing process and a lifelong journey, not a weeklong retreat. Deep connections with other social sector leaders are key, because we are like-minded people, we share similar values and concerns, and our exchanges continue to this day.

Whenever anyone sends a note or an update to the group, it reminds us to check in on our own wellbeing. Every time someone posts an update to the group, it refreshes my own commitment. So the regular reminders and accountability to the group are important components.

How has your self-inquiry process shifted your thinking?

Before, my life was my work, and I did it from morning until midnight. In the early years, I had no other outlets or intellectual stimulation beyond interactions with my employees and the local women we worked with. Over time, I felt the need for more nourishing interactions, and I also felt guilty about wanting something more. It was very unhealthy.

Through self-inquiry, I realized it wasn’t fair to put those expectations on my colleagues and the women we serve. Now I give myself permission to seek the nourishment I need elsewhere.

How have your organizational culture and practices shifted as a result of your self-inquiry process?

When we are stuck in our patterns, we can’t see alternative approaches. My patterns were so ingrained that my patterns became the company’s patterns over several years. When I catch myself falling back into an old pattern, I remind myself that those patterns did not bring me happiness. To stay “in the joy,” I have to sacrifice my old patterns. This requires a lot of critical self-reflection and dialogue with the executive team to come up with different approaches.

Through self-inquiry, I saw how the system fed my behavior, and my whole way of communicating with my staff changed. Before, I would send emails every evening to check up on the status of this or that. Whenever I had to travel, my staff got extremely anxious, because they knew as soon as my flight landed and I could reconnect to wifi they would each receive 50 emails from me.

Today, the company’s communication policy looks very different, and this policy change has much more significant impact than just reducing daily emails. I realized my communication patterns made my staff feel overwhelmed, and I was diminishing their creativity. Now they are coming up with their own ways of doing things, which is fantastic and strengthens us as a company.

Mike Sani, Bite the Ballot, UK

What were the initial reasons you started self-inquiry?

I was riding on adrenaline for the first five years of running my organization. It was just “go go go” all the time. People tend to only see the glamorous bits, like when former President Obama called me an agent for change.

But no one knows what a roller coaster this is and the depths of the lows, like having less than one month of funding in the bank account at the end of every year for nine years. No one sees that stuff. I felt incredibly lonely. None of my family members understood what I did. I can easily suffer from imposter syndrome and blame myself for not achieving our mission faster. That’s the Jekyll and Hyde in all of us, I suppose.

Describe your self-inquiry process with The Wellbeing Project.

I went on this wonderful journey with my support group. We created a space where the truth is welcome, nurtured, held, never judged. When it comes to my inner wellbeing, I own my truth. I listen to my body. I listen to my intuition. If something’s eating away at me, I’ll give it the space and exploration it deserves, even if it means I reach an outcome that I never thought I would.

What does your self-inquiry practice look like today?

I have built outlets and maintain an infrastructure around me, including a therapist who helps me dive into family matters and situations that bother me at work, mentors, and peer groups have been great to help me feel seen in the eyes of other social entrepreneurs.

How has self-inquiry transformed your personal leadership?

Like most British men, I was raised to believe that expressing emotion was weak and girly. Men can’t show weakness! Self-inquiry goes against everything that was ingrained in me, but I can acknowledge my emotions now without feeling I need short-term escapes like alcohol. It doesn’t mean that I’m always happy and optimistic, nor that I am always in control.

It means I can acknowledge when I feel dark or anxious and sit with that emotion rather than feeling the need to resolve it. I simply move forward with the things I can make progress on. As the leaders of social enterprises know, it’s an overwhelming to-do list.

You talked earlier about your self-inquiry process as “owning your truth.” What do you mean by that?

Before, I would shy away from speaking my mind, just nod, and be a well-behaved boy. I couldn’t challenge authority, like I couldn’t disagree with my dad growing up. Then I would re-run what I wish I had said in my head for days afterwards. It was unnecessary torture! Now I challenge myself to step outside of my comfort zone and say what needs to be said, even if people prefer I remain quiet.

Owning my truth means distancing myself from funders who don’t care about solving the problem but just want a nice story for their annual report. I don’t have time for that anymore.

Owning my truth is my commitment to trusting myself. I’ve been in this game for nine years, and the more I own my truth, the more I gravitate towards people who really want to solve the problem.

Abby Falik, Founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year

Abby has developed a deep, personal self inquiry practice through nearly two decades of yoga and meditation. Today, she integrates her open, vulnerable and reflective style into her management practices and leadership. She strives to model self-inquiry (which she calls ‘leading from the inside out’) with both her team and the growing community of Global Citizen Year Fellows and Alumni.

In her work with the Fellows she introduces them to the tools of self inquiry so that they can become more comfortable with themselves, and a better partner to others. Self-inquiry builds the resilience needed to live in a foreign context and the curiosity and humility required to bridge lines of difference. These skills become the foundation for a life-time of wellbeing and effective leadership for social impact.

What were the initial reasons you started self-inquiry?

My mom had a spiritual practice through yoga so I had early exposure to this feeling ‘normal’. In hindsight, I wish I’d found my practice sooner as it would have made high school and college much easier and more meaningful. I was always a good student, striving for perfection and external validation. I’ve always loved the ‘ducks on a lake’ metaphor for my time at Stanford – the game was that everyone made it look easy, when in reality we were all kicking frantically beneath the water to keep up. I often felt not good enough and like an imposter, and all of this took a toll on my mental health and wellbeing.

After I graduated from college I was working in New York City and had an inkling that there was a dimension of my life that was missing. I wanted to be more alive than I was. I was introduced to a spiritual community that had a weekly sitting group, and it changed my life. We met weekly for a meditation and discussion, and each week we were given an assignment to help us become more aware of ourselves as we move through our daily lives. The assignments were things like actually tasting your first bite of food, dressing in unfamiliar clothes to see how it feels, feeling your feet as you walk through a door or across a bridge.  I loved having a group to keep me accountable in exploring deeper and deeper levels of my lived experience. It was the first time I understood that we typically live on auto-pilot, like we’re sleep-walking through our lives – but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

When I landed at Harvard Business School I was as far from my comfort zone as I’d ever been.  My practice helped me experience this stretch consciously and in a positive way, and not the opposite.

What does your current self-inquiry practice look like?

I have a pact with myself that I need to do at least a few minutes of yoga and meditation every morning before launching into my day.  I spend Saturdays unplugged from technology, and take a week of a silent vipassana retreat once a year. Of course the practices and insights evolve, but the continuity over time has helped me track my internal growth and development in ways I don’t think I would have otherwise seen or understood.

How has your leadership shifted as a result of self-inquiry?

I talk with my team about the practices I’ve found most useful, and I’m transparent about what I’m working on personally at any given point.  Recently my board completed a 360 review/evaluation of my leadership. There were elements of the review that were hard to hear, but gifts to receive.  I decided to share the feedback I’d received with my team so they could be partners in my self-development, just as I am in theirs. I’ve found that vulnerability is contagious, and builds trust in ways nothing else can.  I try to model that learning about ourselves is an ongoing and life-long process, and we’re building an organization that leads by example.

How has your practice affected your work with others in the social change space?

Self-inquiry is a key element of our theory of change.  Global Citizen Year exists to launch young leaders with the insights and courage needed to become the leaders the world needs.  The model is designed to help young people, at a formative age, discover who they are when they are outside their comfort zone. When you’re in a foreign culture and language you’re forced to sit with yourself, often in silence – which is a dramatic contrast to the frenzy of the high-school hustle.  The experience is as much about the opportunity to explore ones inner world as it is learning about the world around us.

Through a mindfulness curriculum (taught by faculty including Will Kabat-Zinn), coaching from our staff and structured self-reflection our Fellows develop self-inquiry tools and insights – around compassion, curiosity, generosity and letting go – that we hope they will carry for life.   Ultimately, they return with an expanded comfort zone, and a clearer sense of who they are and who they are becoming.

Many years ago I wrote a personal user manual that I shared with my team. Recently, I published it, which felt very scary.  The document is my best effort at sharing what I understand of my internal wiring with others.  It’s the result of nearly two decades of self-inquiry, and the confidence that makes space for vulnerability and humility.  The piece struck a chord – I hear from individuals and teams every week that they are using my “manual” as a model for self-inquiry at their organizations.

Ellen Agler, CEO, The END Fund

Founded in 2012, The END Fund supports treatment for over 100 million people per year for neglected tropical diseases in over 30 countries. It spearheads cutting-edge research and partnerships with the goal of eliminating NTDs. Ellen was just named to the top 50 world leaders ranking by Fortune Magazine.

When did you start your self-inquiry practice? How has it evolved over time?

Probably the earliest form of self-inquiry for me as a teenager was keeping a journal and reading as a form of reflection. I also spent a lot of time in nature, often alone, listening and tuning into what I observed. As I learned more formal contemplative practices, my self-inquiry practice has expanded to include a wide variety of types of yoga and meditation practices. My practice has also always been aided by cultivating and nourishing close, authentic, and conscious relationships with dear friends who also are committed to self-inquiry.

How has your leadership been shaped as a result of your self-inquiry practice?

My personal self-inquiry practice has helped me cultivate skills like deep listening, patience, compassion, clarity, as well as a systems view of how various issues, people and partners affect each other. These skills are critical for effectively leading an organization.

I try to be open with issues I am struggling with and ask for help. We all have blind spots, and the more open and vulnerable we can be that we don’t have all the answers as leaders, the more people around us will feel comfortable joining in and co-creating the solution. This is key not only to build an organization, but also to build a movement. If you are perceived as having all the answers, then there is little room for people to feel like they can join in and have real impact.

We need board members and donors to not only approve strategies, but create them together with leadership teams. We need donors to not just write checks, but to use their intellect, voice, and network to help us solve these big challenges we are working to solve. Having a walls-down, open, co-creative approach, I think, facilitates this kind of generative growth and continuous learning.

I am balancing keeping the entrepreneurial start-up culture with a real need to slow down in some cases, formalize processes, spent more time on internal communication, and find areas where decision-making can be less decentralized. Being honest about these challenges with the broader team, soliciting honest feedback, and empowering others to help build what is needed to get to the next level have been key. I don’t think I could be managing this without a practice of self-inquiry and mindfulness.

What effect has your self-inquiry practice had on the organizational culture and practices of The END Fund?

I have introduced a number of self-inquiry tools over the years, including self-assessment tools like Strenghsfinder and Meyers-Briggs, combined with team workshops on how we can better understand and work together using these tools. We have regular team retreats and workshops with experts on how brain science and mindfulness can improve team dynamics and productivity.

We do our best to have an open, low-bureaucracy, high-feedback, and supportive culture. Our senior leadership team and broader management group works to communicate openly and regularly so we all have clarity about the organizational priorities and goals, as well as each person’s role is in achieving these goals. We are continually trying to improve feedback loops so that people’s ideas for improving our work can be recognized, discussed and incorporated when possible, no matter where they come from in the organization.

Sasha Chanoff, Founder and CEO of Refugepoint

How has your personal leadership evolved as a result of self-inquiry?

I feel my work with refugees is a calling. I have been devoted to this work ever since I worked with freedom fighters in the Congo many years ago. Those experiences helped me understand how to support refugees on their journey of creating better lives for themselves and their families. Self-inquiry has enabled me to deepen my resolve to help as many refugees as possible.

How has your self-inquiry process shifted your thinking?

The nonprofit and social change worlds are infused with scarcity mindsets, which leads to feelings like envy and jealousy when another organization or social change leader wins an award or gets a big grant, for example. It’s hard to “unlearn” the competitive mindset I was in for years as a nationally ranked college athlete, so I still default into a competitive mindset more easily than most. Self-inquiry has helped me embrace “sympathetic joy” for others’ happiness, rather than having a self-focused emotional reaction. It’s hard to not feel envy, though, and I still catch myself. Unfortunately, I think this is one of the main reasons why there’s so much isolation and competition among nonprofits.

What does your self-inquiry practice look like today?

My local Tendral group is essential for my inner development. We meet once a month to share our problems and get advice in a confidential setting. I also joined the board of a donor collective, which has been instrumental to my thinking. It has also helped me build empathy and understand donors’ perspective.

My wife has a deep meditation and contemplation practice. She holds me accountable and challenges me when I am off base. My group of friends also serve as a mirror to my thoughts and actions, and they are valuable partners on my self-inquiry path.

How have your organizational culture and practices shifted as a result of your self-inquiry process?

The way the nonprofit world is structured, we are all incentivized to focus only on our organization’s approach or intervention. I have worked diligently on my own mindset and on our strategy to move beyond our specific intervention to think and intervene at the system level. For example, we put in place an evaluation system to reward staff for funds raised not only for RefugePoint but for any organization supporting refugees. And we are now starting a major partnership with ICRC and Mercy Corps to provide employment training to five million refugees. The next system-level goal is to unify all the organizations working with refugees around a standardized self-reliance measurement system based on best practices and an evidence base of what works. These ways of working wouldn’t be possible if our team wasn’t focused on and rewarded for system-level impact.

Mark Bertolini, retired CEO Aetna Insurance.

Mark has been on the forefront of integrating wellness/mindfulness practices into his own life and making it available to all his employees and customers. He had a severe skiing accident which created an ongoing pain problem that started in on the path of looking for relief. He eventually found it in mediation, yoga and other eastern practices. As he found these practices useful he also found the caused him to work to apply them to the world of health and his own employees at Aetna. As he offered them in his company (he eventually set up a person to be the Chief Mindfulness Officer) he started hearing feedback from his employees that it helped them address the stress and pressure of work and it made him aware of significant costs to his firm. He is on the boards of Thrive, the Peterson Institute, Bridgewater Funds, the Mind Life Institute and Aetna/CVS.

What were the initial reasons you started self-inquiry?

I started down the path of exploring self-development/inquiry practices after my accident. That effort led me to look for tools and practices that helped me integrate my mind and body while improving the way I work in the world. My practices help me to improve how I work, gives me energy and helped me control the pain I had in my neck and arm. Being in a better state of mind and having a healthier body helped me when I was CEO of Aetna and helps me be more effective as I work in the many organizations I am associated with.

How has your self-inquiry process shifted your thinking?

My practice has evolved as to what I need. Reading stimulates my thought and helps me build a heuristic of how the world works (I have committed to reading 45 books this year on a quite diverse set of topics). So far this has taught me about how little I know and how insignificant I am personally in the scheme of things but that as I combine my work with others I can have more impact. This reinforces the importance of leveraging my own personal work so that I can more easily join with others on their quests. Through my practice I have improved my listening skills and how I think about collaborating with others and contributing to the world.

What does your current self-inquiry practice look like?

You must find what works for you. There many tools and practices and their is a combination that makes sense for you. For me, I meditate every day, do yoga and work out in the gym. I work on my whole person. Integrating my mind and body and knowing together they are more than just a physical manifestation. In my meditations I focus a lot on mantra and loving kindness practices. I work to have compassion for myself—“Be kind to yourself”—and that allows my loving kindness work to facilitate opening up to others. In particular, I work on adding difficult people into my loving kindness meditation since it helps me understand them better and helps me find ways to better work with them. One other area I am working on is losing attachment to things…the art of non-attachment. Letting go of key assumptions and commitments helps me redefine those things I need to focus on.

I go on retreats, but not as much as I would like. My wife has a deep practice of her own and I enjoy practicing with her.

How has your leadership shifted as a result of self-inquiry?

As a leader, I need to develop the ability to not jump to answers too quickly. I need to be selfless, patient, and have strong listening skills. I must be really, really quiet and listen to those who are part of my team and then co-create an approach to problem solving that includes their ideas. The team must believe I am a partner in our work and don’t have all the answers. I must motivate the team to perform and have them know I support them. My personal practice has been key helping me learn how to do these things.

How has your practice affected your work with others in the social change space?

As an active philanthropist, I want to work on things I am passionate about and where I can add value. My wife and I are focusing our work on education and the environment. I also spend a lot of time in the wellness space, when I was at Aetna and now that I have retired from there. Applying the self-inquiry skills to my board and philanthropic work has helped me be more useful and helpful in pushing for coordinated action. We spend time in the Harlem Schools here in New York City and we bring the skills we have learned from our practice to the kids. Getting them to quiet themselves and build the tools to address the high anxiety world they are living in. It isn’t just about spending more money, it is about listening and finding the root cause of the issues.

I use the tools to help guide boards I am on as we focus on the customer, build talent and guide our mission. One issue I have found is that the organizations might listen to the advice and agree with it but then go back to work after using their old practices. Going back to the get money first agenda which is so limiting. Getting them to embed these skills back into their organizations is the opportunity and challenge.

A good example of how I apply these skills to philanthropy is work we are doing in a small town in the northeast. We love the town and are looking for ways to help it. Our first thought was to look at the town and give them funds but then drawing on our self-inquiry work we took breaths and sat down and listened. We listened to those in the town, built relationships and then became partners with those in town who we thought had interesting ideas. Only then did we decide to fund something there. The result of being more proximate to the issues of the town and listening better with managed egos and less attachment helped create a better outcome.

I am proud of what we did at Aetna. My last several years there were a joy. We all worked as a team and had little fear to do what was right, over the long run, for our employees and customers. Our mindfulness programs, solid benefits and respect for our employees were an important part of the culture we created. My legacy is having empowered the Aetna team to take what they learned and make it better. My joy is making myself dispensable and then finding joy in the next. Keep dancing.

Wanja Muguongo, Founding Executive Director, UHAI EASHRI, Kenya

What were the initial reasons you started your self-inquiry practice?

I don’t think about self-inquiry as a practice or a set of tools. As an African feminist and a lesbian, I think all the time about who I am in the world and what that means.

Having said that, when I was selected for The Wellbeing Project I had hacked my way through seven years of incredibly difficult work – wonderfully meaningful and fulfilling, but exhausting. I was the founding Executive Director of a fund that makes grants to LGBTQI communities and sex workers in East and Central Africa. Any human rights work is challenging, but the communities I served are criminalised and marginalised, and I have a personal stake as a lesbian Kenyan. When you work in an oppressive system with the goal of changing that system, you are constantly aware of how little power you have and how much power the oppressors have.

Compounding that, the fund was one of the first of its kind. It makes grants from the perspective of activists rather than the philanthropists; to remove the disconnect between where the money comes from and where the work happens. In my role I had to raise money while telling donors they had no say in how the money would be disbursed, because the communities themselves would be the decision-makers. That’s a significant power shift, and I needed to make sure that shift was authentic, and doing that is really, really difficult.

At a certain point, about seven years in, I was supposed to travel internationally to a retreat for Synergos senior fellows and I just couldn’t move. I could not imagine going through another airport, another security check. I had burnout. That was when I was introduced to the Wellbeing Project.

How has self-inquiry shifted your thinking?

My entire professional life had focused on human rights. When I showed up at the initial retreat for The Wellbeing Project, the first thing the organizers asked us to do was introduce ourselves to the group without talking about our work. That was the beginning of the shift. I had been consumed by my work and responsibilities my entire life. For the first time I was asked, ‘Who am I when I am not at work? Who am I when I am not doing this?’

Just that one question shifted things for me. It created space for me to interrogate myself: ‘Find out who Wanja is when she is not an activist, mobilising action and raising resources.’ I asked myself, ‘What brings me joy that doesn’t have to do with work? What brings me sorrow that doesn’t have to do with work?’ I began to search for those things, people, and places that bring me joy.

I decided to start exit-planning and within 3 years I resigned from my role and left human rights work. I needed to do this because of the burnout and fatigue. I had not taken a holiday for seven years. It felt impossible to take a break while terrible homophobic laws were being debated and passed in African legislatures, while the space for democracy and dissent was shrinking, and while fundraising all the time and trying to ensure that activists had the resources they need and that staff got paid.

Now I can pursue things that bring me joy. It’s still about social change, but it’s a new way for me to lead and live.

What does your current self-inquiry practice look like?

I believe that you must contribute. A life lived for oneself or one’s desire is a wasted life, and service to others truly is the rent we pay for our room here on earth. However, all my life, what I wanted to do and what I did was not always the same thing. Now I have become more aware of what I want, rather than what is needed. It’s a mindset shift. I have allowed myself to interrogate my sense of responsibility to others and to the world: do I feel this way because I have always had responsibilities? Can I serve without getting lost in the service of others?

I lead my life differently now. When I left my CEO role, I consciously didn’t look for another job. I put myself as an important part of the equation, not just as a tool for other people’s wellbeing. I decided to search for what would bring me joy. Rather than calling self-inquiry a practice, I think of it as a mindset shift.

How has your behaviour and leadership style shifted as a result of self-inquiry?

I left not only my job but also the human rights field, recognising I had done enough. It was as much as I could do, recognising the finiteness of my contribution. It was important to leave and feel I did my part and not feel guilty. In conversations I had with partners in the field and donors I was asked, “How can you leave when there’s so much to be done?” I was one of the few African women in human rights philanthropic leadership. I had to be clear in my head and recognise I had accomplished what I had set out to do, and now it was time to stop.

My exit planning took three years. Closing that door is one of the hardest things for founding Executive Directors. My exit journey helped me explore power and control, and how the loss of power and control can be so unfathomable and untenable sometimes. Who am I when I don’t have the title of CEO behind my name? How am I going to reinvent myself? My departure helped engender important conversations about leadership transitions in our field. How do leaders commit to being themselves and give themselves permission to leave? The stakes are so high and you feel really guilty.

How has self-inquiry affected your work with others in the social change space?

The opportunity for non-profit leaders to take time for introspection is almost non-existent. What self-inquiry allowed me to do is ask myself, ‘Who am I when I am not surrounded by all this oppression?’ When I told colleagues why I was leaving, other staff members looked at their own wellbeing and ask themselves, ‘Who am I outside of this struggle?’

This changed a lot of things. We organised Friday evenings out and didn’t talk about work and had retreats to allow for self-reflection. A few staff members told me how difficult it was for them to imagine a life outside of work; because this was not just a job, it was a fight for their own rights and the rights of the people they love. I saw other colleagues became more deliberate in pursuing interests outside of work. A number of social justice leaders reached out to me about how to begin their own journeys of transition. It’s almost as though my shift gave people permission to make their own. My self-inquiry has allowed other people to benefit way more than I could have imagined.

My message to social entrepreneurs and social change leaders is one that they hardly ever hear: it is ok to be someone else. Make sure you are in touch with who you really are so you don’t get lost in the work and be consumed by it. Cultivating your identity outside of your work can save your mental health.

Jasmeen Patheja, Founder and Director, Blank Noise, India

What were the initial reasons you started self-inquiry?

I was contacted by the Co-Founder of The Wellbeing Project back in 2012 during the conceptualization phase. At the time I was going through an upheaval in my life; a period of trauma and loss.

I got married in 2011 and escaped from that home six months later. I married an emotionally abusive man. My parents welcomed me into their home. I depended on them entirely for a year. It was the lowest point in my life, and I felt helpless, failure, confusion, grief and also shame because it happened to me.

My work has focused on mobilising citizens to address street harassment and victim blame in India, particularly violence experienced by women and girls. We call ourselves ‘Action Sheroes/Heroes/Theyroes’ and we take agency to end violence. I had been facilitating this collective, called Blank Noise for years; it was a large part of my identity and sense of self.

So when The Wellbeing Project reached out to me, I was processing a lot of things: what it means to be a ‘good’ feminist, a strong feminist, a visible feminist, while still accepting the fact that I had gone through domestic abuse. I remember feeling shame about my choices, for not being able to see it coming, that patriarchy was a default mechanism and perhaps I had it too. It was hard noticing and reconciling the discrepancy between my actual self (the one who failed) and my ideal self, the Action Shero.

How has your self-inquiry practice shifted your thinking?

The Wellbeing project allowed me to hold the part of me that berates myself with compassion. It allowed me to believe that we are all walking towards our ideal self…that we have a right to imagine and aspire to be that ideal version of ourselves, and that patriarchy is the default ingrained norm that needs to shift. This is where my work practice and life practice meet with self-inquiry and wellbeing.

I have experienced healing during The Wellbeing Project. We created an intimate, trusting, safe space where we could be vulnerable and accepted fully, wholly, for who we are beyond our professional identities. It released something buried deep inside me, something that I didn’t even know existed.

I didn’t know how to be kind to myself. I was raised to think that being home is being with your family. But what about people who live by themselves? I always struggled with the feeling that something was missing. I didn’t have models or references of women living on their own and being “enough,” being complete – especially in the context of the trauma of an abusive marriage. I have been able to recognise layers of internalised shame and heal from experiences that deeply affected me and my work.

Self-inquiry allowed a shift. I feel at home in my home. I feel at home in myself. The self is home. Self-inquiry helped me experience my life more fully and create a sense of feeling at home everywhere. My home feels fuller now. I am worthy of love. I feel supported and I have created a nurturing space with my friends. I feel much more settled than I’ve ever felt in my life.

What does your current self-inquiry practice look like?

It is everyday labour. It is a constant struggle. It is a commitment.

I am working towards building personal capacity to do what I want to do, both within the self and out in the world. I am building capacity for my current self to walk to my ideal self. I am seeking to live consciously in friendships, personal and professional relationships, and with myself.

It’s hard to keep a routine with so much travel. I can often be overwhelmed. I remember being overwhelmed with the response to a public talk a few years ago. Instead of celebrating, I panicked because so many people reached out and I just didn’t have the capacity to respond. So I decided to go on a week-long retreat to make space and time for my personal capacity.

I am working to build capacity to meet my purpose.

I have had a coach who worked with me through shifts in my professional life that are deeply connected to my personal life. I also have a therapist who I check in with and has been an important part of my journey of holding my current self with compassion. I’m much more aware now of who is of deep significance and meaning in my life and I seek them out, even if it’s been weeks or months (sometimes years) since we last spoke. I can identify and attend to what I find nurturing and healing. I am working to prioritise sleep, taking walks, and a connection with the physical body.

How has your behaviour and leadership style shifted as a result of self-inquiry?

It has allowed me to bring the word capacity to the foreground and decide whether to say yes or no based on my capacity and intention. If I am intending and therefore owning the “yes,” I need to build capacity to be able to take it on.

Much of my practice and leadership emphasized speaking up against sexual harassment and abuse. It has now evolved to: “speak when you are ready, and take your time.”

Work is never done. It’s never over. I began to realise that if I wasn’t practising wellbeing within, I could not extend it to the office. My office became an extension of myself, and there was a lot of burnout. Now I check myself; intense emotions propel me forward and create momentum, but they can also lead to burnout.

I’m more conscientious about checking in with the feelings and emotions of my staff and volunteers and I encourage them to take time for self-care. There’s a sense of care – not as a formal policy yet, but in a community-driven way. For example, interns transcribe interviews of survivors of sexual violence, but if someone feels too overwhelmed or overburdened, I shift their workload. An intern recently told me her internship here was intense but she felt safe and cared for.

I have become conscious of four words over the years: rest, rise, play, protest. I want to find a rhythm between resting and becoming.

Jeffrey C. Walker, Chairman, New Profit

Jeff Walker, retired Vice Chairman of JPMorganChase, retired Managing Partner JPMorgan Partners and Chairman of New Profit and Vice Chair of the WHO/Rockefeller Joint Global Health Initiative

What were the initial reasons you started self-inquiry?

I have been a spiritual searcher all my life and have loved working with others from my high school days in band to my partnership in the private equity world. Partnering with others gave me energy and just felt good. I also really enjoyed the flow state I experienced when I played music in an ensemble at school. When you play music you are typically in a more focused and present state. As I stopped playing music in college I looked for other ways to experience that flow state and I found meditation in 1973. I didn’t have a regular practice for many years after but I still worked to build those team/ensemble experiences and my favorite courses in school were around leadership and how to work with others for something larger than ourselves.

My practice evolved over the years and I kept returning to it as the pressure of business school, the deal world, family and kids built up. It was one of the ways I tried to center myself in the chaos of life.

How has your self-inquiry process shifted your thinking?

As I worked on developing a mind training practice (what I thought of it as) I found I was more able to focus, clear the mind and build better empathy/compassion skills. It took a number of years but my friends and family commented on the change, for the positive! It helped me think about the big picture before I tried to focus on the micro actions to accomplish a goal. My listening skills improved. I believe it helped me create a more managed ego and perspective for how I wanted to influence the world. Over time I simplified it to wanting to “decrease suffering and enhancing joy in the world.” I measure where I spend my time and what I work on against that goal.

On my journey of exploration, which I am still on, I met have partnered with many others who are interested in self-inquiry and wellness. These partnerships have turned into very rewarding experiences that gave me feedback on what I might work on next, some other experiences I might enjoy and where there needs to be focus if we are going to bring these ideas to others.

What does your current self-inquiry practice look like?

I am still a generalist and like to blend various practices into my own. I have a Buddhist based tradition and my meditation (several times a week) is typically one that focuses on a blend of open awareness, loving kindness and concentration. Each of these has been shown to stimulate different areas of the brain related to those tasks.

I go on retreats several times a year and these are typically around a focused topic, issue or style of contemplation. I did Tai Chi for a year and really appreciated how it helped me center myself and gave me a better understanding of flow and energy. I spent time learning loving kindness meditations and worked on skills around sympathetic joy (being happy for others when they are happy and having no envy) and equanimity (working on non-attachment—being able to step back and be less emotional when listening).

I have a virtual sangha (support group) who are great friends that remind me to practice, to compare notes, and hook me up to new experiences/retreats, books and teachers. We all also are always there for each other. Hearing their stories helps me understand my path better and getting their feedback is invaluable. I believe “without the mirror of others you can never see yourself clearly.”

How has your leadership shifted as a result of self-inquiry?

As I grew as a leader I embedded a lot of my self-inquiry work into the everyday life of our partnership. It influenced how we built the partnership and how we built our human resource team to support it. We did a lot of coaching, mentoring, 360 feedback sessions, retreat experiences, meditated together after 9/11 happened, etc. I was important I expressed vulnerability and openness to others but still showed strength of vision and ability to still make great returns on our capital. My practice really helped me when we lost a lot of money in a particular year and gave me the strength to lead during a time of anxiety and crisis.

How has your practice affected your work with others in the social change space?

I have funded research in the area of meditation/yoga/contemplation which over the years has been helpful in bringing these ideas to the mainstream. I co-founded an investment group, BridgeBuilders who funds mindful wellness deals like Headspace, Happify, Interaxon and others.

In the social change space I have worked on creating more collaborative, system level, actions to affect positive change for malaria, community health, music to all kids, social innovation and incubation at New Profit, and Chairing the Contemplative Science Center at the University of Virginia to bring these ideas to the world. I hope we can bring these ideas to the social change space since I believe they will help all the participants to have more joy as they do the work.

Katherine Milligan, Head of Gender & Diversity, Bamboo Capital Partners

What were the initial reasons you started self-inquiry?

About six years ago, someone very close to me suffered a severe burnout. I have seen it up close, and let me tell you, it is scary. It is not something that you take a two-week vacation at the beach to recover from. In extreme cases, you never fully recover – certainly not in terms of your energy, drive, and ambition. So that was a huge wake up call to me, and processing that experience naturally led me to reflect on my own energy and how my patterns of behavior were affecting my resilience.

It also led me to start engaging in a different set of conversations with colleagues and with social change leaders I had known for a long time. And through those conversations, I had a personal awakening. Before, I hadn’t known anyone who suffered a burnout, and all of a sudden it felt like it was a silent epidemic. Silent, of course, because the taboos around openly discussing burnout and depression are so strong, despite the fact that they are so common.

In 2015 I joined the Learning Partners Group of The Wellbeing Project, which is an advisory body comprised of leading foundations and intermediary organizations in the social entrepreneurship sector that guides The Wellbeing Project team on their research agenda. And essentially what they were finding in their research, and through their inner work retreats with cohorts of social entrepreneurs, is exactly what I had discovered: many social change leaders – even the most “successful” or prominent ones – described feeling stagnant, burned out, and depleted.

Armed with this information, and with the support of the Learning Partner Group members who helped me think through topics and formats, I elevated inner work and wellbeing to the top of the Schwab Foundation’s agenda at all of our social entrepreneur summits and community programming. I coached community members to help them feel comfortable “breaking the taboos” and talking publicly about their own relationship to stress and anxiety, their experiences with burnout and depression, and their self-inquiry practices and transformation.

In our closed-door, off-the-record community gatherings, we did guided visualizations, constellation exercises, “taming your inner critic” workshops, and deeply personal sharing sessions where the tears flowed. We talked about ego, fear of failure, loneliness, the pressures of upholding a “hero” or “founder” identity, and the damage inflicted on personal relationships. In the process, we also created support mechanisms where people could unburden themselves, feel heard and understood, and receive feedback and ideas on healthier coping behaviors and self-inquiry practices to try.

Of course, I was not only a witness to the profound shifts that our group work catalyzed for members of our global community. I also experienced a personal transformation.

How has your self-inquiry process shifted your thinking?

Self-inquiry has helped me unlock so many important insights about myself. Like a lot of women, I internalised the idea that you must project strength and certainty at all times in the workplace to “run with the big boys.” I was very good at doing that, but I didn’t realise I often came across as intimidating, particularly for younger team members. Asking for 360° feedback and listening openly, even when it hurt (especially when it hurt!), was an important part of creating greater self-awareness and understanding how others’ perceptions of me differed from my own.

Deep inner work and therapy also helped me understand how past trauma plays into my present day professional relationships. When I was a graduate student, my brother died unexpectedly. We were close, and the shock and grief took me years to recover from. As a way to cope with the trauma, I became an intensely private person. Over time, this “protective layer” I built around myself meant that I came across to colleagues not only as private, but as emotionally distant and cold. Realizing the distance I built was a protective mechanism to avoiding being asked personal questions was a major revelation for me.

Self-inquiry has helped me understand different facets of my personality, such as my inner critic (which can replay a minor incident over and over in my head for days, with stinging regret), and I now have the tools to keep the critic’s voice in check. I have found meditation to be quite useful in cultivating kindness towards myself and keeping my attention focused on the present moment. Finally, I understand my emotional triggers now and recognise them as such. This helps me pause and reflect on how my emotions might be clouding my judgement before I speak or react.

What does your self-inquiry practice look like today?

I have nurtured a support system of mentors whom I dubbed my “personal board of directors” and who act as sparring partners in my growth. I have also co-founded a women’s Jeffersonian Group in my city; we meet monthly for structured dinner conversations that are confidential, authentic, and deeply enriching. I cannot recommend creating one strongly enough! I prioritize meditation, physical exercise, and time with my children and time in nature, which helps reinforce my sense of purpose in working to create a sustainable future.

How did you adapt your behavior as a result of self-inquiry?

I deeply value authentic connections with other social change leaders and actively invest in those relationships. It is so different from a typical transactional approach and has become one of the most rewarding, nourishing aspects of my life. I also have a different perception of other people’s behavior – particularly those who are controlling, territorial, and “can’t play nice with others.” Rather than taking their behavior personally, it’s so obvious to me now that they are fighting their own internal battle. It’s like once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Self-inquiry is so desperately needed for leaders in all sectors!

I am now much more willing to be vulnerable and share personal stories with friends and colleagues, taking particular care to counsel and mentor those going through a personal loss or struggle of some kind. It’s important not to “overshare” in a work setting, and everyone has to find the right balance that feels right for them. But whereas I once thought vulnerability was akin to showing weakness, I now understand it is an immense source of strength and inspiration. Bringing my whole self to staff meetings helps others feel seen and heard as whole people too, with problems and personal lives, rather than just treated as co-workers.