An Interview with a “Well-Balanced World Changer”

For those dedicating their lives and careers to changing the world for the better, burnout and disillusionment are real and present dangers. Exhausting schedules and to-do lists, society’s resistance to change, the appearance of insurmountable odds and scant progress—these can drain the energy, happiness, and health of even the most stalwart activist. How can change agents fight the worthy fight and still have a healthy, enjoyable life?

Michigan-based writer, activist, self-professed idea junkie Sarah Cunningham has a new book out that aims to answer that. It’s called The Well-Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good. I asked Sarah a few questions about her new book.

Tom: Sometimes the world’s problems seem so massive and our progress seems to happen only in tiny increments, if at all. Often it seems like things are getting worse, not better. What keeps you going and what advice to you have for those who are feeling jaded and frustrated right now in their efforts to make a better world?

Sarah: We leaders and visionaries are passionate and driven, and a lot of times that means we’re aiming at big, systemic change. We want to advocate for a whole new way of living faith, we want to obliterate AIDS, we want to advocate for the oppressed, we want to find the homeless homes. And it turns out that after years—maybe even decades—of pursuing this goal, we feel like we’ve barely made a dent in the issue at hand. And…we’re exhausted.

WBWC CoversA lot of the work I’ve done in life has been with at-risk, urban teens. And there were a million times early on where I would feel disappointed—sidelined even—by one getting locked up or shot or any number of other outcomes other than the ones I’d hoped for them. I wanted all of them to graduate, go onto college, be faithful to their spouse and intentional to their future children, to contribute to their communities…I mean, the list of hopes was long.

But as I describe in The Well Balanced World Changer, I had to stop measuring the worth of my investments through my own narrow and specific definition of success. I had to start asking myself, Are they better off than the day I met them? Do they know something more than they knew back then? Did they pick up some wisdom about how to make good decisions? Did they begin to claim positive values—and stand for them—in their own ways?

In the church community we might ask: Do they know more about Jesus than they did before? Do they own a Bible now? Have they read more of it than when you met them? Do they try to pray? Do they pray more than they did before? Do they exhibit more kindness, more self control, more purpose?

Ultimately, are they two steps ahead of where they were? Because, if so, you’ve done your job. It’s great you dreamed big, specific ends for them, but your responsibility was just to give them what you could while you could. It doesn’t make sense to take on the pressure of transforming everything about their lives in every way, shape, and form. Why would we expect that? Why would we have thought that in the first place? We aren’t the savior in this narrative. We aren’t responsible for the fate of the planet. We’re responsible for what we do with the opportunities we have.

Tom: As that comment indicates, you address these matters as a Christian. I’ve seen over and over how religious people draw comfort and strength from their faith during times of disillusionment. Secular types must turn to other resources. What you have you learned and realized that will be relevant and encouraging to the nonreligious?

Sarah: The wisdom in this book is contextualized in faith, but it isn’t heavy-handed or pushy-preachy and most of the insights rely on logic that checks out for anyone regardless of background.

A person coming at this book from a faith perspective clearly might and should resonate with identifying ourselves as a light because we know Jesus said to be “the light of the world.” But the principle of managing our energy so we can be the most help holds true for everyone, whether Jesus’ words are immediately important to them or not.

Tom: Can you recall a specific turning point or aha moment that made you realize you had to write this book? What was it?

Sarah: Oh man. It was more like a hundred little turning points. I started adult life as this deeply passionate, intensely driven, idealistic-to-a-fault twentysomething. I was out to change the world. Literally. But I quickly took on tasks that were either too huge or too fast-paced for me to take on and still manage my emotions well. My skill sets were there, but I didn’t have the awareness or self-management tools I needed. And then slowly, along the way, I would read something or more likely, someone healthier than me would say something to me, and it would penetrate my pressure and drama. It felt like a breath of oxygen…a life raft forward. When I applied these little insights I picked up from others, I slowly grew into better leadership rhythms. I was setting healthier expectations, I was rebounding faster from setbacks, and I was taking on less peripheral drama. And I remember thinking, Why didn’t someone tell me this earlier?!! It could’ve saved me so much time and energy and anxiety.

Then I thought: I’m going to be that person…that person who collects these sticky insights and makes them available to others, to try to help other people get oriented and feel support as they grow through their own leadership stretches.

Tom: So would you say you’ve achieved balance now? Is that possible? To be a well-balanced world changer?

Sarah: Ha! Not for me. No. I think I’m more balanced now than I was a few years back and I think I’m on course to be more balanced a few years from now than I am today. But I am constantly hitting setbacks still, making bad decisions, giving into temptations that I know I should avoid. Becoming well balanced, at least for me, is a lifelong pursuit. That’s why one of my hopes for this project is that other people will share their wisdom too. That they’ll write up some of the best advice they’ve been given and blog about it or share it on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #worldchangerbook so I and others can learn from them as well.

Tom: What is your favorite piece of wisdom in the book?

Sarah: Wow. In a way, they are ALL my favorites because at some point earlier in my life, I desperately needed every single one of them. One that I love is the moment I recognized when getting attention is not the same thing as success. Especially in our culture that has so many ways of measuring success—web traffic, book sales, Facebook likes, retweets, church size, media coverage and so on—we sometimes begin to believe that public approval of some kind if the sign we’ve really “achieved” our goal (or that lack of approval is a sign we’ve failed). I describe this learning in the book, but there comes a point where you realize that what you’re chasing is head turns. You want to turn the crowd’s heads. Really? Is that how we measure success? We’re turning heads? So is the accident on the side of the road! And that is nothing to be celebrated. The crowd is not the validator of ideas.

Tom: What is something the book delivers that people might not expect?

Sarah: The diversity of people I draw from, particularly what many would consider veterans of the faith. A lot of times we’re busy linking to and tweeting the most influential leaders of our time, but I couldn’t tweet a lot of the people I quoted or drew from in this book because they’re dead. There’s an awesome Mother Teresa story, some cool references to Billy Graham, a D.L. Moody illustration, stuff people might not expect out of me as sort of a … well, young hipster. 🙂

But that’s part of the beauty of balance. We start rejecting that “new” is synonymous with good, or relevant, or noble and we start realizing that some of the best pieces of wisdom are the most timeless. Sometimes the reason your grandmother’s church hung on so long is because your grandmother’s church got a lot of things right.

Tom: Your generation is full of humanitarians. It seems like everyone on Twitter is talking about a cause or going on a relief trip. What is your hope for them?

Sarah: On a personal note, my hope is that we won’t pursue our causes out of a desire for affirmation, but that our work will be informed by the life and message of Jesus. I hope—man, do I hope—that we’ll keep one hand on our cause, but we’ll always keep the other hand on the Bible.

But also, I hope that we’ll become supporters and not competitors to other leaders. We—even those of us in the ministry world or humanitarian arena—are taught survival of the fittest. Some will get stronger and win attention by squashing the heads of others while they move up the ladder. And some will be the ones who get their heads bashed in by our upward climb.

We convince ourselves if we believe in our cause, then we have to fight for something akin to “market share.” So we focus on how there are only a limited number of book contracts and a limited number of conference speakers and a limited number of top bloggers or whatever, so we convince ourselves we need to get in and get “ours.” Holy smokes! If we are trying to claim to do good in this world at the expense of other people who are doing good, then I will tell you right now, you are no longer on the side of good!

When we get to the finish line and look back at the fallen comrades along the way, will we feel good? Would it be respectable or worth celebrating to get to the end of life and know that we, alone among our peers have made it? Those who really want to do good should want the most good for the most people. If I do good, then the world is moved toward greater well-being. If you do good, then the world is moved toward greater well being. But the world and its people are loved and uplifted the most when we find a way for us BOTH to do good.

To my generation, I say: Let’s consider a win for you to be a win for me. Let’s feel satisfied thirty or forty years from now when we see each other at some conference or event and we are all still in the fight. Let’s consider the greatest win crossing the line together.

Sarah’s book is available on Amazon ( ), Barnes and Noble ( ), and wherever books are sold. You can also find great shareable content like the graphic below at her book’s Pinterest page: And you can contribute your own life lessons to an online collection of wisdom using the hashtag #worldchangerbook. You can find Sarah’s blog at

Additional perspective on these issues can be found in Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s book The World is Not Ours to Save (IVP Books, 2013).