How to Get the Most Out of This Book

I wrote this book because I believe that progressive activists are the world’s most precious resource. We tackle the most difficult and important problems—including hunger, war, disease, poverty, violence, cruelty and exploitation—and work to further humanity’s evolution in the direction of compassion and kindness. Conservatives may create more wealth, but we create more of the values, including justice, equality and freedom, that make life worth living. As history has repeatedly shown us, and as we are unfortunately witnessing in the United States today, wealth without the tempering of progressive values and mores leads inevitably to corruption and despair.

Imagine how different the world would be if there were twice—or ten times!—as many progressive activists as there are now, and if those activists were happy and effective and enjoying long full-time or part-time careers. Entire societies and cultures, and quite possibly every society and culture, would be transformed.

That’s why I wrote The Lifelong Activist, a guide to building a sustainable activist career. It is aimed at you, the activist, volunteer or other politically active person who is considering your long-term career and life options. My goal is to empower you to live a happy life that includes an effective and sustainable activist career, and in particular to help you avoid the burnout that afflicts so many activists.

This is not a typical book on activism, perhaps because my background is different from that of many activists. Although I’ve long been involved in progressive causes, including labor, feminism, and, most recently, animal rights and vegetarianism, I have chosen to earn my living as an entrepreneur, business journalist and business coach. Prior to writing The Lifelong Activist, I spent three years working as lead business coach at a Boston nonprofit, where my team and I helped more than 1,000 economically disadvantaged people of diverse backgrounds start or grow businesses, professional art careers and nonprofit organizations. In that position, I was able to witness firsthand what causes intelligent and dedicated people to succeed and what causes them to fail. That is the knowledge I bring to this book.

That knowledge is, in a nutshell, that the secret to success as an activist, as well as in life itself, is to live a life that is as much as possible an expression of your core values. The Lifelong Activist is a guidebook for doing so, and it is based on the premise that you succeed by making conscious choices about your life, specifically in the crucial areas of your mission, time, fears and relationships. Self-actualization—a term coined by the late psychologist Abraham Maslow that refers to the cultivation of your unique strengths, talents and character—should be your primary goal, since the more self-actualized you are, the more creativity, energy, focus and other positive attributes you will be able to bring to your activism and other endeavors. Self-actualization is also, as I discuss in Part IV, entirely congruent with your progressive ethic and mission.

Self-actualization begins with breaking free of other people’s inappropriate influence and control over your life. Some of these people might mean well, while others might mean ill; still others might not care about you at all but are simply pursuing their own agenda. Some might even be other activists trying to bully you into working on their cause or meeting their standard of ideological purity. You need to break free of all of these inappropriate influences so that you can start to build a life in keeping with your values.

Perhaps because of my background, aspects of this book may challenge, and even anger or upset, some activists:

• My business background, naturally, influences my perceptions and advice, and so you may see more approving references to money, materialism, hierarchies and competition than you are used to seeing, or like to see, in a book aimed at progressives.

• I believe that activists need to place a high priority on money—or, more specifically, on creating a sustainable income for themselves. I understand that this can be difficult in a society whose values are opposed to your own. But our society’s capitalist structure isn’t changing any time soon and you still need to earn a living. The good news is that you probably have more choices than you realize: Chapters 12 through 15 in Part I will help you sort through them, and through your feelings and thoughts regarding money.

• I also believe that an activist should live the lifestyle he or she wants to live even if that lifestyle seems “unacceptably” bourgeois or materialistic. We are not machines and can’t program our likes and dislikes. Moreover, a life built on self-denial is bound to be an unhappy one, and an unhappy life, besides being tragic in its own right, is likely to lead not to lifelong activism but to burnout.

So, go ahead: buy the car, the clothes, the electronics, the gym membership or the vacation. Or buy all of them, if that’s what it takes to make you happy. This may require that you get a non-activist job and do only part-time activism, but that’s fine: I’d rather see you be a happy part-time activist than a miserable, deprived full-time one. Chances are, you’ll get more done as a happy part-timer, anyway—and you may even get to do some “bonus” activism at your day job. Enjoy your life fully, and without guilt, shame or other negative emotions.

I want to be very clear, however, that I am not advocating a bourgeois or materialistic lifestyle. I am not advocating any lifestyle in particular. I advocate, rather, that you build a happy, sustainable lifestyle for yourself based on your values and no one else’s. It’s usually better, for a host of personal and societal reasons, to live as simply as possible, putting the bulk of your time and energies into your inner development and vocation(s), instead of into buying and maintaining a lot of stuff. But do what you need to do to be happy.

To those readers who are offended by these or other points I make in The Lifelong Activist, I urge you to stay with the book and glean whatever useful information you can from it. My goal is to help and empower as many activists as possible, and that obligates me to tell what I perceive to be the truth even if some readers find it to be controversial or even painful.

Your task, therefore, is this: to work to visualize and create a more liberated self at the same time you work to visualize and create a more liberated society. Picture yourself as someone who does activism as part of a happy, healthy and well-balanced life, and then work, using this book as a guide, to make that vision happen. Get past the stereotype, if it afflicts you, that activists are supposed to be ultra-serious and humorless. Get past the stereotype that they are supposed to suffer for their cause. Get past the stereotype that they are supposed to be poor. Envision a new mode of activism for yourself that is built on joyous involvement with the world. As Julia Butterfly Hill says, “Activism is so much more than just a response to something that is wrong. Activism is a celebration of life itself. It is a manifestation of the miracle of being alive. And isn’t that something to celebrate!”

I hope you find The Lifelong Activist helpful as you build your activist career, and I invite you to contact me and let me know your thoughts on the book or any aspect of your life or activism.

Peace and Freedom for All,

Hillary Rettig