Alex Budak: “I Believe That Becoming a Changemaker Is an Inclusive Identity That We Can All Step Into.”

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Interview: Alex Budak

Alex Budak is a social entrepreneur, a faculty member at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the new book, Becoming a Changemaker (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn’t wait to talk to Alex about happiness, habits, and leadership.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Alex: An evening walk! As a social entrepreneur, faculty member, author, and (most importantly!) a dad, solo time to think and reflect is all too rare right now. My wife and I both prioritize ensuring that each of us get a walk-in most nights, and we both come back healthier and happier as a result. Sometimes I will listen to music (ask me for my playlist!), but oftentimes I just let my mind wander.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That happiness is something that can be shared. I love your Second Splendid Truth: “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.” I think we tend to focus so much on the individual, but I’ve absolutely found my greatest personal moments of happiness in making others happy and in sharing these moments together.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

I’ve conducted the first ever longitudinal study – The Changemaker Index – that explores how individuals develop their capacity to lead positive change over time. One of my favorite findings is that there is no statistically significant difference in development based on one’s age. No matter one’s age, everyone develops at approximately the same rate. That means that no matter how young you are or how old, you can become a changemaker! How wonderful is that?

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger? 

Perhaps it’s not a surprise since I teach changemaking for a living – but I am a rebel through and through!

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

The one quotation that has stuck with me since I was a child comes from Jackie Robinson: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” It’s a regular north star for me as I reflect on how I spend my time and remain in service to others.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

A lot of people think that leadership cannot be taught – that it’s an innate ability that one either has or does not have. My teaching at UC Berkeley has shown me the exact opposite. While “leaders” might be scarce (there will only be one CEO, after all), “leadership” is abundant. We can all learn to step up and lead positive change from where we are. I teach leadership through a combination of sharing empirical data and research from leading scholars; interactive case studies; hands-on, experiential exercises; and bringing in a diverse array of guest speakers to share stories and inspiration. I find it really inspiring to see just how much my students develop as leaders and how they step into their own leadership potential. If they can do it, so can any of us. That gives me a ton of hope for the future.

Lastly, what does being a changemaker mean to you?

I define changemaking in a boldly-inclusive way. Simply put, I believe a changemaker is someone who leads positive change from where they are. There’s no mention of roles, titles, or formal authority here. And crucial to this definition is the opportunity to lead change at any level and in any situation: we need not be a senior leader in order to lead change. In my book, Becoming a Changemaker, I include over 50 case studies showing how people from all walks of life have led positive change from where they are: from a Walmart associate fighting for equality in parental leave policies to a project manager who just really, really wanted his team to start composting. I believe that becoming a changemaker is an inclusive identity that we can all step into, in our own ways, and I’m so excited to see how people take these lessons and put them into practice!

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