Author, Speaker, Entrepreneur, Change-Maker
A movement sounds like something that only heroic, outsized individuals can manage—the people who fill our history books. But Jennifer Dulski would encourage you to think otherwise.
As the president and COO of Change.Org, she has witnessed how small actions inspire real change. In her time leading Facebook Groups, she saw how people united around common causes.
Her experience taught her that the people who started effective movements took similar steps. This insight led her to write her book Purposeful: Are You a Manager or a Movement Starter?
In our interview, we talked about:
- Thought leadership vs. movement leadership
- Why she wrote Purposeful to encourage change-makers
- How to work through the fear of stepping up
- Her “finish this sentence” method for generating blog content
- 3 C’s for authors: Courage, community, and commitment
To learn more about Jennifer’s work:
Jennifer’s story appears in Get the Word Out: Write a Book That Makes a Difference.
Listen to the interview
Anne: Thank you, Jennifer, for talking with me. I just finished your book Purposeful. The subtitle is: Are you a Manager, or a Movement Starter? I just love that—such an interesting dichotomy.
We have so many people talking about trying to climb their way into being a thought leader and what you’re saying is, let’s talk about movements. Let’s take the focus off of you and onto what you’re doing.
Jennifer: Can you take the thoughts that you have and mobilize other people around them to create change or action in the world?
A: Which is the point, ultimately. You come to this from a career in tech, from your work at Change.Org, which obviously informed a lot of what you did, your work with Facebook Communities, which informs your sense of motivated communities. Tell me a little about how the book Purposeful came from this experience.
Her method for generating thoughtful blog content
J: My first real experience thinking about writing as a way to drive action came when I started writing as a LinkedIn influencer. They started the influencer program in 2012 and asked me to be one of the early influencers while I was at Change.Org. As part of that program, I had to write pretty regularly.
At first, it was very intimidating. I thought, how am I going to come up with enough material to write regularly? It prompted me to start thinking back over my life to that point, and the things I had learned from various people and experiences.
I used this methodology: starting writing with “5 lessons I learned from…” and adding a person’s name, or an experience.
It’s fascinating. No matter what I put after the dots, I have learned something. It was quite easy for me to start writing in that way.
The idea for her book
J: The book happened in a pretty interesting way. I was giving a talk in London at a conference, and someone who heard my talk worked at a publisher and asked me if I’d thought about writing a book. In the back of my head, I thought, “Yes, I’ve always thought about writing a book, but I don’t know how you go about doing that.” I was lucky to meet this person who could help me in that process.
When I thought about sitting down to write the book, it became much more like the process I had learned during all those years at LinkedIn. How do you break down what you’re trying to say into discreet pieces, think about the story you’re going to tell in each part?
The concept behind the book came to me while I was at Change, and then coalesced when I went to Facebook. I saw regular people like you and me doing incredible things in the world. They took so many of the same steps along the way. I thought, boy, if I can just help people understand these steps, perhaps more people could effectively change the world. That’s why I wrote the book.
Encouraging people who are instigating change
A: I can sense that generosity, the wanting to share. Who are you trying to reach with the book?
J: My goal was to try to reach people who think that the world could be a better place. What I say at the beginning of the book, which I really believe, is that anyone can create change. That’s what I saw in my roles where I had front row seat to people doing it every day. They came from all walks of life: children and grandparents, people who were wealthy and people who were incarcerated, veterans and people in every part of the world. I felt like, if more people in general could understand how to do it, more of us could.
A: Right, the idea that we have more power than, we can make an impact.
J: I will say that the publisher I happened to work with—who is a great publisher—tends to be more business oriented. So it ended up morphing more into a business-oriented book than I had originally intended. In terms of the actual audience it reached, it might have been more skewed to the business audience.
A: That’s the nature of publishing. They go where the markets are.
On writing the book
A: Tell me about the process of writing. It sounds like you had a process for the LinkedIn posts, which was to write to discover, and analyze, and think deeply about what you knew and learned. Did that translate?
J: This was similar. It was very intimidating to think about writing an entire book worth of content. As you know well, you write well more than a book’s worth of content. By the time you edit it down, there’s a lot on the cutting room floor.
What I did was start with an outline of the key things I wanted to get across. Then I started thinking about the most effective stories and data to back up what I wanted to say. I came up with a list of people whose stories I wanted to tell, and I interviewed them. I mainly did it over the phone, and had those interviews transcribed.
When I went to write each section, not only was it easier because I had broken it down into the outline, which had chapters, and each chapter had a set of main themes, but within each of those themes there was a story. For many of those, there was an interview. I had content to start with.
A: Essentially, you have to do the work. You can’t just start drafting. So, how has the book been received? What has happened since it came out—which is not a terribly long time.
J: It came out in 2018. There’s been a great reaction to the book. The most meaningful thing from me is hearing from people who read it and said, “This is really powerful” or “I am taking on this new challenge because I read your book.” Every once in a while I get someone who makes a video about it or comes to me and has it all dog-eared and underlined.
The platform beyond the book
J: As I published the book, I started a group, a community, around the book, called Purposeful. It’s a community for movement starters. I opened it up—whether or not people had read the book, they are invited to the community. There are many hundreds of people communicating with each other about the things they’re trying to do in the world and supporting each other around those movements. That’s been one of the more powerful things to come out of it.
A: I find that for most nonfiction authors that are trying to change something with their words, it’s “The book and…” The book either grows out of other work they’re doing or the book becomes a foundation on which other work is built. You are building these communities.
J: I obviously did a lot of speaking about the book as well, and reached a lot more people through that mechanism. Having done so many talks about the book, I now coalesced the themes and message from the book in a different way. I sort of wish I’d given the book talks before I wrote the book, because I think the way I describe it now is more clear than what I wrote.
A: That’s what happens when you go out and talk about it, defend it, and further clarify it. That’s the argument to teach and speak on it first. Or, do a second edition.
J: Or a different book.
A: That’s true. I spoke to one cognitive scientist who writes the book first and then structures his research experiments, because the act of writing the book makes him do enough of a deep dive that now he knows how he wants to conduct his further research in that area. So the book can be one part of your progression on the topic, not a one-and-done thing.
How are you taking this going forward? You’re doing the communities, you’re speaking on it…
J: I have the community. I do a lot of talks. I do primary types of talks around the book. One is at conferences around relevant themes and topics. For instance, I speak at a lot of conferences about community-building or change-making. I also do a fair number of company talks. I go inside companies and talk to the teams there about how they can think of making change inside a company.
You don’t always have to change something enormous in the world. Movements can start inside your own company or your own school. Then I’m doing some teaching as well, both at Stanford and Berkeley and at Singularity. I do teaching that covers some of the concepts from the book.
A: In the book you talk about getting past the fear of making a change, of putting things out. You write very well about it, and it’s something we all experience—certainly all authors experience. There’s the fear of putting the book out. How did you practice that on yourself.
J: One of the themes that run through the book is that activists and entrepreneurs have a lot in common. Often the steps of creating a movement are similar to the steps of creating a new company.
Often, especially in entrepreneurship, the term fearlessness is thrown around a lot. “You have to be fearless. I just really disagree with that. I absolutely don’t think that fearlessness is a part of it. Most of us are afraid. It’s really about how do you overcome the fear that you have and keep going.
In the book, I talk about this concept I call IICDTICDA, which is a horribly named acronym for “If I can do this, I can do anything.” That’s generally the philosophy I’ve used in my life to do things I find scary. I try to start by first doing other things I find scary that are unrelated. I was on vacation once with my family, and we wanted to do some watersports. We got on this tiny speedboat essentially in the middle of the night. It’s pitch-black dark and we’re going super-fast over very bumpy waves. I was practically having a panic attack. I was so scared. I kept saying to myself, “If I can do this, then I can do anything.” If I can get past this moment, whatever else seems scary will seem less so. That has proven to be true for most of my life. It makes other things, like putting out a book and going on a book tour seem less scary than those other moments, when your life is at risk, potentially.
A: That concept really resonated with me, so I’m glad to know how you pronounce that. But that is part of the process of everything involved with a book. You keep stretching your comfort zone.
There’s a quote at the end which I really like. I have it here: “Knowing whether we’ve had an impact on others is not the point. Living a life in pursuit of a positive impact is what matters.”
J: That’s right.
A: I just love that. It’s another reframing of it.
J: We’re always in pursuit. One of the women I worked with in my career was Lois Loofburrow who started what is now called Breakthrough, it was then called SummerBridge. It’s a program to help middle school kids get on the path to be first-generation college students. She says she uses the saying, “What have I done today?”
Someone like her, who has made this incredibly profound impact through her life’s work, she doesn’t just sit back. Every day she wakes up and says, what can I do today? It might be something small. For people who are writing their book, it might be, what can I get done today? It might be one paragraph, one section. It doesn’t really matter as long as just keep in pursuit.
The 3 C’s for movement starters (and authors)
A: Is there any advice you would give to prospective authors who have something they want to share that is movement-generating—an idea toward making a positive change?
J: In general, advice to people who are looking to create something into a movement or create positive change, I now use what I call the 3 Cs, which are courage, community, and commitment. Basically, that’s all you need.
The first C is courage. It’s not big courage—it’s the courage to get started. Onto the mat, as they say in yoga. In the book, I compare it to starting a standing ovation for a show that is pretty good. You know you’re going to stand up and you’re not sure anyone else will. That’s the kind of courage I’m talking about, because most of these things start pretty small, and so will your book.
The second one is community. You can’t do these things on your own. Whether you have a publisher and editor, or you’re self-publishing and want to ask your friends to take a look, not being in it alone is really important. So many people are afraid to ask for help, when really most people love being asked for help. They want to contribute.
The third piece is commitment. These things take time and don’t happen overnight. There are a lot of obstacles along the way. If you can just keep pushing through those things, you will be successful.
A: That’s great advice, very inspiring. You are yourself not just an author but a movement starter.
J: I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves about what that looks like. I think that’s another piece, learning to be more generous with ourselves about what impact does look like. That was the point of the end of the book. We have the opportunity to inspire people around us every day in the small things we do. It doesn’t have to be enormous. You don’t have to be the next Gloria Steinem to be impactful.
Choosing your medium for impact
J: The other thing that has become important for me, when thinking about writing, is to focus in on what my objectives are. Sometimes a book is the right medium, and sometimes it isn’t, depending on your objective. For me, the book was a good medium for leaving a legacy of the thoughts that I believed were important to share and having them coalesced in one place. If what I had wanted was the maximum number of people to see and hear or read the content, that might not have been the best mechanism.
Some of the things I’ve written online, on LinkedIn or other places, have been read by more people. So, it’s really helpful to think through what you want to accomplish before you think about which platform is the right one.
A: That’s a good point. With effective writing on LinkedIn, Medium, you can potentially reach a lot more people with smaller bits of content. A book is not the answer to everything, nor should it be. But doing so, does make you delve deep, to really focus on and refine your thoughts. There’s almost the argument to do the book for the self-transformative process you go through.
J: That’s right. This book will be around forever. My children and grandchildren will read it. It’s a permanent mark of what you’ve done and what you’ve thought about. Online writing is less so. It’s not entirely impermanent.
I’m so glad I did it: the process was amazing and I learned a lot. I may do it again. But it isn’t necessarily the answer for all the things you want to think about how to get your ideas across or to mobilize people.
A: Great advice. Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective.