Alex’s Ah-Ha moment
The importance of change at the grassroots level
Community and changemaking VS heropreneurship
Alex’s path to teaching changemaking at UC Berkeley
What is flow?
Sneak peek of findings from studies in the book
Letting Your Curiosity Guide You
One Person Teaches, Two Learn
Failure Isn’t Fatal
A Sense of Agency Over Our Lives
This episode was produced by Stephanie Ng.
Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):
0:05 Michael Waitze
Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Social Innovation Podcast. Today we are joined by Alex Budak, a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Becoming a Changemaker. Alex, thank you so much for coming to the show today. How are you doing?
0:21 Alex Budak
I’m Michael, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me doing really, really well. Thanks.
0:24 Michael Waitze
I think it’s more my pleasure than yours. Anyway, it’s late for you. So again, sorry for making us like, stay around this late in the day, but I really appreciate it. I really wanted to have this conversation and before we get into the main part, can we give our listeners a little bit of your background for some context?
0:40 Alex Budak
Sure. Well, I guess first, I should say that the new identity I have is that of a fairly new dad. So when you say time, who knows what time is anymore, with a little running around. So I totally fine.
0:50 Michael Waitze
How new is new though?
0:51 Alex Budak
0:52 Michael Waitze
Okay, that’s new. Go ahead.
0:54 Alex Budak
Yeah. So me, thank you for the kind introduction. So I’m a faculty member at UC Berkeley Haas and I’m a social entrepreneur. So before joining academia, I co-founded the social venture called startsomegood.com and our goal was to democratise the way that we fund social ventures, never easy to raise money, as many of your listeners know, for a social venture. But there’s often a catch 22 that you can’t raise money until you can prove your impact. But how do you prove your impact until you have the money to actually launch a pilot a nd so we try to come in there with a bit of risk capital and community driven fundraising, to support changemakers all around the world and getting started.
1:33 Michael Waitze
So where does that come from? You don’t just wake up one day and say, I want to start, I want to do something called startsomegood and I want to start raising capital for social enterprises, right? It’s got to come from somewhere.
1:43 Alex Budak
That’s right. So I grew up in the Silicon Valley Bay area, so kind of always surrounded by entrepreneurship. But the kind of traditional entrepreneurship just never resonated with me, I’d never had the dreams of launching a company and flipping it to Google or to Apple. Not there’s anything wrong with that, that just isn’t what motivated me. But I had the chance to go live and work in Ahmedabad, India, for a bit and while I was there, and did some work, volunteering with a local community group. Now this story isn’t about me, I hardly made a dent in terms of their impact. But it did have the chance to just see firsthand this amazing grassroots organisation, working with girls from local community, using sport as a tool for teaching healthy habits and leadership and that’s where I sort of had that ah ha moment, which was that there’s changemakers, literally all around the world, just like this Ahmedabad Sports Group.
2:32 Michael Waitze
But can I ask you, can I ask you this, though? So you grew up in Silicon Valley? Did you get a sense as a kid? Like, I don’t know where in Silicon Valley you grew up. But I was actually talking to somebody in Bangalore a couple of days ago, right. And Bangalore as a Silicon Valley style city has changed a lot in the last 25 years, right, as India’s become more technologically advanced, did you get a sense because I want to make a I want to make a difference between growing up in Silicon Valley and then going to India to write like, did you know what was going on? As a kid when you were in Silicon Valley? Do you know what I mean? Like where your friends? Are your friend’s parents involved in working at Google working at Apple and all that kind of stuff? And you’re just like, I can’t believe this is happening here. Like, did you know that?
3:10 Alex Budak
Yeah, I mean, in some ways, it’s like the fish swimming in water doesn’t know that the fish is the environment that you’re in. But it did have a sense that things were pretty special. And that was, of course, at kind of the height of techno optimism, where people really believed in technology to change the world. Not that we should completely lose track of that. But most of my friends, parents would work for startups, or if they were lawyers, they would work as a lawyer for a startup. And my mom worked at Google in the somewhat early days, which is great as a high schooler kid, because I got to take advantage of the free cafeteria food, wow, and all the junk food before they got really healthy.
3:48 Michael Waitze
So, so go back to this India thing, when you went to India, was there like a palpable difference between what was happening there and what was happening in Silicon Valley? And did it change the way you viewed back to those experiences that you had when you were in Silicon Valley? If you know what I mean?
4:04 Alex Budak
For sure. I mean, one thing I’ll give Ahmedabad a lot of credit for, this is in a state of Gujarat. It’s a very entrepreneurial place and so I saw entrepreneurial hustle in a slightly different way. Yeah. It wasn’t just about, you know, coding and creating apps and scale. But people had a very entrepreneurial mindset. And I think that helped to make the transition for me between we often think of entrepreneurship as sort of an act, you build a company. But I think there I learned more about entrepreneurship as a mindset, sort of a way of seeing the world, seeing opportunities.
4:32 Michael Waitze
Yeah, really, really interesting. So can you just, you were talking about this and talking about changemakers? Being everywhere? Was it surprising to you in India when you got there? But obviously, you’re coming out of Silicon Valley. So you look around like you said, you’d like the fish swimming in water, you don’t know, but now you’re out of your own water. Were you surprised by the impact that people were having there just by that change in mindset that you were just talking about?
4:54 Alex Budak
I don’t know if I was surprised, but it certainly inspired I was inspired to see the way that people were taking action in support their local community that I think there was a much stronger community feeling than I was used to feeling in Silicon Valley. And I think that really inspired me connected with me. And also just changing some of the notions that you have going into it. So, you know, we are I tended to think that change had to come from the big institutions that the World Bank, the UN, and there’s a role for that to be sure. But I think they came to more fully appreciate the grassroots level of change.
5:27 Michael Waitze
And if there’s this grassroots level of change, it kind of means that anybody can do this. Is that fair?
5:32 Alex Budak
That’s the best part of it. Absolutely.
5:34 Michael Waitze
But how does it manifest itself? Right, so you come home, how long were you there?
5:38 Alex Budak
I was there for a few months.
5:39 Michael Waitze
For a few months and you know, you said you were a social entrepreneur, what were you always planning on becoming a teacher and a faculty member at, like such a great university, if you know what I mean? And I’m also really curious about this, like, I taught a course a couple years ago, and when I first stood up in front of those students, I felt this real responsibility, if that makes sense and I was probably more nervous doing that than I was doing anything else. What was that like for you?
6:01 Alex Budak
Yeah, I’ve tried on a lot of different hats. And so I never ever sought out to be a faculty member. I never honestly consider myself a great student, as a fine student, but not not a great student. So I certainly did not expect that. But as he sort of looked back, you know, Steve Jobs talks about connecting the dots looking backwards. Yeah, when I look back at everything I’ve done, at my core, I’m a teacher. That’s what I love doing. I love being an educator, I love teaching. So even in the social enterprise, I’d spend a lot of time teaching people about how to be a social entrepreneur, how to raise money. And so that teaching thing has always been kind of inside of me. But it wasn’t until I got to UC Berkeley, where I think I really felt that full permission to let the inner educator and myself out.
6:41 Michael Waitze
Yeah, I want to talk a little bit more about community and part of the reason why is I was on the phone yesterday with a woman named Pearl Agarwal, who is a venture capitalist based in India and she was telling me this story about how she grew up in a small town and really, this is a community feeling of this small shopping street where her family ran a business was such that it was very communal, organised. And she looks at the way she invests, as well as this community of entrepreneurs and I’m curious if you can just dig a little bit deeper on that of why that’s so important, particularly as it comes to making changes, right how it helps to have this community around you to be able to do that.
7:19 Alex Budak
For sure. And again, it could do a bit of a contrast with Silicon Valley, where I think we tend to do sort of the heropreneurship, right, we put the lone entrepreneur up on a pedestal. But I think the moment where the intersection of community and changemaking really set in for me, was when I was just outside of Istanbul, in Turkey. So I was fortunate enough to be a recipient of a fellowship. And so I was there with 19, other social entrepreneurs, all young, so all under age 30, at the time, from very different countries, very different walks of life. So just among our group, we had people from Bosnia, Peru, Brazil, South Africa, Uganda, Australia, Poland, UK, I mean, just all around the world, we were just starting to get to know each other a little bit and we decided to go for a swim and so we’re standing on the rocks, water down below us, sun about to set on the horizon and we’re sort of standing right there cheering each other on and count 123, and we lept into the water and then I just distinctly remember, as we’re splashing around in the water, looking around and being like, wow, this is pretty incredible what I have right here that, you know, we come from very different backgrounds, they’re very different walks of life. And we have different social ventures, we have different things from one person who’s trying to work with cancer patients in Mexico, to new media in Poland, right, all kinds of different ventures, or theories of change may be slightly different. But the fact that we were all trying to create change in our local community meant that we had so much more in common than we had differences, despite being from all around the world. And I felt this amazing sense of kinship there, that we all came together in this sort of magical moment. And even now, it’s been about 12 years since then, we still have a WhatsApp group. And occasionally I’ll get a ping. And when I see that ping from that community, I feel like, okay, these are people that are still committed to leading change. And we’re kind of all in this together, no matter where in the world we are.
9:08 Michael Waitze
When you’re teaching, do you get the sense that it’s important for you to tell stories like this, not just because storytelling itself is a great way to educate and to teach and to share experiences, but also because there’s this international aspect to it as well, in the sense that sometimes getting out of where you’re used to, right, like you said, just to get back to this fish in the water thing, right. If you grew up in Silicon Valley, you spend your whole life in Silicon Valley and frankly, if you spend your whole life anywhere, you don’t get to grow your own perspective. But do you feel like being with people from Poland, being with people from Turkey, being with people from Mexico changes the way you think about not just change making but the world itself.
9:44 Alex Budak
Absolutely changes the way you see the world and changes the way you see yourself in the world, you feel a sense of connection. And it’s not to say that you can’t ever feel that way because a digital technology is actually great at connecting us with people, but there’s something really powerful which is just sitting down and having a beer with someone and having a conversation, not knowing where the conversation will lead. And just letting your curiosity guide you that is really eye opening in a in a really wonderful way.
10:08 Michael Waitze
So you started a course about changemaking at Berkeley as well, right? Yeah, that’s right. What was the genesis of this?
10:15 Alex Budak
This is just a dream come true to be teaching this class. It’s the class I wish I could have taken when I was starting my own changemaker journey at university. And like so many things in life, there’s a lot of good luck that happens. So I had joined UC Berkeley in a staff role. And then went to have a conversation with the person who sort of oversees all the curriculum at Haas, which is the business school at UC Berkeley. And I was going in for career advice, but I think he could tell that my heart wasn’t really in it. And so I distinctly remember he said, But Alex, what do you really want to do? And somehow in that moment, it just became clear to me, I said, Well, you know, what I really want to do is teach. And I assumed he would just sort of say, like, Oh, that’s nice, you know, come back in 20 years, and we’ll see. But to my surprise, he said, Okay, do you want to teach? And it just, I knew it. What do I teach is becoming a changemaker. I even knew the name of the class. I knew at that moment. That’s what I wanted to teach. And to my shock and delight, he said, Okay, show me a syllabus, we’ll go from there. Let’s see if we can make this happen. I shook his hand, lept out of my seat, closed the door to his office, immediately pulled up my phone and Googled how to create a syllabus, because I had never taught before. But that started the journey of being able to teach this class, which is a dream come true. And what
11:21 Michael Waitze
What kind of fear was there around that? I mean, I did. I did a similar thing, although somebody asked me to do it. Yeah. And it was very fearful for me, I’d never been a professor, a teacher, anything. And I had no idea how to put that together. What was that? Like? What was that like for you?
11:36 Alex Budak
So here’s where there’s just something about it just me being a natural teacher. It was fun. And it wasn’t that hard. I don’t like it in a sense that like, you know, I’m just naturally gifted at teaching. But but just like, I think it was so mission driven, that it just came and flowed very naturally, I use a lot of empathy. So I was really able to put myself in the shoes of mice, or how I thought when I was 22, and just started my changemaker career, all the stories that you talked about, you know, all these different perspectives of changemakers from around the world, all the books I had read, and I felt like this is just the class I meant to create. To be clear, if the Dean had said, Hey, Alex, go teach a class on accounting, I’d be paralysed with fear, there’s no chance to get off into that. But when it came to teaching and creating this class of changemaking, it just felt right.
12:18 Michael Waitze
But isn’t that part of the whole philosophy around building something? Look, we talked about this before we started recording right when we were prepping. It’s this idea that you can’t separate the person from the thing that they do really well. And this idea that like it was fun, and it wasn’t that hard. Maybe that’s the title of this episode in a way besides becoming a changemaker, right, but you know what I mean, if you really love this thing that you’re doing, it shouldn’t be that difficult for you to do it super well. Now, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a massive moneymaker, a massive success, but it just means the preparation and getting ready for it shouldn’t be that hard. Do you teach this as well? Like, is that part of this or no?
12:50 Alex Budak
Well I think what you’re getting out, which I agree with is that when we’re fundamentally involved in our work in this deeply meaningful way, it’s an extension of ourselves. Exactly. So students often remarked to me that they think there’s no one else that could teach this class because it’s such an embodiment of my values and my beliefs that I put out into the world. And so I do think there’s some aspect of like, when you really find that fit, that it can feel almost magical. There’s this concept called flow, which is where you kind of lose track of time, and you’re just so in things. And believe me, I’ve had a lot of different careers where I have not felt flow, the opposite of it. But when I’m teaching a couple hour class can just fly by it, because I just feel that sense of flow.
13:29 Michael Waitze
Yeah. I mean, I remember when I was a kid playing sports, right, you could get into this zone. And we used to say that, like, if you were playing basketball, the hoop sometimes seemed like it was really wide. You know what I mean? Like he just knew when you threw the ball up, it was going in, and other times you weren’t in that flow, or in that zone. And it felt like no matter how many times you put the ball up there, it just wasn’t going in. I guess that’s got to be the same kind of feeling. Yeah.
13:48 Alex Budak
Well, as a middle school, JV basketball player, I think I never felt the rim be that big. So I don’t know that flow on the basketball court. I know, I know, the experience, you’re talking about that. And there’s something magical about that.
13:58 Michael Waitze
How long have you been teaching this course, by the way?
14:00 Alex Budak
Since 2019? So a few years.
14:01 Michael Waitze
Okay, so three years? Do you feel like it’s changed over time? Do you know what I mean? Like, do you feel like you know now more about how to teach this and that the responses that you’re getting from the kids have changed? Or? Or is it just you know what I mean.
14:12 Alex Budak
There’s this saying which says that when one person teaches two people learn, and I love that, so I think I’m very much shaped by my students, just as I hope they’re shaped by me, I would say that the infrastructure, the core of the class hasn’t changed very much the key lessons, I think they’re still in place. But how I teach them, some of the stories that I tell those are all very much shaped and evolve based on the class. And it’s wonderfully symbiotic that I’ll put ideas out there and hear stories of how students have gone on to use these principles in their own life. And then that becomes stories I can then tell the next generation of students so it really feeds into itself nicely.
14:44 Michael Waitze
I want to get to the core of the course in a second because I’m super interested in this whole idea of making change. Do you get some students that take the course that are sceptical when they join they’re like is isn’t going to mean anything and you know, three classes in, or four classes and they’re just like, so went through it where you’ve changed their mindset to use some of your terminology. And that’s got to feel great. No?
15:06 Alex Budak
I love it. I welcome all students no matter where they are on their changemaker journey. But I remember one student very well. Her name was Hannah. And I’m used to teaching and seeing a lot of smiles. And so I looked out and saw her kind of crossed arms and dour look like it really stood out to me. So I reached out to her because there’s this faculty member, you never know what internal battles people are fighting or what’s going on. And so I reached out to her, and she said that she so badly wanted to be a changemaker, but this class was in fall. So just coming off of a summer internship, where she tried to lead a Diversity Equity Inclusion Project. And she just had the worst experience, no one believed in her. No one trusted her, she got started, got shut down. And she left that feeling like, not only had her dreams been dashed, maybe change wasn’t possible, like maybe just wasn’t a thing. And I welcomed her honesty, I appreciated that. And then we work together in office hours and some sessions to help her change that changemaker mindset. And one of the most magical moments that I’ve had as a teacher, is we do a project called a changemaker of the week. So I have each student choose one changemaker who inspires them to make a presentation to the class that way we meet a diversity of different changemakers. So this student chose a changemaker who inspired her, someone who was not a household name, but who really spoke to her values or principles. So this student Hannah, presented to the class. And then that day, I got an email from another student who’d said, wow, Hannah’s presentation completely changed my mindset and what it means to be a changemaker, can you just anchor because that just made all the difference to me. And so then I had the wonderful feeling as a faculty to get to forward this note on to Hannah and say, look, what you just did. You just became a changemaker, you helped someone else become a changemaker. And they’re I think, in that moment, she finally found that faith in herself again.
16:51 Michael Waitze
But this gets back to like, if what did you say one teaches two… say that thing again? Cuz I didn’t write it down. Say it again.
16:58 Alex Budak: One teaches, two learn.
17:01 Michael Waitze
Right? But here’s the thing. It’s just this is so subtle to me, right? But you’ve now encouraged one of the students to contact another one of the students, this has to be the most powerful interaction, right, in a way because they’re now working with each other. And they’re feeding off each other’s maybe energy. And I’m really curious, like, I feel like in the 60s and 70s, and this kind of dates myself, I feel like you know, with the Peace Corps and things like that, that people felt like it was possible to make change. But today, it just the world feels like an overwhelming place. And I’m sure it’s not just to me, maybe it’s just because things move so quickly. And maybe it’s because we’re overwhelmed with information. I’m curious about your perspective on this. Do we feel today? Do we feel like it’s less possible to make a change than we did 50 years ago? Or is it just this idea that there’s so much more information out there? So it seems harder? I’m really trying to get my head around this? Do you know what I mean?
17:55 Alex Budak
Yeah, my sense is that it feels a lot harder to make change, especially because we’re starting to realise that so many of the changes we need to make aren’t surface level, they’re systemic. And people are starting to realise that when it comes to systemic change, think about something like climate justice, or racial justice. That’s not something easily solved by a single person out of our grasp. Alongside that, I talk to my students a lot, because I tell them, hey, if you start feeling frustrated with the world that you’re inheriting, you have every right to feel frustrated, and you’ve got a lot of systemic challenges that were no no fault of your own that you’ve inherited. But I also tell them that you’ve got to stay hopeful that you can’t let people take away that hope that despite what the hand you’ve been dealt, you’ve got to find reasons and find optimism, find belief that you can actually do something about it, because the world needs you. So feel that anger, feel that fear. But that’s a call to action. Yeah.
18:52 Michael Waitze
Yeah, when you talk to people talk to your students about this weekly changemaker, do you encourage them to find changemakers that aren’t household names? I find like you talked about this hero entrepreneurship. And I think we also have this idea of hero changemakers as well. You know, this idea is if you’re not Mother Teresa, or if you’re not like Mahatma Gandhi, that you can’t do anything. But if you look at what you encourage them to look away from that, and look around in their like day to day life, and think I know somebody who’s doing something that’s actually quite impactful. And I’d rather focus on them, because that’s closer to me. And then it makes it feel like I can do it more. So that makes sense.
19:30 Alex Budak
Very, very much though. So about half of my students choose someone who’s not a household name. So it could be a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a boss, manager, a friend, teammate, and I love those. And I think those are the ones that are the most inspiring. So I’ll say that every single semester I’ve taught the class. One person has chosen Elon Musk, so everyone always chooses Moscow.
19:50 Michael Waitze
Oh no, why?
19:53 Alex Waitze
For his ability to question the status quo, but we also get into some of the nuances of his character. I love when people choose household names they’ve never heard of and then I make an ask of them and I say, hey, you’ve done this amazing presentation written this nice paper. Why don’t you share it with that person? Why don’t you reach out to them and say, Hey, this is why I think you’re amazing changemaker. And some really powerful things have happened as a result.
20:17 Michael Waitze
So, I want to get back to this because I think this is really important, right? In other words, class should be super interactive, right? It shouldn’t just be a teacher in the front of the class telling students how to do the things and even giving them assignments to do like picking a weekly changemaker, you do get them to, and how many kids are in this class.
20:33 Alex Budak
I like to keep it small. So there’s a huge waitlist for the class, but I only love 40 students in.
20:38 Michael Waitze
And how long but this class isn’t 40 weeks long. So not everybody gets to come up and present, do people stand in front of the class and present like how does that work?
20:46 Alex Budak
Well, so one of the things I do to be inclusive as a faculty member is I give people the choice. So some people love presenting and other people prefer video. So give them the choice. So that half will do in person, half of the videos. And then we have you know, a couple per week.
21:01 Michael Waitze
Okay, so you do a couple per week? Do you feel like a given you’re changing the lives of these individuals, students public speaking, standing up in front of a class full of 40 people, even making a video that gets played in front of 40? People? It’s hard work, right? And something they probably haven’t done before? Do you feel like you’re changing that part of them as well, to the extent that storytelling is powerful, that being able to do this is super impactful? And you feel like you are unlocking something in that respect too
21:27 Alex Budak
I mean I certainly hope so. And I’m I’m very moved by the kind of notes and words I received from from students. But I think it all starts with a feeling that in the classroom, I’ve worked really hard to create a feeling of psychological safety. The students know that they can take some risks, and they’re safe to take risks. And I think so often in our education systems, students don’t feel that they’re just trying to memorise things that are on a test. And it’s all about did you get an A minus or an A pencil, I tried to make them feel like okay, they actually have space to take chance to try things to be curious to be bold. Because of course, the truth is, when it comes to change making there isn’t a great on changemaking known. Michael, pretty good job on your changemaking that’s a B plus, right? No, nobody tell you that. So we need to move beyond the extrinsic motivation move intrinsically. But I think you need to have that psychological safety to know that, okay, this is a place where I can actually take risks.
22:17 Michael Waitze
How do you teach them about like, you know, taking risks is great, right? But there’s this risk reward analysis that they have to do. And sometimes when you try to make a change, or try to do anything, you don’t achieve what you’re trying to achieve, right? Well, how do we teach people that there’s learning inside of, you know, not getting what you expected to get? Like, I feel like life is this gigantic scientific method? I have a hypothesis, right? So I want to make a change. I’m just going to try to put it in your terms and tell me where I’m wrong here. But I have this hypothesis. And then everything is kind of an experiment, particularly at that age, right? And I experiment, and then I have an outcome, but that outcome may not meet my hypothesis, we can call it failure or not failure, right? But if you look at it in those terms, I mean, every scientist fails every single day. How do you teach them about this in the context of the changemaking as well?
23:01 Alex Budak
Well, I quite literally teach that actually one of my favourite studies that came out last year, it was done by Italian researchers, they looked at entrepreneurs that were in an incubator in Italy. And they had a control group and experimental group. And the only difference is they taught half of the entrepreneurs, the scientific method, they taught them hypothesis testing, and so on. And what they found is with that one, small intervention, those that had learned the scientific method, were more likely to pivot to change directions, and were much more likely to increase the revenues. All because if you think about it, like you said, a scientist isn’t sitting in a lab and going, Oh, that hypothesis didn’t work out. I’m a terrible scientist. No, you have curiosity, you put a test out there. And you see what what happens as a result? It’s actually teach students that to say, how can we find ways to take the sting out of failure. But that’s one thing and you know, there’s intellectually you can understand that. But it also tried to get them to feel, viscerally what it’s like to fail, and that failure isn’t fatal. So after a lecture, where we’ve talked about failure, what we can learn from failure, how failure is an inevitable and inexplicable part of being a changemaker. I put up a slide which simply has two words, go fail. And students sort of look around and they’re laughing. Is this guy serious? I’m serious. The next slide comes up, they have 15 minutes, they’ll leave the classroom, and they can’t come back until they’ve been rejected. They have to ask for something, get it out, and then come back. And so these super high achieving students start feeling really uncomfortable, really nervous. This professor actually wants them to go out and fail on purpose. But they leave the classroom and again psychological safety. Tell them hey, if you’re scared about this, I’ll be in the front of the room. I’ll mentor you I’ll coach you know, get you ready. But every student has to go leave, and they have to go get rejected. But energy leaving is scared the energy when they come back is off the charts. So much so that a professor next door once knocked on the door and said, Hey, can you keep it down? Because the energy was just so electric after students had gone out and failed? And that’s because two things happen. So about 1/3 of students expect they’re gonna get rejected, expect they’ll get a no. And actually get it. Yes. I think about one woman who went to the cafe and said, Hey, can I have a free orange juice? And the person said, Yeah, you can have a free orange juice.Ah oh, well, I’m supposed to fail. Okay? Can I have two orange juices she said, Yeah, okay. And then finally, just for the third one and essentially got a no, but you came back with orange juice for everyone, which is really nice. So oftentimes we set ourselves up for failure, because we’re sure we’ll get rejected when we may actually get what we want. And then the second lesson, of course, is that sometimes we fail, we get rejected, and it’s not the end of things, no one laughs at you, you move on. failure isn’t fatal.
25:26 Michael Waitze
So this is a this is a lesson that I’ve been teaching to my daughter, John had been teaching to my daughter forever, and that is no individual day is fatal. Right? You know, she would come home from school, and she’d be like, I just don’t understand this thing. I can’t get it. And I would just keep going over this idea that no individual day is fatal. I like to teach to people that all of life is a conversion problem, right. And I think it’s the flip side of what you’re talking about here, you if you think everything converts between two and a half and 3%, you have to ask 100 times to get two and a half to three conversions. But more importantly, you don’t know when those good conversions are going to happen. And those 100 asks, right, it could happen right away. It could have another 98,99,to a 100. So you just don’t know. But this idea, and I love this idea of taking these high performing, but also high expectations students and saying, Go out and do something where you feel like you’re gonna fail. Sorry, I interrupted you. Go ahead.
26:26 Alex Budak
No, you’re right onto this exactly how I feel about this is like, sometimes being a changemaker, it’s not always about brilliant. Sometimes it’s about the willingness to just stand there and keep going in the face of rejection. Because if we’re going to try to question the status quo, if we’re going to shake things up, there’s a lot of people who won’t like that just naturally, there’s the status quo bias, we tend to not like change. And so can you get more comfortable with the nose that will come inevitably? And that will be a superpower for you?
26:52 Michael Waitze
Yeah and so this is one of the things that I like to talk about, too, is that if you’re gonna, if you look at everything, like a conversion problem, and you’re trying to make change, in a way, it’s almost better if the first 50 answers are no, because you kind of become immune to it, or maybe numb to it. And then you’re like, wait a second, I can do anything. And I didn’t die kind of thing. Right? You know what I mean?
27:11 Aex Budak
For sure and there’s also a gift in failure. So we talked about not just failing, but kind of failing forward. So when someone rejects you, it’s actually great feedback. You know, if somebody says no, straight up, that’s okay. But if they can say, No, this isn’t for us. And here’s why. Well, great that you’ve got a bit of validated learning, you’ve got some new insights you can take into your next pitch, and you keep refining, keep refining until you really find that fit.
27:32 Michael Waitze
So what type of kids take this class? These are undergraduate students? And I keep saying kids, I’m sorry, I just it’s just my age talking. Right? And I’ve got a daughter who’s 21 years old. So I that’s the way I think about it. But are these are undergrads? Yeah?
27:44 Alex Budak
So I started off teaching undergraduates now. So teach graduate students and also teach in Berkeley’s executive education programmes. I also teach executives as well. So the wide range of folks.
27:54 Michael Waitze
Do you see different responses, depending on the different stages of life, you know what I mean? I’d love to see an exec go through this.
28:01 Alex Budak
Ya know, it’s fun to see the different levels of it, execs tend to be a bit more sceptical than the average 21 year old, as you can probably imagine. But but but again, someone who’s an executive is sitting with a lot of power and potential to create change, great ripples of change. And especially when you’re an executive working with 40, 50, 60 year old folks, they’re often managing large teams, and they can think about those ripples of change as well. And so when they learned those lessons can be really powerful.
28:28 Michael Waitze
So I think it’s really interesting. Did you think that those students, particularly the undergrads, leave your class? Like, is it a first year class a second year class, because I feel like if they take your class when they’re a freshman, or maybe a second semester for you guys in the fall, so it’s got to be in the first semester? Yeah. That it can change the way they look at the way they approach their other classes, and maybe even the rest of their education, if that makes sense. Because they’re like, wait a second, if one of the things that I get out of this course is that I can do anything, I can make micro changes, then I can make micro changes in me as well. Right. And if there’s a mindset change that’s taking place, it can actually be personally pretty powerful to go through this course. And understand, instead of only using these things that I’m learning in this class about other things that I want to change, if I can change myself as well, and experiment and iterate and use the scientific method to make myself better, this can be really powerful stuff. Yeah.
29:26 Alex Budak
Yeah, that’s right. It’s a powerful catalyst for personal professional growth. And I think it works for any age, but I do love getting to students. on the earlier side, because it gets really powerful. The earlier that you learn it, the more time you have for the lessons to compound.
29:40 Michael Waitze
I could not agree with you more. Talk to me a little bit about the book, writing a book is like, it’s such a hard thing to do. You mean like the output looks pretty easy. I got 700 or whatever it is number of pages, right? It’s got a cool cover on it. I probably have a publisher and an editor and I’m just like writing stuff every now and then. But the commitment is really hard. It’s long. on, like, what? What was the impetus for writing the book? And how long did it take you? And how hard was that for you as well?
30:05 Alex Budak
Thanks for recognising that, I don’t think enough people recognise just how hard writing a book is. I have so much respect for any author now, now whenever I read a book even if it’s a terrible book, I will still be so impressed with you because I know how much work it takes to write a book.
30:17 Michael Waitze
You did it! Sorry go ahead.
30:19 Alex Budak
So it’s at a 2 and a half year process, from the time of coming up and starting the writing to actually the book being published. So I started in kind of early spring of 2020 and it’s a whole series of processes, from finding the finding the agent to finding the publisher and then many many round of edits and feedback and it’s one of those things I found that consistency really matters that whereas I may have had the flashes of brilliance in the classroom teaching but with writing, I had to find my routine. That being a scientist, I tried, well do I do good writing at night? I’m kind of a night owl, nope, do I do good writing in the middle of the day? Nope, I found what worked for me best was to do first thing in the morning when my mind was fresh and I would test and say, am I good for writing for 4 hours, nope can’t do that, 1 hour? Yeah I can keep going, so like 2 hours in the morning was just about right. So, once I found that routine, then it was about not how many pages did I write but can I consistently write for 2 hours and just get that progress.
31:18 Michael Budak
And do you outline first? I’m asking because I’ll tell you why, I’m thinking of writing a book and I think everybody does but it’s this daunting task. Do you outline first, do you just start writing down thoughts, so is it this faulknerian stream of consciousness at first then you organise it or do you organise it first then try to write into it, how does it work for you?
31:35 Alex Budak
From having talked with other author friends, I think there’s no right way to do it, everyone has their own approach. For me, hyper outline, I found the idea of sitting down and the book being 304 pages, the idea of page 1 of 304 pages, I would never get started. So instead, I did a long outline and then I really chunked it down and said okay today, I’m going to write this subsection which is 3 paragraphs. Boom, then I know exactly, it took a lot of work upfront to get the framework just right and of course the framework changes as I got introduced to my editor who is terrific and gave great feedback but I had that structure and I sort of knew, okay, this is how it all fits together and this is the part I’m going to work on today.
32:13 Michael Waitze
How important do you think it is to write…let me rephrase this, How important is it to be, for your students as well to be able to write down the thoughts they are having in any kind of format and any kind of style, to be able to consolidate the things that they are really thinking. You know what I mean? It’s one thing to say things and to do this kind of string of consciousness but I always feel like if I can’t write it down and explain it to someone else then maybe I don’t know it was well as I think I do, if that makes sense.
32:39 Alex Budak
Yeah, and love means getting students to get really clear on their ideas but to do it in a fun way. So for instance, one of the assignments they give students is they have to write a children’s fairy tale about a changemaker and it’s fun, because of course, you get to engage your curiosity, your creativity. But honestly, as a faculty member, it’s actually harder, it’s harder to do that than it is to write a five page paper. It’s five page paper, you’ve kind of got the format and the structure, and you can just blab on about some theory. But in the case of a children’s fairy tale, you have to know it inside and out. If you’re gonna explain empathy, you can’t go into like the theoretical framework of empathy and do a Wikipedia search, right? You have to know what empathy is, and be able to apply it and show like this character showed empathy here. And so distilling concepts down into its essence, I think, is a really powerful trait for communicating and for leading change. And I try to encourage that among my students.
33.30 Michael Waitze
But don’t you think this is key as well? And again, I don’t know if this is one of the core concepts that you teach. But like simplicity is almost more difficult to create than complexity, right? It’s a very complex process. Because if you can’t simplify something down into its core components, and a fairy tale, is that right? You don’t get 400 pages to be able to do incredible character development, you kind of have to make people understand what that character is like, in three lines or four lines. And again, I’m simplifying to make a point, do you get? And this is a hard thing for a teacher, right? Did you get sometimes when you give this assignment? I mean, I guess your class is kind of famous enough now that people know that they’re going to have to do this. But do you get kind of like a groan like, Oh, why do I have to do this? And then again, the change in mindset, when they’re done thinking, wow it was way harder than I thought, and I had to think a lot more than I had expected. But what the output was pretty amazing to me as well. You know what I mean?
34:23 Alex Budak
Yeah, no, I certainly hope so. You know, one of the things when I’m teaching is I try to think about like, what do I wish more teachers and professors had done for me when I was learning in the classroom and one of the things I wish they would have done is explained to their why. So like, why are you assigning this thing to me? Like I get it, I get after an eight page paper on this, but, but why? That’s always trying to lead with that. Why? So I tried to preempt any of the grounds, you know, maybe in their head, they’re groaning about it. But I sort of explain like, this is why, explaining many of the things you said about, you know, the power of simplicity, that’s actually harder. What I’m asking you to do here, but I try to be really upfront with that. So there’s no, no guessing they know why they’re doing this and what the what the strategy is.
35:00 Michael Waitze
Do you think that the other faculty members that teach the same students that you do can see the change in those students in their classrooms as a result of what’s happening in your class? Because your class must be different? Sorry, go ahead.
35:14 Alex Budak
No, thank you. That’s a great question. Honestly, I don’t know I should follow up with some of my friends who teach there and see if we can get do any kind of study. Of course, Berkeley is grounded in empirical research. So they have to do a proper controlled trial so that we can, can really figure that out. But anecdotally, I would love to hear what they say.
35:29 Michael Waitze
But it must be the case, right? Because particularly if you’re taking undergrads, right, they’re still kind of malleable. And if it’s a fall class, again, they have a lot of their student career ahead of them. I can’t imagine a student going through this class that’s thoughtful and open minded and not thinking, how can I apply what I’m learning here to the rest of the things that I’m learning and frankly, to the rest of their lives, if that makes sense? Yeah.
35:51 Alex Budak
Yeah, I certainly hope so. And that’s actually something that I want to study. So at my core, I’m not a researcher, but I do think research is important. So I set out to do a longitudinal study of changemaker development and so I’ve created something called a changemaker index, which are some of the key changemaker traits across different dimensions and then students take this survey before they take the class, after they take the class, and then every year subsequently and so we can see both that change measure the Delta before and after the class, but also how they continue to develop in the years to come as well.
36:20 Michael Waitze
So what have you learned? That’s really interesting, actually, do you tell them what you’re doing with this? Or do you just give out the survey at the beginning? Give it out at the end? Because it’s the year after two years after three years after? That’s super interesting, right? To see if that change not only happened, but how much it’s been maintained?
36:37 Alex Waitze
Yeah, that’s right. And so for, for the first time ever, I’ve been sitting on the data, but for the first time I’ve written the book actually share some of the findings of it.
36:43 Michael Waitze
Tell me one at least, come on.
36:44 Alex Budak
Sure. So I mean, it’s it’s fascinating see that, first of all, I go into this as a scientist, right? So just with curiosity, and say, you know, can people become changemakers? And it shows a few weeks? And the answer is conclusively Yes, the data is super clear on that. But there’s certainly significant changes across all dimensions, controlling for race and gender and age and everything. But then beyond that, I also really like studying different groups to studying for instance, what’s it like for MBAs, MBA students versus undergrads? And so we see, for instance, is that MBAs tend to come in with a lot more confidence, they’re much more confident themselves to be able to change. But both undergrads and MBA students struggle the same amount with one of the key changemaker traits, actually one of the top ones I found that predicts overall changemaker success, and that’s being able to influence without authority. So that means that perhaps MBA students in the traditional business world are kind of used to climbing that ladder using their authority. But then I challenged him to try to use influence more than authority. And so even if you’re a 27 year old that has a few years of work experience, you tend to be about as good at influence as a 19 year, 20 year old and then they tend to develop about the same rate before and after the class.
37:56 Michael Waitze
So this was a real big problem for me at work, this idea of having influence without having authority. I’m just trying to get my head around this a little bit. Can you just give a little bit more insight into this, if you don’t mind? Because I used to say to my boss, like, well, if I get promoted, then I people will listen to me if you if I tell them to do this thing, and what you’re suggesting is that that’s not really necessary. In any in any part of your life. Right?
38:17 Alex Budak
No, that’s right. I mean, Ronald Heifetz at Harvard is kind of the expert on this and he talks about the power of authority and that there are times you want an authoritative leader. So or is it an emergency turnaround, because you need that, but in most cases, especially if you think about the state of the world, and working world today, from flatter hierarchies, distributed teams, working remotely, working hybrid, influence matters much more than authority. And so the old model, if you went to business schools 20, 30 years ago, would be Hey, you know, get that title, get that authority. And then this is how you sort of delegate and dictate. In the world today, people tend to not respond well, to that, right, we’re seeing now that there’s this trend of quiet quitting people kind of giving up on their jobs, among other things. So it’s not enough to just feel to force people to do things, you have to do influence, which is harder, it’s not as easy to just say, Hey, I’m the CEO of fire you or else, it’s harder, but it’s actually a much more sustainable approach to leading change. So how can you find ways that taps into people’s natural curiosity and willingness to be part of something? And if you use that influence, it’s a very powerful way to catalyse change through and with others?
39:22 Michael Waitze
Do you feel like you’re having more influence in places that you hadn’t expected and that this book will do that as well than when you first sat down and conceptualise this course.
39:34 Alex Budak
I certainly hope so. If nothing else, then you know, to be a teacher, you have to practice these concepts yourself. So I hope I’ve gotten better at insulted that authority simply by teaching it Yeah, that’s very much my hope is that these ideas in the book will then sort of, you know, be able to influence in books a great example, I can’t force anyone to sit down and read the book, but I can try to inspire them and try to say, hey, you know, this identity of changemakers, something you may want to become, and this book can help you get there, and then have some ideas that they can try out.
39:59 Michael Waitze
I mean, I think at some level, everybody wants to be able to make changes, right, and to influence other people to make changes. And if there’s, I don’t think there’s a one size fits all methodology for this. But I do think that what you’re suggesting is that there’s a mindset change that has to take place. And if you can understand what that mindset has to be, again, I’m simplifying that it shouldn’t be easier to then encourage people to make the changes that you want to see. Does that make sense? And am I on the right track? At least?
40:26 Alex Budak
I think you’re absolutely I think it’s a very human nature desire to say, hey, I want to be able to affect change around me. And so whether that change is small, just in your family, or in your community, of school, or on a larger scale, larger community, nationwide, the world think all of us have this desire for a sense of agency over our lives. I think being a changemaker is an amazing way to tap into that latent agency we all have.
40:51 Michael Waitze
Are you still working on Startsomegood and helping people in the social innovation and social enterprise space, raise money? Is this something that you still do?
40:59 Alex Budak
I’m still on the board of Startsomegood, but I’m no longer active day to day, the founders are doing a great job continuing to lead it. And so for me, I’m no longer active in this sort of fundraising space. But in a very fulfilling way, I get to have lots of conversations with social entrepreneurs, changemakers, and try to share some of those lessons that I learned in often, in many times the hard ways, and sort of share some of those lessons with other folks now.
41:22 Michael Waitze
Yeah I mean, it’s kind of interesting. Do you share some of your own failure stories in class as well, so that people can feel like, you know, because like you said, you are as a teacher, you are an authority figure, but nobody’s perfect, right? And we all fail at some things or don’t accomplish the things in the same way or at the same time frame that we want to you share your own personal stories too?
41:38 Alex Budak
It’s so important. Yeah, it’s one of things you can do as a leader is to model that failability, that humility. So it’s not just me saying, hey, go fail, but actually showing the ways that I failed and so I tell a lot of vulnerable stories about my own failure, from job rejections to rejections with Startsomegood, and then I think my agent told me that I’m the first author he’s ever worked with his entire career, that asked for all the failures, all the rejections that we got on our proposal, when we were shopping around to editors. He said, You know, he kind of euphemistically says, oh, Alex, we’ve got a pass today. That’s a rejection. He’d say, we got a pass and said, hey, could actually have the list of the rejections and the reasons that they gave because I want to show this to my students. I wanna be able to say, hey, yes, I got a book deal. Yes, I wrote a book. But also, there’s some people that said no along the way, and that’s okay. I found one amazing publisher. That’s all that it takes, if I’m the publisher that I want, and there are plenty people that rejected it. And I want to normalise that for students as well. If you can do anything meaningful, you’re gonna get those rejections and so if I can be the one to share, Hey, these are some of the reactions I got I think that can make it safe for them.
42:39 Michael Waitze
Yeah, I mean, in your own experience fits into the framework of the things that you’re teaching, right? It’s not like you’re doing one thing and teaching another thing you actually went through and did this got the feedback as well and presumably, made changes to your pitch or to the story that you were telling about the book that you wanted to write, and then finally found the right partner that you wanted to help publish this book. Let’s end on this, though. Is the book, has the book been released as well already?
43:02 Alex Budak
September 13, it comes out to the world.
43:04 Michael Waitze
Oh, my God, what days I can’t remember. It’s before that, but let’s just say that it’s before that. So let’s try to get this out in enough time to let people know about that. Unless there’s something we missed. Alex, I really want to thank you for doing this today and you should come back. I’m really curious about like, I love following up with people. Hopefully, this isn’t the last discussion that we have. Alex Budak, a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Becoming a Changemaker, tell people where they can find this if they want to.
43:32 Alex Budak
Anywhere you buy books, amazon.com among other places, and when you give it a read, I would love to hear what you think. How does it change you? How does it shape you and what changed you go lead as a result would love to hear from you.
43:44 Michael Waitze
Thank you. Thank you again for doing this.
43:46 Alex Budak
Thanks, Michael. Great conversation.