How can we and our clients do more good in the world and better navigate uncertainty? By thinking like a changemaker, says Kara Exner


A few weeks ago, my husband and I were enjoying a distanced backyard visit with another couple. We were talking about the changes we’ve experienced during the pandemic. Evolutions, external and internal. At one point our dear friend declared, “And we are heading into another period of uncertainty this fall.”

She’s right, of course, but her statement took me aback. At the beginning of 2021 I was so hopeful about this fall: thinking my sons would return to a near-normal school year, and picturing my own return to in-person work. I was naïve, I suppose, but the craving to live life without as much fear and with more certainty and security is real. As my wise friend, Melissa Casey says, we had no more certainty or control over the future in January 2020 than we do now; it just felt like we did.


My research

Ten years ago, I embarked on an informal research project. I was curious to find out what – if anything – changemakers have in common.

My definition of a changemaker is someone who chooses to make a positive difference in their piece of the world. My project wasn’t for any degree or academic programme; it was driven by my curiosity. And my curiosity about these types of people is powered by my values, including my belief that we each have a responsibility to leave our place better than we found it.

I interviewed nearly 50 everyday changemakers and I learned that they have mindsets in common for how they perceive themselves, relate to others and how they are oriented to action.

My research results are not rocket science, and coaches especially won’t be surprised by these categories of mindsets – this is, after all, what we help our clients to better see: themselves, their impact with others, and how to take action to bridge gaps.

Becoming an author wasn’t part of my plan. I don’t mind writing, but it’s not a task that infuses me with energy. I’d much rather be coaching new leaders or facilitating workshops. I’m an extrovert. However, I felt a responsibility to share what I learned, and writing a book seemed like a good way to honour their wisdom. My aim is to help aspiring changemakers overcome barriers they might have on their path to making a positive difference.

I published my book in fall 2020, during our pandemic. While my intention is to help more people do more good in the world, readers have told me that there’s some overlap for how we can navigate in these uncertain times. Here are four such themes that can help us to navigate uncertainty:

  • Locate where you are
  • Find the others
  • Go as far as you can see
  • Remember your Bigger Why


Locate where you are

“By labelling an emotion, we can create distance between ourselves and our experience that allows us to choose how to respond to challenges.”

Dr Mitch Abblett (2019)

It’s rarely easy to tell the truth about ourselves: our real emotions, our true goals, when we’re not fulfilling our potential, and when and where we get in our own way. Changemakers, though, tell the truth anyway, confidently and without apology. They’ve learned the benefits of being honest about who they are. None of those I interviewed claimed to have it all figured out, but their heightened sense of self-awareness, and their ability to discuss it, was refreshing and sophisticated.

Throughout the past 18 months there have been guides who’ve helped us articulate the truth about how we’re feeling. Early in the pandemic,
Scott Berinato published, ‘That discomfort you’re feeling is grief’ in Harvard Business Review. Earlier this year, Adam Grant published, ‘There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: It’s called languishing’ in The New York Times. Not long after, Austin Kleon published on his blog, ‘I’m not languishing, I’m dormant.’

While the articles weren’t wholly accurate for describing my experience, they were close enough that I – like many others – felt immense relief, both for having a name for my discomfort and for knowing I wasn’t alone.

Locating ourselves, not on a continuum of good or bad, but within a more nuanced constellation of the layers and dimensions of our lives, can help us better understand why we’re not feeling our best. As Dr Dan Siegel (2014) says, “Name it to tame it.”


Find the others

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.”

Dr Robert Waldinger, the current director of a Harvard longitudinal study that began tracking the health of sophomores in 1938 (2015)

One of the most powerful themes from my research is that people do not do this work – becoming changemakers or building changemakers – successfully on their own. The changemakers had several examples about what they’ve got help with, who they go to for help, and the approaches for collaboration they think work best. The bottom line is that they advise not to go it alone.

While life in the pandemic may not have us seeking potential collaborators for our work, the importance of connecting with others is clear.

Our task is not just to schedule more Zoom calls, but to be conscious and intentional about who we’re engaging with and the quality of those engagements. Are we setting aside judging and fixing in favour of curiosity and connection? Are we providing time and space for an exploration of fears and hopes? Are we truly listening to each other – finding common ground?


Go as far as you can see

“Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see further.”

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

The above is one of my all-time favourite quotes. Looking back on the years it took me to write and publish my book, I realise this is exactly how I did it. Early on, I could only see as far as simply setting a word count goal for each day and just sitting still and typing. After the first draft was finished, “as far as I could see” was speaking with local authors to find out how they turned their Word document into a book they could hold in their hands. And on it went.

The pattern repeated: I didn’t know how to do it, I learned, and took a small step towards it. That’s it. Changemakers know this. One of the most reassuring themes from the research is that successful changemakers don’t have the whole thing figured out before they start. They take a small step, make adjustments, step again. They are committed to their cause (or programme, project or initiative) and keep taking small actions. Coaches know this, too. Small steps in the right direction often encourage our clients.

With “Go as far as you can see”, there is reassurance that more of the path will be illuminated as we go, even now in our uncertain world.


Remember your bigger why

“The antidote to doubt is not courage or confidence. The antidote to doubt is commitment.”

One of my favourite teachers, Rick Tamlyn (2021)

One of the questions I asked the changemakers was, “What motivates you to keep doing the work day after day, even when it gets crappy and hard?” The predominant answer was that changemakers remind themselves of the reasons they’re doing this work. Whether they referred to it as their passion that keeps them going, or that they’re doing it for the ‘right reasons’, or have a higher purpose, changemakers believe in the power of remembering why this work is important. They report that staying connected to the broader purpose sustains them in difficult times.

How many of us, when faced with uncertainty, unknowns, doubts and fears, look to some sort of reassurance? If I take one more course, read one more book, talk to one more person, get better at this skill, I’ll feel more confident and can act. Shifting focus from doubt (internal) to commitment (external) helps us move forward.

Confidence and courage can be elusive, but our commitment, our purpose, our Bigger Why, can be grounding – for making decisions, taking action, and even doing the smallest everyday tasks.


About the author

Kara Exner is in the business of helping more people do more good in the world. She’s been a professional leadership coach since 2005, a volunteer leader with the International Coaching Federation (ICF) since 2008, and a mother of teenagers since 2017. She’s a graduate of the Coaches Training Institute, has earned the credential of ICF Professional Certified Coach, and has a Master’s degree in Adult & Continuing Education and a BA in Psychology.

Kara’s curiosity led to a qualitative research project learning about changemakers, and in 2020 she published a book on her findings, Be the Change(maker): Lessons from Those Who Are & A Catalyst for Those Who Will (FriesenPress, 2020)


Informal research methodology

My definition of a changemaker is anyone who steps up – through paid and/or volunteer work, financial philanthropy, official mentorship, or unofficial encouragement – to make a positive change in the world. This includes their own piece of the world, be it workplace, local neighbourhood, or wider community.

I started my project by emailing everyone I knew to tell them about my plans for the research interviews and ask for referrals. My Inbox was soon flooded and I started setting up interviews.

My methodology was simple – I asked each person the same questions, including:

  • How they went from having a good idea to taking action on it
  • What helps them keep working day after day, even when it gets hard
  • What obstacles get in their way (and how they overcome them)
  • What they’d do differently
  • What advice they have for aspiring changemakers


Every interview with a changemaker felt like a master class in how to be a better human.

To date I’ve interviewed 48 people. My original plan was to interview 100 people, but one of the interviewees, Dr Riane Eisler, author, historian, scientist, and speaker, asked me to explain my project. After I did, she asked, “Do you really need 100?” I thought, wow, if Riane Eisler questions the necessity of 100, I’d better pay attention. She was right: after about 12 interviews the themes were already clear.

With the help of two research assistants, I analysed every sentence from every interview to see what themes emerged. What started as five flip chart pages on my living room floor became a lengthy word document with about 20 themes. Thanks to some specific advice from a trusted mentor (“You have too many themes of too many different types; I think they can be sorted into these three categories”), I grouped the themes thus:

  • How changemakers perceive themselves
  • How changemakers relate to others
  • How changemakers orient themselves to action