The Lonely Innovator

Pushing change is not for the faint of heart or head. Loneliness is one of side effects that innovators must consider.

A wise man once told me:

No one welcomes change except wet babies

Whether it’s through some form of behavioural intervention, using evaluation data to point out strengths and weaknesses in a program, or changing up a policy or program — change-making takes an under-appreciated toll on those making the change happen.

There’s remarkably little research on loneliness and innovation work, but plenty of anecdotal conversation. The closest correlate is that of entrepreneurship where there’s been much discussion about loneliness and research looking at the psychological cost of owning and operating a small or medium-sized business. That cost is high.

Whether we are entrepreneurs, intra-preneurs, or advocates, being the change-maker is hard work and loneliness often comes with it.

Loneliness and Social Innovation

The Nesta Future Curious podcast (on social innovation) recently had an episode devoted to loneliness. How is it that in a world filled tools and spaces to connect are we feeling so disconnected? The podcast provides answers and some questions to get us thinking about the role of community, our modern conceptions of what ‘connection’ means, and whether we need to re-think it all. 

Why listen? Loneliness is harmful to our social, emotional, and physical well-being. It’s important to know that while we often think and feel we are alone, we are not as far away from others as we realize. What we might lack is the right opportunities to connect meaningfully. This pod can help us evaluate the quality of our connections and recognize that other change-makers might be as lonely as we are — and we can change that.

Loneliness: Types and Situations

So what does it mean to be lonely? In a piece in the RSA Journal, Health Psychology Lecturer Kimberley Smith outlines the way in which loneliness gets into our bones and affects our lives. Drawing on work from others, Smith introduces us to a fourfold typology of loneliness and social isolation: neither lonely nor isolated; lonely but not isolated; isolated but not lonely; and both lonely and socially isolated. Her research using this typology found that loneliness and social isolation is what most contributes to poor health and well-being.

How do I use this? There can be a fine line between being lonely in a situation, solitude (which can be healthy), and a chronic issue. Innovation work and change-making moves quickly so it’s possible that the feelings of loneliness might be episodic. However, the need to connect — create a support group, find your ‘tribe‘ of like-minded people, reach out to colleagues, engage with our friends and loved ones (and not keep your feelings and thoughts about work bottled up) is critical. Isolation is what moves feelings of loneliness into something more harmful.

This might mean joining a local meet-up, attending a conference with intent to connect, join a LinkedIn group online, or join in ‘mini-movements’ like the kind that Seth Godin has created for change-makers through his ForwardLink platform.


If you’re looking to connect to changemakers, Seth Godin’s burgeoning network cited above is worth joining. He’s trying to create a support network of like-minded people seeking to make change happen. His daily blog and weekly podcast are a source of inspiration for people who do the work to make a ruckus in this world.

Movements can be inspiring. Organizations like the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement work to connect and support change-makers in Canada and have an enormous bank of human and knowledge resources to help people engage, stay engaged, and see the value in their work on social change. Think of it as the support network for social entrepreneurs.

There are others like this in countries around the world and, if there isn’t one in your neighbourhood, try to join one outside of it.

Unconventional meet-up groups like the Stories and Drinks initiative or The Moth can be ways to allow you to get out and engage without having to put too much pressure on your social self (for those of you who are introverts). These are storytelling events where you can listen, tell stories, meet people, or all three.

If you’re a reader, a great book for change-making worth your time is Perseverance from Margaret Wheatley. This book is a raw, honest look at the challenges of change-making over the long-term and what it means to keep at it in spite of the challenges.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

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