Berkeley's Alex Budak Teaches Us How to Become Changemakers
The Repeatable Process Is One We Can All Learn
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Devin: What is your superpower?
Alex: I think a superpower is that I’m comfortable with not being good at a lot of stuff.
Alex Budak, a faculty member at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, is a reluctant author. He loves teaching but didn’t feel intrinsically drawn to writing.
“I teach this class at UC Berkeley called Becoming a Changemaker,” he says. “I have students that came up to me after the class and would say, you know, the class is life-changing for them and transform them, and it should be a book. I brushed off the first few of them, but after a couple of dozen, I said, ‘Okay, maybe there’s something there.’”
The book, Becoming a Changemaker, which I’ve now read and recommend without hesitation, has been well received.
The book follows the outline of his course with three primary sections:
The changemaker mindset
Alex shared a story from the book to demonstrate that anyone can become a changemaker:
When Hannah was sitting there, arms crossed, a dour look on her face—I could tell something was wrong. I reached out to her because I know students are always facing battles I may not be privy to. But she opened up to me in office hours and said, “Look, I have given up hope on being a changemaker.”
She had told me she was doing an internship this past summer where she was trying to drive forward a new diversity equity inclusion effort in the office. While her direct manager was supportive, she kept running into roadblock after roadblock, both sort of personal as well as systemic.
Ultimately her DEI efforts just fell flat. Because of that, she started telling herself a number of stories, one of which is that change is never possible and that she couldn’t be that agent of change.
Now, I think there is still some little spark because the next semester, she did still sign up for a class called Becoming a Changemaker. So, I think she had that in her. We started working through some of those beliefs and how we might begin challenging them.
We brought in some ideas from positive applied psychology. That’s Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. He talks about setbacks. When a setback happens, ask ourselves: Is it personal? Is it permanent? Is it pervasive?
Look at the case of Hannah. She was trying to lead change as a very low-level status intern, a temporary intern at that. So, it’s probably not personal. It’s not about her pervasiveness. Is this one failure emblematic of failures throughout your life? No, she’s doing great in school. She’s doing all kinds of other things.
Then permanence. That’s what she was struggling with because she said, “Look, I tried once; it didn’t work. It’s not possible.”
So we worked through his three-piece model to help get a new perspective on things. Where things totally changed for her is when she started realizing that she actually was a changemaker.
One of my favorite assignments in the whole class is something called the changemaker of the week. So, I ask each student throughout the semester to choose one person, alive or dead, famous or not, and they have to make the case to the class using persuasive arguments, critical thinking, why this person is a changemaker, how they embody some of the traits that we learn in the class.
So she does this assignment, and she chooses someone who personally inspired her, a woman that had overcome a lot of adversity to still lead change. She does a presentation. She did a great job. She sent me an email, still perhaps a bit of imposter syndrome, saying, “Sorry, I did my best, but it wasn’t that good.”
I responded by saying, “Are you crazy? That was a wonderful presentation. It was moving.” In fact, the next day, another student emailed me and said that because of Hannah’s presentation, she now had a new spark of changemaking in her. I shared that note with Hannah, and she was speechless.
In that moment, she realized that not only had she become a changemaker, she had helped someone else become a changemaker, which is one of the most powerful things you can do. I’ve got her past all those setbacks, and she realized, “Yeah, I’m a changemaker.”
The book is not only connecting with individuals but with other institutions. Universities around the world in seven different countries have adopted the book as a textbook for their classes on changemaking.
“I hope you find it really simple, really clear,” Alex says of the book. “Not that the ideas aren’t complex, they are, but that the reading is simple and accessible. I want someone who’s a 14-year-old to be able to take advantage of the readings just as much as a 40-year-old or an 80-year-old, that it reaches people where they are.”
Throughout his career, Alex has leveraged his superpower, being comfortable with not being good at many things.
How to Develop Comfort With Not Being Good at Things As a Superpower
“A lot of people feel like we have to be good at everything,” Alex says. “I’ve sort of learned in my life that there are some things that I’m good at, and there are a lot of things that I’m really bad at.”
That is powerful. “I’m comfortable that there are a couple of things that I really, really love,” he says. “When I find both that passion, that sense of purpose and things that give me energy, I can go big on that. I found that teaching is just my calling.”
“I’m willing to say there are hundreds of other things that maybe, with a ton of hard work, a ton of energy, I could get decent at,” Alex says. “But I’m kind of okay with not being great at it in service of really playing to my strengths and playing to my passions.”
Alex sees his book launch as an example of how he used this superpower. He notes that developing a strategy to market a book is as tricky as writing one. Rather than tackle it himself, he organized a team of 24 students to help him.
They helped him create a TikTok channel where his role was to come up with ideas and talk on camera; the students handled everything else.
“It became this beautiful, kind of a cross-generational collaboration,” Alex says. “Gen Z and me, a millennial, put together some cool videos that would not have been possible and certainly would not have reached those levels if I said, “No, I’m going to do this all myself.”
Alex offers advice for leaning into this superpower, getting comfortable with not being good at everything. Fundamental, he says, is recognizing that “changemaking is a team sport.”
He shares two changemaker insights to build on this foundation.
One changemaker, Sid Espinosa, the first Latino mayor of Palo Alto, told Alex’s students to see themselves as runners in a relay rather than solo sprinters:
You've got to stop thinking about change as an individual sprint and start thinking of it as a relay race. Especially when we think about change, like big systemic changes like climate that probably won't be solved in our lifetime. We've got to stop thinking of it as an individual race and instead a relay where our job is to pick up the baton from those who came before us. Advance the baton as much as possible in the ten, 20, 30, 40, 50 years we're working on it. Then when the time comes to pass off the baton to not just hand it off, but make sure that those that come after us are set up for success by mentoring them, by guiding them, by supporting them.
The second is Joel Gascoigne, the CEO of Buffer, who says the job of the CEO is to fire yourself.
Maybe you start off as a social entrepreneur and you have five jobs. You're the CMO, you're the CFO, you're the CEO, etc. Then as soon as you get a little bit of budget or you convince someone to join you who's better than you at marketing, you fire yourself for marketing and let them take it. Then as soon as you can hire a CFO, you fire yourself in finance and you keep going, keep going and keep going until you find that thing that you're uniquely good at. So even if you don't know exactly what it is yet, think about how can you fire yourself as you go along
By following Alex’s example and advice to leverage the power of teamwork, you can develop the superpower of being comfortable with not being great at everything so that you can do more good in the world.