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The Idealist’s Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout

Out now with Parallax Press, available in ebook and paperback.


From the foreword by Hugo Slim, Head Of Policy, International Committee of the Red Cross

“You are about to read a wonderful, beautiful, healing book.
Luckily for you, the way the book is written means that you may not read it all at once but rather can read each small chapter one at a time, cherishing this book bit by bit, reading it over and over again. It may well last you a lifetime. The brief chapters, or reflections, in this book are like the famous mezze from the kitchens of the Middle East, the part of the world in which this book was born. Dipping into each new reflection, you will savor a particular, delicious piece of wisdom. At the end of it all, you will have eaten a feast that will help you, as an activist and humanitarian worker, to live your own life better and to be more useful to those around you.

Alessandra’s book is a work of contemplation. Her chapters are like the beads of a mishbaha or rosary. Holding each chapter in mind as you read it will help you to remember yourself and the things that are important in this life. In many ways, this book is one big reminder.

Alessandra speaks to us in a kind, simple voice that will be deeply refreshing to people who are living through our bureaucratized era of humanitarian action. There is no jargon in this book; its pages are full of stories, poems, and wise words. Alessandra writes as one of us and boasts no special expertise. She is truly herself and hopes that we too will become our true selves, rather than let our way of working and the damaging cultures of our organizations distort us. More than suggesting this, Alessandra actually takes us, in the gradual movement of each reflection, toward a way of being which offers us the means to stay healthy in this work or leave it well.

This book’s appearance is perfectly timed. It comes at a moment when many humanitarian workers are admitting that the sector is too often marked by a dysfunctional culture—one in which people get more burned out from the bad habits of their organizations than from the suffering they see in the wars and disasters in which they work. This has to stop. Alessandra makes clear that we need to treat ourselves humanely, just as we declare our main aim is to show humanity to others.

Alessandra’s work has always been as much about “helping the helpers” as about helping people directly hurt by armed conflict and disasters. In these pages you will find the gold from all her years of sifting patiently through people’s experience. Her message is simple: choose life, and be realistic about it. For it is only by being realistic that activists and humanitarian workers will avoid the inevitable disenchantment of idealism and find a good, healthy way to be close to the suffering of this world. And it is only by creating respectful and creative work cultures that we will avoid burnout.

At the heart of Alessandra’s message to each of us is the idea that the challenge lies within, so it is within that we must change. As she reminds us, this should not be too difficult, because burnout is not a mental health condition—it is situational and attitudinal, and usually we can change these things fairly easily.

When I set off for my first humanitarian operation on the Sudanese border with Ethiopia in 1985, I took my sister’s old Sony Walkman with me. A Walkman was considered amazing technology back then, and I chose four tapes to take along with me: Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, and, because I am rather British, Elgar too. In the evenings and on my days off, I would listen to these in my tukul, the traditional Sudanese hut, or down by the river. I also read many novels in those days and maintained a prayer life, too, because I am religious. Alongside these more contemplative efforts, I also tried to develop heartfelt relationships with people I met so as always to remain more human than humanitarian.

All of this helped to keep me from burning out and meant that I returned fairly sane and still connected with myself and with the beautiful things of life. In subsequent years, it was not always thus, and I wish now that I had been lucky enough to have Alessandra’s book beside me at those other times. But now I will—and this news should come as a great relief to my poor soul and to the people around me.

I commend this book to you most warmly. It is an honor to write its preface.”

– Dr. Hugo Slim Head of Policy The International Committee of the Red Cross

Geneva, Switzerland, May 2016

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Praise for The Idealist’s Survival Kit:

“Alessandra Pigni has pioneered the field of care in action.  The Idealist’s Survival Kit is a godsend for every activist and aid worker.”— Michael Edwards, Editor of Transformation.

“Apparently, this is a book for idealists on the brink of burnout. I don’t buy it. Rather, this book is for everyone, from high-powered businesspeople to innovators to humanitarians, who desperately need the tools to care for themselves as they seek solutions to the world’s challenges. With bracing honesty and piercing clarity, Alessandra Pigni shows us not only why, but also how, to practice self-empathy for the sake of efficacy. And the chapters are short: perfect for the frantic, fevered do-gooder. Do yourself some good and slow down just enough to savor Alessandra’s hard-won wisdom.” —Irshad Manji, founder, Moral Courage Project, The Trouble with Islam Today

“The Idealist’s Survival Kit is essential reading for anyone in or interested in the humanitarian sector. Alessandra Pigni deftly cuts through the humanitarian tradition of suffering in silence, as well as the more recent fad of spilling all onto social media. Humanitarian aid is intensely grueling work; The Idealist’s Survival Kit brings sound, well-researched advice for those to whom dealing day in and out with the dangers here, whether those be contextual, organizational, or institutional, is more than something to fill a gap year.” —J., aid worker, Letters Left Unsent

“This book is a must-read—not only for those who work for NGOs on the front-line of humanitarian catastrophes, but all those who work in the helping professions throughout the world. Radical in its conclusions, it shows again and again that, as if the trauma of such situations wasn’t bad enough, the greater problem for aid workers is burnout. It is more pernicious too, because few will admit to it or its cause—bureaucratic blockages and unloving work- ing conditions. Which humanitarian organization will admit that it is paperwork which destroys the soul and desk-fatigue rather than battle-fatigue that reduces the hardiest to complete helplessness? When you’ve volunteered to expose yourself to the worst that the world can do, how can bureaucracy reduce you to tears? This book shows how. Then, little by little, based on her own experience and that of many of her colleagues, Alessandra gives extraordinarily wise and inspiring advice for how to deal skillfully with it all.” —Mark Williams, emeritus professor of clinical psychology, University of Oxford

“Learning to take appropriate care of our own bodies, hearts and minds is essential if we’re to have resilience, resource and stamina as activists and humanitarian workers in the longer term, and to retain our capacity for the compassion that was probably a key part of what called us into such work in the first place. Experienced humanitarian, respected psychologist and mindfulness teacher Alessandra Pigni offers truly invaluable and trustworthy advice on well-tried practices and perspectives for restoring and retaining some sense of sanity, balance and open-heartedness midst the intense challenges and perennial chaos and compulsions of caring for and campaigning on behalf of others. This book offers bite-sized wisdom that can support and be of service to you in the important work you’re doing.” —Chris Cullen, University of Oxford Mindfulness Centre

“It’s hard to put ourselves first in international aid and philanthropy and other helping professions. Yet if our goal is lasting social transformation, we need organizations and movements driven by strong, imaginative, and effective individuals who can stay in this work for the long-haul. The Idealist’s Survival Kit provides the revelation that makes self-care not just a luxury, but an indispensable spiritual practice. Alessandra Pigni writes as your best friend, your therapist, and your own inner voice, offering guidance and encouragement to remember at once how small, and how powerful, we truly are.” —Jennifer Lentfer, creator of HowMatters.org



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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.