Reflection 6: How the Good Guys Miss Each Other

Radical Decency grew out of my journey with the Eccoes Foundation, an organization my wife and I started in 2000. With our long involvement with personal growth and social justice causes, we were puzzled about how little overlap there was between the two. To unravel that mystery, we decided to start a public foundation that offered grants to organizations operating at the intersection of these worlds.

In our 3 years as operators of a grant-making organization, we found any number of inspiring groups that acknowledged the connection between social justice and personal growth. But true programmatic integration was hard to find. Instead there were social justice groups that, recognizing that personal healing enhanced their effectiveness, would sponsor staff retreats. On the flip side, we found personal growth groups that had social justice committees or sponsored occasional community-oriented events. But in every instance, the organizations we funded clearly existed in one world or the other.

This experience led me to a lot of head scratching, writing and, ultimately, Radical Decency. It is offered as an approach to living that, fully thought through, has the potential to integrate people and organizations with a passion for social justice and personal growth into a more unified and effective force for change. 


What can explain this separation between the worlds of social justice and personal growth? As I see it, it is a series of culturally promoted messages, relentlessly reinforced, that push us to “do our own thing,” to focus on “our” career, to be a “success.” And what is success?  The accumulation of more and more personal power, recognition, and wealth.

These attitudes, in turn, foster a pervasive sense of “personal ownership,” not just of things but also of ideas, programs and philosophies. Indeed, how many of us are immune to a sense of diminishment when our good idea is adopted – but we receive no credit?

The net effect? The many people who share a passion for creating a better life and meaningfully contributing to a better world are separated from one another; fragmenting their energy; reducing their effectiveness. 


What is less obvious is the extent to which these values are embedded: (1) in the very structure of the organizations these “good guys” join and create to promote their goals; and (2) in the ways in which they think about their lives and careers. To illustrate the point, consider the very different opportunities and rewards available to me as a commercial bankruptcy attorney, on the one hand, and as a public interest lawyer and, then, a psychotherapist on the other.

As a mainstream attorney, tending to “my career,” I developed a name for myself in a narrowly defined and financially rewarding area of the law; cultivated a stable of good paying clients who were loyal – to me; and measured my success in terms of the money I made. Playing by the predominant culture’s rules of personal aggrandizement, I was offered an easily identifiable career path and way of living, and was rewarded for that choice with the mainstream culture’s indicia of success – money and respect.

By contrast, the career paths available to me as a public interest lawyer looked very different. I could specialize in housing law – or civil rights – or environmental law.  But there was no readily available career path that allowed me to work, more generally, on the deeply flawed ways in which we live. 

Similarly, while social work school trumpeted an approach to healing that considered both the personal and political, incoming students were required to choose either a clinical or policy track. In other words, it could train you for a career that focused on social justice, or personal healing and growth – but not on both. Once again, there was no career path for someone who was interested in an integrated “big picture” approach to change.

So right from the start – in both of these reform-minded professions – the structural realities of the culture pushed me to shrink my focus; to work on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself. Why? In retrospect, the answer seems self-evident.  The predominant culture, with its genius for self-perpetuation, tolerates small incremental improvements, but has no tolerance for – and hence offers no structures to support the work of – people who seek more fundamental change. 


This narrowing process is also deeply interwoven in the organizations the good guys create to implement their visions. As a society, we have created vast markets to finance risky new ventures and to reward organizers and early investors when they are successful. These structures are, however, only available when the prime virtue of the product is its ability to make a lot of money. In other words, access to these empowering financial structures is limited to people who embrace the predominant culture’s vision of success. 

For people seeking to create a better world, the realities are very different. Social change oriented nonprofits have no meaningful access to capital markets, their organizers and investors (donors) can never cash out, and there are legal limits on the salaries they can pay. And, in an analogous way, change agents who work in the healing professions – psychotherapy, acupuncture, yoga, etc. – are limited by modest fees and the sale of services and products that are of little or no interest to capital markets.

But financial marginalization is only a part of the story. Since they are offered enough money to survive and are able to focus on their passion for change, many of the world’s good guys are drawn to the nonprofit or healing careers. But in accepting this invitation, they are forced – in fundamental, mission compromising ways – to play by ground rules that have been crafted by the predominant culture. 

Thus, to retain the goodwill of mainstream funders – foundations, individual donors, government agencies – they focus on limited and defined substantive areas and, more often than not, on service oriented services and products. Doing so, their more radical instincts are marginalized. While they can work to make aspects of the existing system less mean spirited, even the limited support they receive from mainstream funding sources will evaporate if they focus on more fundamental change.

Moreover, the great majority of these good people are not immune to the pull of the predominant culture’s values. They worry about cost of sending their kids to college and how to support themselves when they are old. And, surrounded by the mainstream culture’s cues, sanctions, and incentives, they are susceptible to all the material things the culture so relentlessly promotes – a comfortable home in the suburbs, fancy gadgets, nice vacations, etc., etc.

So while they choose their careers for noble reasons, the tendency to protect the financial viability of the entity they depend upon for their livelihood – by adopting mainstream business outlooks and practices – is almost impossible to resist. Pushed in that direction by their lawyers, accountants, and PR advisers, they increasingly treat other good guy organizations as competitors; view their services as a proprietary brand to be preserved and protected; and see their clients and funding sources as closely held corporate assets.  Here, once again, powerful cultural forces discourage collaboration, mutual support, and a more radical agenda.

Thus, embarking on a mission of change, the typical good guy winds up in the vise of a system that offers work on important and inspiring but, in the end, narrowly focused programs; that discourages active cooperation with other change agents; and will, if fundamental change is sought, financially quash the organizations they rely upon to support themselves and their families. 

Small wonder, then, that organizations working at the intersection of social justice and personal growth are hard to find. Our world is specifically structured to prevent good guy energy from cohering into a unified and, therefore, more effective force for change.


Overcoming these cultural forces is a daunting task. And, tackling them is one of Radical Decency’s central missions.

Radical Decency’s approach to living seeks to systematically replace the cultural norms that produce these results with attitudes and behaviors based on respect, understanding, empathy, appreciation, acceptance, fairness and justice. The hope is that, building out from this values-based perspective, new outlooks and structures will emerge that will allow the energy of reform minded people – the good guys – to cohere into a more collaborative and effective movement for change. For a fuller discussion of how this might occur, see Reflection 6, Gathering in the Good Guys; Reflection 45, Re-visioning Social Change Work; Reflection 89, A Call to Action, Part 1 – Community; Reflection 90, A Call to Action, Part 2 – An Expanded Collaborative Vision; and Reflection 91, A Call to Action, Part 3 – Expanded Collaboration in Action.