The Lifelong Activist: Changing the World Without Losing Your Way

Hillary Rettig
Lantern Books (2006)

Reviewed by Ian Smith



As an activist, being effective is more important than merely being busy. A hectic schedule does not automatically translate into social change and doing more is not the same as achieving more.

Hillary Rettig’s The Lifelong Activist: Changing the World Without Losing Your Way starts from the uncontroversial but often underappreciated premise that all aspects of a person’s life will effect his or her ability to effectively engage in activism.

This means that skills such as time management, money management, and the ability to overcome procrastination while not glamorous remain important for activists because a deficiency in any one of these skills can easily derail a project or put an important goal out of reach. Anything with the potential to disrupt one’s life has the potential to disrupt or even terminate one’s activism. Seeking the most stable life possible should be an important goal for activists.

Rettig suggests that activists often resist becoming proficient in certain skills that could prove helpful such as marketing and personal finance because these tend to be associated with corporate culture and greed; values that are antithetical to a progressive worldview. But she effectively explains why such skills are necessary for progressives as well as how they can be used in ways that are not manipulative.

In addition to the above skills, Rettig wisely emphasizes the importance of actively maintaining one’s physical and mental health and cultivating mutually supportive relationships with others. The tendency to neglect these aspects of one’s life for the sake of one’s activism is generally counterproductive. Dysfunctional relationships and poor health tend to sap one’s energy and motivation. Under such conditions, burnout is a more likely outcome than social change. These are not shocking suggestions but they are lessons that activists often need to be reminded of. As the title of her book indicates, Rettig wants people to be able to engage in effective activism over the course of an lifetime and not merely for a brief unsustainable phase of their life.

Rettig asks a lot of her readers who wish to become more productive activists by cultivating or improving these skills and her book also provides a lot in terms of structure and assistance for those who are genuinely motivated. Rettig provides a series of exercises to help readers engage in honest self-reflection, to assess their own values, and to then to insure that decisions regarding how to allocate time, resources, and energy are consciously made to reflect those values. Too often such decisions are not consciously made but rather are left to chance and can subvert one’s ambitions.

Even a quick reading reading of Rettig’s book is likely to benefit most activists but to reap the full benefit from it requires a time investment. “Investment” is precisely the word for time spent with The Lifelong Activist because it is almost certain to yield dividends to a patient committed reader.

The Lifelong Activist would likely be an asset to anyone seeking a way to be more productive in their activism and more satisfied with their life.