Book review: The Idealist´s Survival Kit

Book review: The Idealist´s Survival Kit

Although I have seen Alessandra Pigni´s work over the last few years, it has been in the past year that she has really caught my attention. Her strong opinions and straight talk on the realities of aid work are like fresh air. So when I found out that she had a book coming out, I knew I would want to read it.

The Idealist´s Survival Kit: 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout is some 250 pages long, made up of 75 short chapters. As Hugo Slim alludes to in the forward, it is a collection of 75 short essays on the topic of burnout. Throughout the book, Pigni charts the path of burnout – how it happens, the feelings of anger and injustice after, and then, crucially, how to move past it. The book is full of quotes, references to research and stories from aid workers and humanitarians.

Asking aid workers to practice self-care so they can suvive in tough or toxic work environments implies that beyond paying for a bit of training and counseling, organizations have no other role to play in contributing to the well-being of their staff (and hence the world). (p56)

As usual, Pigni doesn´t pull any punches. She is unwavering in her addressing of the issues that we often don´t speak about in the sector. In my experience in the sector, so many people are burnt out or in the process of burning out and yet somehow unwilling to do much about it (often until it is too late). What´s special about this book is that it makes many of the covert aspects of working in aid overt. While she is clear about what we as individuals can do to prevent and recover from burnout, she is particularly damning of organisations and their lack of forethought and care into how their culture, policies and processes will affect staff.

While the cause we purport to advance may be noble, we need an environment that does not crush our soul while maintaining to ¨empower¨ those in need or improve society. (p57)

As a psychologist, Pigni knows what she is talking about when it comes to things of the mind. She carefully blends in talk of self-care, mindfulness and reflection, along with activism, action and the reality on the ground. The book shares many stories from interviews and other conversations from Pigni´s life. The interviews are impressive, as they report aid workers´ stories as we would almost never hear them in public – vulnerable, and in many ways, scathing of work to do good. The book is full of clear research references which not only back up Pigni´s work, but also provides further reading for those who want to delve deeper into burnout. One of my favourite parts of the book are the reading suggestions made at the end of every chapter.

Being a humanitarian worker or activist in the twenty-first century is twice as difficult: not only do we have to work ourselves to exhaustion as if we were in investment banking, but we also need to prove that we have values and ideals and are committed to transforming the world. (p225)

This book is an essential for those who work with people at risk of suffering from burnout (especially including all managers, organisational policy makers and HR managers in the helping professions), and for everyone else who wants to avoid it or move through it. It is an easy read and yet comprehensive, where Pigni really drills down to help us understand very clearly what is burnout and how it operates. A great read and highly recommended.

Buy the book here.

Read more of Alessandra´s work here.

Read my interview with Alessandra here.