Recommendation: John W. Gardner on Self Renewal

John W. Gardner (U.S. Secretary of State 1965 – 1969) is a thoughtful voice about self- and social-renewal and leadership:

It is a puzzle why some men and women go to seed, while others remain vital to the very end of their days. And why some people stop learning and growing. One must be compassionate in assessing the reasons: Perhaps life just presented them with tougher problems than they could solve. Perhaps something inflicted a major wound on their confidence or their self-esteem. Perhaps they were pulled down by the hidden resentments and grievances that grow in adult life, sometimes so luxuriantly that, like tangled vines, they immobilize the victim.

I’m talking about people who – no mater how busy they seem to be – have stopped learning or trying. Many of them are just going through the motions. I don’t deride that. Life is hard. Just to keep on going is sometimes an act of courage. But I do worry about men and women at whatever age functioning below the level of their potential.

We can’t write off the danger of complacency, of growing rigidity or of imprisonment by our own comfortable
habits and opinions. Look around you. How many people whom you know well – people even younger than yourselves – are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits?

I know some people who feel that that just isn’t possible for them, that life has trapped them. But they don’t really know that. Life takes unexpected turns. We build our own prisons and serve as our own jail keepers, but I’ve concluded that our parents and the society at large have a hand in building our prisons. They create roles for us – and self-images – that hold us captive for a long time. The individual who is intent on self-renewal will have to deal with ghosts of the past – the memory of earlier failures, the remnants of childhood dramas and rebellions, accumulated grievances and resentments that have long outlived their cause. Sometimes people cling to the
ghosts with something almost approaching pleasure, but the hampering effect on growth is inescapable…

The more I see of human lives, the more I believe the business of growing up is much longer drawn out than we pretend. If we achieve it in our 30s, even our 40s, we’re doing well.

For renewal, tough-minded optimism is best. The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future. Men and women of vitality have always been prepared to bet their futures, even their lives, on ventures of unknown outcome. If they had all looked before they leaped, we would still be crouched in caves sketching animal pictures on the wall.

But I did say tough-minded optimism. High hopes that are dashed by the first failure are precisely what we don’t need. We have to believe in ourselves, but we mustn’t suppose that the path will be easy.

John W. Gardner – The Road to Self Renewal

Worth a moment.

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