Staying Vibrant and Curious

Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society by John Gardner

Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society

John W. Gardner

176 pages, W.W. Norton & Co., 1995

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I remember meeting John Gardner as if it were yesterday. It was 1989 and I was an MBA student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I was sitting in a preview session of upcoming classes when a tall, graceful, elderly man in a gray suit and a fedora stood up to speak. His figure was lithe and his step was easy. He carried a sense of gravitas that made it impossible not to listen to what he had to say. “Why do civilizations rise and fall?” he asked. “Why do some people stop growing at age 30, just going from work to the couch and television, when others stay vibrant, curious, almost childlike, into their 80s and 90s?”

I was hooked. I knew I needed to know this man, for it was clear to me even then that he would play an important role in my life.

The grace and humility with which John spoke that day belied his powerful career. He’d been secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, and president of the Carnegie Foundation. He’d written numerous books. And most thrilling from my perspective, he was an extraordinary social— and serial—entrepreneur, having founded Common Cause, Independent Sector, and the White House Fellows. Later, while in his 80s, John founded Experience Corps to encourage older people to become more engaged in civic life.

While at Stanford, I resolved to read everything that John had written. No book of his affected me more than Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society. Written in 1963, it still held great relevance for me in 1989. Having just reread it 20 years later, I was struck again by how John’s words of wisdom resonate even more strongly today.

In Self-Renewal, John writes about the contribution of individual innovators in renewing societies. Although he doesn’t use the language of social entrepreneurship, he describes it beautifully. He writes of the importance of a “tough-minded optimism,” stamina, and taking risks. He stresses the need for experimentation, failure, and, yes, for love. People who continually renew themselves have the capacity for innovation. John writes that “they can see life through another’s eyes and feel it through another’s heart.”

At Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital firm for the poor that I founded in 2001, we call this quality moral imagination” and believe it is critical to solving the tough problems of poverty. Indeed, much of Acumen’s value system is linked to John’s philosophy. He believed in the creative potential of markets and the need for good governance. He stressed the importance of human dignity and understood it in the context of our global community. He warned of the pitfalls to renewal, counseling innovators to travel light” and be aware of vested interests and the allure of traps that make us pull back from our ultimate goals.

I miss John, though I feel forever blessed for having been mentored by him. He had an enormous impact on my life, encouraging me to focus on being interested rather than interesting, and to commit to something bigger than myself. I know that I’m among hundreds, if not thousands, of people who feel that way, and together we form an army working toward similar ends. There can be no greater legacy than that.

Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, a nonprofi t venture capital firm investing in enterprises that alleviate poverty. Before Acumen, she founded and directed the Philanthropy Workshop and the Next Generation Leadership program at the Rockefeller Foundation. Novogratz is the author of The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.

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  • BY Mackenzie Andersen

    ON October 22, 2009 10:38 AM

    Thanks for writing this. My father is 87 years old and still designing for our family owned slip-cast ceramic business.

    I have never forgotten that when I was a teenager, my father advised us that if “we want to be happy in life, make ourselves part of something larger than ourselves.”

    I have found this wisdom to be absolutely true.

  • BY Bill Somerville

    ON October 23, 2009 04:43 PM

    All of us who knew and worked with John Gardner realized what a wonderful human being he was.  He set a tone in the non-profit world that resonates even today – be honest, work for a better world, and keep it simple.

  • Trudi Levine's avatar

    BY Trudi Levine

    ON October 24, 2009 12:08 AM

    A friend sent me this, I am sure, because she knew it would resonant. Just gave up a 35 year psychotherapy practice in New York and am here for six months. Graced with an opportunity to learn and can feel my brain bulging daily. It is so wonderful to ‘not know’ and feeling so alive.
    When I was a child I thought there were grown ups and children and one day I would become ‘a grown up’ and everything would stop. I’ve solved the problem..I’ve remained a child.

  • Joe Mahoney's avatar

    BY Joe Mahoney

    ON October 24, 2009 08:26 AM

    Jacqueline Novogratz’s re-review of John Gardner’s “Self-Renewal” is a refreshing reminder that social innovation has been occurring and re-occurring for centuries and the resurgence in such practices in indeed welcome. “Self-Renewal” should be on the required reading list of all social enterprise courses.
    I had the pleasure of sitting next to John Gardner in 1982 at a CASE luncheon in DC and came away as a devotee of his work. However, I’m also most impressed with Trudi Levine’s comments and have taken to liberty of lifting her cleaver statement which begins with, “When I was a child…...”
    Thanks for the review and comments.

  • Doug Schneider's avatar

    BY Doug Schneider

    ON October 25, 2009 01:15 PM

    thank you for this reminder of John Gardner’s work. i was an MBA student in 1986, and while i did not have the privilege to ever meet him, I was very influenced by Self Renewal (which i will now re-read) thanks to your encouragement and i still keep with me a copy of a commencement address that he made at Stanford. it’s amazing to me how many lives he influenced positively, including mine. His life message is timeless.

  • Harry (Rick) Moody's avatar

    BY Harry (Rick) Moody

    ON October 26, 2009 09:08 AM

    Social innovation is NOT a new idea, and that’s a good thing, too, otherwise we, as a species, could barely have survived.  The critical question is, What kind of institutions can nurture it?  Foundations, which might seem a good candidate, don’t always seem up to the challenge.  The saying “Big ideas rarely come from big organizations” seems more true than ever.  John Gardner was the direct inspiration for Marc Freedman and his Civic Ventures idea, including the now established “Purpose Prize” for people over the age of 60 who engage in great social innovations.  (Full disclosure: I’m a judge for the Purpose Prize).  But prizes, even the MacArthur Prize, do not make ongoing institutions.  Can anyone give examples of such institutions in our society?  Elsewhere?  Love to hear more.
    (HR Moody, Director of Academic Affairs, AARP)

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