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.