Daily Quote and Reflections: Just Thinking and Musing about Self–Renewal and Meaning in Life…John Gardner

Extended excerpt from a speech presented to the respected and renown consulting firm of McKinsey in 1990. Don’t miss the closing remarks on living a meaningful life because this is a great example of how to  use story telling to connect with an audience in a memorable way.

“Personal Renewal”
Delivered to McKinsey & Company, Phoenix, AZ
November 10, 1990 

” Nothing is ever finally safe. Every important battle is fought and re-fought. We need to develop a resilient, indomitable morale that enables us to face those realities and still strive with every ounce of energy to prevail. You may wonder if such a struggle — endless and of uncertain outcome — isn’t more than humans can bear. But all of history suggests that the human spirit is well fitted to cope with just that kind of world.

Remember I mentioned earlier the myth that learning is for young people. I want to give you some examples, In a piece I wrote for Reader’s Digest not long ago, I gave what seemed to me a particularly interesting true example of renewal. The man in question was 53 years old. Most of his adult life had been a losing struggle against debt and misfortune. In military service he received a battlefield injury that denied him the use of his left arm. And he was seized and held in captivity for five years. Later he held two government jobs, succeeding at neither. At 53 he was in prison — and not for the first time. There in prison, he decided to write a book, driven by Heaven knows what motive — boredom, the hope of gain, emotional release, creative impulse, who can say? And the book turned out to be one of the greatest ever written, a book that has enthralled the world for ever 350 years. The prisoner was Cervantes; the book: Don Quixote.

Another example was Pope John XXIII, a serious man who found a lot to laugh about. The son of peasant farmers, he once said “In Italy there are three roads to poverty — drinking, gambling and fanning. My family chose the slowest of the three.” When someone asked him how many people worked in the Vatican he said “Oh, about half.” He was 76 years old when he was elected Pope. Through a lifetime in the bureaucracy, the spark of spirit and imagination had remained undimmed, and when he reached the top he launched the most vigorous renewal that the Church has known in this century.

Still another example is Winston Churchill. At age 25, as a correspondent in the Boer War he became a prisoner of war and his dramatic escape made him a national hero. Elected to Parliament at 26, he performed brilliantly, held high cabinet posts with distinction and at 37 became First Lord of the Admiralty. Then he was discredited, unjustly, I believe, by the Dardanelles expedition — the defeat at Gallipoli– and lost his admiralty post. There followed 24 years of ups and downs. All too often the verdict on him was “Brilliant but erratic…not steady, not dependable.” He had only himself to blame. A friend described him as a man who jaywalked through life. He was 66 before his moment of flowering came. Someone said “It’s all right to be a late bloomer if you don’t miss the flower show.” Churchill didn’t miss it.

Well, I won’t give you any more examples. From those I’ve given I hope it’s clear to you that the door of opportunity doesn’t really close as long as you’re reasonably healthy. And I don’t just mean opportunity for high status, but opportunity to grow and enrich your life in every dimension. You just don’t know what’s ahead for you. And remember the words on the bronze plaque “Some men and women make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.” To be that kind of person would be worth all the years of living and learning. 

Many years ago I concluded a speech with a paragraph on the meaning in life. The speech was reprinted over the years, and 15 years later that final paragraph came back to me in a rather dramatic way, really a heartbreaking way. ”

A man wrote to me from Colorado saying that his 20 year-old daughter had been killed in an auto accident some weeks before and that she was carrying in her billfold a paragraph from a speech of mine. He said he was grateful because the paragraph — and the fact that she kept it close to her — told him something he might not otherwise have known about her values and concerns. I can’t imagine where or how she came across the paragraph, but here it is:

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.” 

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