Friday Book Club | Self-Renewal: The Individual & The Innovative Society.

November 6, 2020

Friday Book Club | Self-Renewal: The Individual & The Innovative Society.

May 29, 2023

In a post from a few months ago, I outlined why reading John W. Gardner’s ruminations on public policy, leadership and life have been so valuable for me. He was a strong advocate for citizen participation and founded the Common Cause organization. His book “On Leadership” was particularly valuable in my early process of becoming an adult leader.

For today’s Book Club, I chose his 1963 book dedicated to both personal and social renewal. As one book reviewer suggested, "Gardner's is not a 'how-to-do-it' book for the conduct of modern society. It is something rarer these days and more basic: a 'why-to-do-it' book. Its impact on many readers is bound to be challenging and stimulating and even inspirational.” Never before did we need to be reading books like this.

Foundational to this book is the idea that a society is just the summation of its citizens: “A society decays when its institutions and individuals lose their vitality...When organizations and societies are young, they are flexible, fluid, not yet paralyzed by rigid specialization and willing to try anything once. As the organization or society ages, vitality diminishes, flexibility gives way to rigidity, creativity fades and there is a loss of capacity to meet challenges from unexpected directions.” If you’re an MEA alum, you know this sounds an awful lot like Carol Dweck’s theory of “mindset” applied to the aging human. A fixed mindset discourages growth, adaptability and resilience. How can America - both as a country and as individuals - apply a growth mindset focused on improving, not proving ourselves?

Even back in 1963 when this book was written, Gardner suggested we’ve been imprisoned by the comfortable web we had woven around ourselves. “Unlike the jailbird, we don’t know that we’ve been imprisoned until after we’ve broken out.” How can we use COVID as a means of breaking out of our habits. Comfort breeds apathy. And, apathy breeds exactly the opposite of what a democracy needs.

This book is a testament to how organizations, not just governments, can stay vital. He warns against corporate cultures that create bureaucracy and rigid rules. While rules are meant to try and pacify employees or the public, it has the opposite effect as it creates uncertainty and powerlessness, the two primary ingredients of anxiety.

Here’s a particular interesting passage from 57 years ago that could be interpreted as the narrative that has and will define climate change:

“Today even the most potent innovator is unlikely to be effective unless his work coincides with a crisis or series of crises which puts people in a mood to accept innovation. The Paul Revere story is a very inadequate guide to action in a complex modern society. It was all too wonderfully simple. He saw danger, he sounded the alarm, and people really did wake up. In a big, busy society the modern Paul Revere is not even heard in the hubbub of voices. When he sounds the alarm no one answers. If he persists, people put him down as a controversial character. Then some day an incident occurs that confirms his warnings. The citizen who had refused to listen to the warnings now rushes to the window, puts his head out, nightcap and all, and cries, ‘Why doesn’t somebody tell me these things?’”


My favorite chapter in the book is the one entitled “Commitment and Meaning” which takes to task the idea of “pursuing” happiness and suggests that pursuing meaning is more important than capturing happiness. As any parent knows, having kids can lead to fleeting happiness amidst all the responsibilities and challenges of raising children, but it may be one of the most - if not the most - meaningful endeavor of one’s lifetime. Individuals and societies that see meaning at the core of their life plan end up being happier than those that pursue the elusive “happiness.”

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