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John W. Gardner and the Art of Self-Renewal


Looking back I see a California boy finding his way through life, endlessly challenged, surmounting obstacles, falling on his face, always studying, always trying, always wondering.

- John W. Gardner

John W. Gardner was born in Los Angeles, California in1912. He married native Guatemalan Aida Marroquin in 1934. They had two daughters Stephanie and Francesca.

An acclaimed educator and writer, John Gardner received many honours including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

A former Cabinet Secretary, he helped launch Medicare and the Public Broadcasting System. In 1970, he founded Common Cause, a grass-roots nonpartisan group for citizen empowerment.

He joined Stanford University at the age of 77, where he continued to teach into his ninth decade.

When Gardner was in his mid 80s, he was asked to address a group of executives on Renewal. More than 30 years earlier, he had written the seminal book: Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society. Now, he outlines the qualities of self-renewing persons. Here are five:

1. Self-renewing persons view life as open-ended.

“Life isn’t a mountain that has a summit. Nor is it, as some people suppose, a riddle that has an answer, nor a game that has a final score,” Gardner says. “Life is an endless unfolding and, if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves,” he says.

2. Self-renewing persons make commitments.

“As you get a little older, you’re told you’ve earned the right to think about yourself. But that’s a deadly prescription,” Gardner says.

Self-renewing persons are connected to the world around them. As the world changes they interact with it, and they change too.

You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments. Self-renewing persons pace themselves, set priorities, and keep pursuing their best options.

3. They develop a sense of mutual dependence.

Says Gardner: “You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves.”

Self-renewing persons care about their families, communities, and life everywhere. They are interested. They listen and they reach out.

4. They keep learning.

As you grow older, the things you learn are more complex: “You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety…. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent but pays off on character,” he says.

Self-renewing persons learn from life: their successes, disappointments, failures and mistakes. “We learn by growing older, by suffering, by loving, by taking risks, by bearing with the things we can’t change,” he says.

5. Self-renewing persons are future-oriented.

They believe in the future. By way of example, Gardner offers that Cervantes, Winston Churchill and Pope John XXIII were all tough-minded optimists who made significant contributions past their prime.

“You don’t need to run down like an unwound clock. And if your clock is unwound, you can wind it up again,” Gardner says. Motivation is the key to renewal. “There is no substitute for the lift of spirit and heightened performance that comes from strong motivation,” he says.

Source: “Self-Renewal” by John. W. Gardner, in The Futurist magazine, Dec.1996.