John Gardner: Self Renewal


You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you, they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.

JOHN W. GARDNER (1933-1982)

Whenever I get down, I always read this speech by John W. Gardner delivered in 1990 to McKinsey and Co — based on a book he wrote entitled Self Renewal. This passage is something I always come back to, and it always gives me strength.


You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you, they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.

Those are things that are hard to learn early in life, As a rule you have to have picked up some mileage and some dents in your fenders before you understand. As Norman Douglas said “There are some things you can’t learn from others. You have to pass through the fire.’

You come to terms with yourself. You finally grasp what S. N. Behrman meant when he said “At the end of every road you meet yourself.” You may not get rid of all of your hang-ups, but you learn to control them to the point that you can function productively and not hurt others.

You learn the arts of mutual dependence, meeting the needs of loved ones and letting yourself need them. You can even be unaffected — a quality that often takes years to acquire. You can achieve the simplicity that lies beyond sophistication.

You come to understand your impact on others. It’s interesting that even in the first year of life you learn the impact that a variety of others have on you, but as late as middle age many people have a very imperfect understanding of the impact they themselves have on others. The hostile person keeps asking ‘Why are people so hard to get along with?” In some measure we create our own environment. You may not yet grasp the power of that truth to change your life.

Of course failures are a part of the story too. Everyone fails, Joe Louis said “Everyone has to figure to get beat some time.” The question isn’t did you fail but did you pick yourself up and move ahead? And there is one other little question: ‘Did you collaborate in your own defeat?” A lot of people do. Learn not to.

One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.

So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. When you get to the top you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty.

You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.

But life isn’t a mountain that has a summit, Nor is it — as some suppose — a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score.

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. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.

Perhaps you imagine that by age 35 or 45 or even 33 you have explored those potentialities pretty fully. Don’t kid yourself!

The thing you have to understand is that the capacities you actually develop to the full come out as the result of an interplay between you and life’s challenges –and the challenges keep changing. Life pulls things out of you.

There’s something I know about you that you may or may not know about yourself. You have within you more resources of energy than have ever been tapped, more talent than has ever been exploited, more strength than has ever been tested, more to give than you have ever given.

—John W. Gardner (1933-1982)



I originally found Mr. Gardner’s work via the bestselling business book Good to Great — by accidentally reading over the bibliography and being curious about his work. That was in the early 2000s when I consulted for the CEO and CMO of Philips on their Simplicity initiative. Years later when I took on bigger leadership roles, I came back to his work and it changed me. It made me much more comfortable with the dichotomy of creativity and leadership. So I was especially stoked many years later when I had the opportunity to address a White House program that Mr. Gardner created, and got to see this sign that made my life complete in a special way. 

From the RISD blog that I launched in 2008 with Becky Bermont (now at IDEO)

The truly creative person is not an outlaw but a lawmaker. Every great creative performance, since the initial one, is about bringing order out of chaos.

John W. Gardner (1933-1982)

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