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an idea that we need now more than ever
One reason I love reading is the possibility of discovering an idea that reshapes my mind, opening the door to new terrain or revising a belief. Occasionally, it's more like a snow globe and everything is shaken up at once. The mind feels fully alive. New connections are made and new paths emerge. Unlike a snow globe, the mental landscape looks and feels different when the dust settles.
I had one of these shake-ups a few years ago when I discovered the idea of self-renewal. I stumbled upon a speech by John Gardner and then picked up his book. I immediately fell in love with the words: "Self-Renewal". They felt novel and familiar. They gave language to something I knew deep within but had never put into words. They wove together a vast collection of my interests and experiences into a common thread.
Self-renewal is the capacity to respond to change. It’s an entity’s ability to adapt as it’s environment evolves. It occurs when the conditions needed to sustain vitality exist within the entity itself. It applies to individuals, companies, communities, and society at large. It explains challenges we face with our health, politics, economy, and environment. Forces of decay are all around us. But so are opportunities to nurture and build systems of self-renewal.
A few months ago, I wrote a summary distilling the key themes of Gardner's book. You can read it below. Rereading it now, it feels academic. The aliveness I have towards self-renewal exists in all the places it’s emerged in my life. I look back at pivotal moments and see the role it played. I notice how it shapes the nature of my current pursuits. I’m conscious of the ways it adds meaning to my experiences.
So this newsletter is my journey to explore the power of self-renewal in these areas. It will cover vast terrain. I plan to look back decades to reconnect with the moments I first faced adversity. And, look forward to the challenges of renewal our society faces in the years ahead. You will not find any narrow niches here. There may be times that it feels too personal. And times that it feels too philosophical. I can’t promise that it won’t be bumpy but I’d love for you to join this adventure.
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I’ve included my initial summary of Self-Renewal below to provide more of an introduction. And here’s the tweet version for those who want the TLDR:
Introduction to Self-Renewal
Change is a constant and unavoidable part of life. How we respond to this reality defines us, our organizations, and society. This challenge is at the core of the book Self-Renewal, which explains why some thrive and others decay as time passes and change persists. Written in 1963 by John Gardner, these ideas are even more relevant today. Once you've grasped these principles, you will see them everywhere. You will understand how to create conditions to enable renewal and avoid factors that lead to decay.
Understanding self-renewal is easiest by first understanding its opposite. You know these people: The person in mid-life with the same job, same habits, and same ideas. Their activities and thinking are rigid. Their anxiety is high. They worry about something changing. They fear losing their job. So, they resist change. They tell you: "that's just the way it's always done." They are fragile. Lacking vitality. Prone to decay.
Companies can be the same way. A once-dynamic organization that is now lifeless. It tries to protect and conserve instead of creating and innovating. Prone to disruption. Resistant to new ideas. Full of policies or unwritten rules. It rewards politics more than production. Vested interests and silos prevent alignment and create conflict. Sunk costs and prior commitments limit options. A stagnant organization, unable to respond as the world changes around them.
You can even see it in society. A once young and vibrant country now burdened by bureaucracy. It replaces exploration and experimentation for efficiency and order. Less flexible and more systematic. Stifling the independence of individuals. Less open to new ideas and less creative in addressing new challenges. More focused on protecting the status quo. Affluence fuels more desire to enjoy luxury and experience pleasure than to strive and expend effort. A society attached to our possessions. In fear of losing what we have, yet more vulnerable than ever to disruption and decay.
Self-renewal is the capacity to respond to change. It's about creating conditions that enable ourselves, our organizations, and society to maintain their vitality. It teaches us how to become and create "ever-renewing systems, " capable of adapting to whatever comes our way. We must continue to question, explore, innovate, and build, or we'll lack the capacity to meet the challenges ahead.
What individuals can do
While self-renewal depends on many factors, there are four foundational elements an individual can embrace:
Acceptance and continuous learning: Self-renewal requires acknowledging reality. We need knowledge of ourselves and our circumstances. Self-deception is comforting yet blinds us. Understanding ourselves and our external world increases our capacity. Continuous learning ensures you have the skills and mindset needed to adapt and renew.
A vision worth striving for: Self-renewal requires motivation and a belief in something worth pursuing. We need to care deeply about something. We need to strive towards something greater than ourselves. This is the conviction that creates the continual energy required for renewal.
Tough-minded optimism and Staying-Power: Self-renewal requires a mindset that acknowledges the challenges ahead while maintaining faith in our capacities. Self-renewal requires commitment and consistency. We need to be prepared to continue in the face of adversity.
Creativity & Flexibility: Self-renewal requires an ability to innovate. We have to be free of social pressures. An independent thinker. Open to new ways of doing things. Willing to try and not afraid to fail. Flexible in our approach. Committed to creating and not just consuming.
Where to go from here
These ideas only scratch the surface of self-renewal. There are numerous ways organizational and societal characteristics can contribute positively and negatively. It's critical to understand the factors that stifle renewal. The challenges are all around us. We encounter them in our health and our relationships. We face them in the structure of our organizations and the efforts of our governments. You cannot navigate the world without discovering barriers to renewal.
Yet there are opportunities to nurture and build systems of self-renewal everywhere. You can incorporate them into how we educate our children, how we treat our bodies, how we build companies, and how we run our governments. The areas of application are endless.
If these themes spark your curiosity, read Self-Renewal, to explore the power these ideas in more depth. You can also follow along as I explore the theme of renewal in my other writing.
Note: This summary distills the ideas of John Gardner. A great introduction to his thinking is his speech on "Personal Renewal"