Stick your neck out for a meaningful life

Stick your neck out for a meaningful life

The most powerful, lasting meaning comes from ideals of service and working for the common good.


When I was a young man, the only thing that held meaning for me was adventuring. I shipped out on freighters while still in high school. I was part of a team that made the dangerous first ascent of the north wall of Mt. McKinley in Alaska. I hitchhiked around the world. As a correspondent for the Boston Globe in the mid-’60s, I waded into every shooting war I could find, from Algeria to Laos. The only thing that mattered was the next adrenaline rush.

Then I joined the U.S. Foreign Service. In my fifteen years as a diplomat I moved up the ladder fast, working not in embassies but in jungles and deserts all over the Third World. I saw oppression, hunger, and war—but what held meaning for me was not an urge to relieve the suffering but the attraction of danger in those far-off spots and my own surging career.

By the time I was 35, however, the motivations for what I was doing with my life began to sit in the pit of my stomach like a bad meal. Nothing seemed meaningful to me anymore—not in any sense that felt right or fulfilling.

In the late 1970s, my career took me to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Part of my job there was overseeing the arms embargo on South Africa, which had been imposed because military equipment sold to South Africa in those years was used to enforce apartheid.

The embargo leaked like a sieve; there were huge amounts of money involved in the arms trade, and the arms dealers had friends in parliaments in Europe and in our own Congress. I ignored my instructions to overlook the leaks in the embargo and instead worked secretly for months to tighten it, helping Third World countries increase their pressure against my own government.

It worked. A tougher embargo was enforced, which helped end apartheid. At any time in this process I could have been fired for insubordination or worse—and almost was. I took those risks because of a day in South Africa that started with meeting black activists in the squalor and oppression of the black township of Soweto and ended with a diplomatic cocktail party in Johannesburg’s fanciest white suburb, in a mansion surrounded by wrought-iron fences and guard dogs.

Apartheid stank, and from that afternoon on, helping end it meant something to me at some far deeper place than self-centered adventures and promotions. It pulled me to a new focus for my life. I discovered that I could take all the skills I’d been using to play political power games and focus them instead on peace and justice issues in the Third World. It wasn’t chasing adventure or status or power; it was working to end injustice and suffering. Ironically, the thrill of making a difference this way matched the thrill of any adventures I’d ever had, and it was satisfying in a way no promotion had ever been. It taught me to stick my neck out.

From my own hesitations I know how hard it can be to take risks to help solve public problems. So why should you help your community deal with racism or failing schools? Why press for cleaner air or water, or join a neighborhood association? Why send letters to your congressperson or mayor?

It’s hard and often thankless work. It’s a whole lot easier to stay on the sidelines, wanting and expecting “someone,” (the government, perhaps?) to solve the problems—meanwhile complaining that things aren’t the way you want them to be. So why do it? I got my answers to this question not just from my work at the UN, but from “Giraffes.”

In 1983 I joined the Giraffe Heroes Project, an international nonprofit founded by Ann Medlock. She was convinced that, in a society grown apathetic and cynical, telling people the stories of real heroes (she called them “Giraffes”) was a powerful way to inspire them to stick their own necks out for the common good. People hear or see these stories and are inspired to take action on problems important to them.

When we ask Giraffes why they stick their necks out, most will say that they were sparked into action by a crisis or problem. But what keeps them going over the long haul, and what makes them as effective as they are, transcends whatever initial frustration and anger they felt. What sustains them is a strong sense that what they’re doing to solve that problem or crisis is meaningful to them at a profound and personal level; that is, that it’s in sync with their deepest priorities and values.

Sarri Gilman, for example, stuck her neck out to provide safe shelter for abused and runaway teenagers in Everett, Washington. Muhammad Yunus, a banker in Bangladesh, founded the Grameen Bank and created a global model for creating economic self-sufficiency among the poor, motivated by his profound compassion and his intense belief in the potential of his clients. Ernesto Villareal, a high school student in Idaho, led a campaign to stop racist insults in his school and community. Casey Ruud, a safety inspector, put his job on the line when he refused to ignore glaring threats to public safety at the Hanford nuclear plant. These people saw a task that meant a great deal to them and they took it on. It’s commitments like this that generate the personal enthusiasm, passion, and power of a meaningful life. That’s true for Giraffes. It’s true for anyone.

I think there’s a universal truth here. Philosophers and spiritual leaders have been telling us for millennia that there’s no deeper human need and no more powerful yearning than to live a meaningful life. We all want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that who we are and what we’re doing matters, that we’re not just marking time.

That’s certainly true for me. I’ve lived a while and my résumé is pretty full. What I’ve found is that there’s no more powerful motivator for me than that my actions and commitments be part of a purpose that satisfies me deep inside and makes me feel totally alive.

Look to your own experience—at home, at work, in the community. Isn’t it true that the more meaningful your actions are, the more alive you feel? You may work very hard and there may be trials, but there’s always an energy, a sense of excitement, a deep satisfaction of being in the right place at the right time.

What we’ve found over nearly two decades of Giraffe work is that people who lead meaningful lives don’t find that meaning in possessions or positions; they find it in carrying out personal commitments to ideals bigger than themselves and their own needs. And the most consistent, powerful, lasting meaning comes from commitment to ideals of service, of working for the common good.

The path to a meaningful life is out there for each of us, but we have to find it. I tell people, especially young people, what I wish I’d been told when I was just starting out: Every one of us has and will have unique opportunities to make a difference, if only in small and quiet ways. A successful life is about spotting and acting on them. The only mistake you can make is to ignore the quest, to settle for an ordinary life, to just look out for Number One, to live and die without ever having made a difference.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is what I’m doing with my life, including any current volunteer work, meaningful enough to me, or am I just going through the motions?
  • What ideals am I committed to—or might I commit to—to provide that meaning?
  • What more can I do to put those ideals into action?

There is an issue out there with your name on it, something you care about, someplace where you can serve and make a difference. Whatever it is, large or small, pay attention to it.

The poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It’s the most important question you’ll ever ask yourself. Get involved. Stick your neck out.

Adapted with permission from Stick Your Neck Out: A Street-Smart Guide to Creating Change in Your Community and Beyond (Berrett-Koehler), copyright 2005 by John Graham.

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