Let’s face it, I told the Explorers Club in a speech November 11 in Seattle, there’s not a lot of unexplored real estate left on this planet. Other planets beckon, but perhaps not for everyone in this room.
And that’s OK, because after a lifetime of adventures and risk, I’m convinced that the most meaningful explorations any of us can take are not in pushing the limits of the map but pushing the limits of ourselves—challenging not just our courage but our compassion, seeking not to find a new world but to find solutions to the pressing problems in the world we already have. Finding, not a pot of gold, but a meaningful life anchored in service.
I didn’t see this truth for a long time.
I went to sea on a freighter the summer I turned seventeen. This was, mind you, way before container ships; cargo vessels then had crews of 50 or 60 really tough guys, all of whom were determined to teach me lessons they knew I would never get in school. I leave the detailed stories for another day except to say that the first port of call in Southeast Asia ended with a pitched brawl with local dock workers and a hangover that lasted three days.
I changed, and it was by more than a barroom brawl. I was not in mid-50s Tacoma any more. Roaming the Far East as a 17-year-old opened me to a huge vision of a wider world, pulsing with energy, colors and excitement. I wanted to explore it more—a lot more.
I’m pretty sure I was the only freshman who arrived via freighter for Harvard’s class of ’64.
I spent the summer after my sophomore year hitchhiking in Europe and North Africa. After walking the Wall in East Berlin and climbing the Matterhorn, I walked into Algeria just one week after a ceasefire had supposedly ended the brutal war there for independence from France.
The situation was very fragile. So I decided—in those years before America increased its involvement in Vietnam—to wear a US flag on my chest. The message was: “Don’t shoot me; I’m not French.” It worked. Rebel patrols stopped cars going in my direction and told the drivers to take me where I wanted to go.
The next summer, 1963, I was on the Harvard team that made the first direct ascent of the north wall of Mt. Mckinley (now Denali)—a mountain face higher top to bottom than anything on Everest—and a climb so insanely dangerous nobody’s done it since.
In fact, for five days when we were caught in a storm with no radio, we were reported dead—and surprised a lot of people when we weren’t.
I just finished a new web book on that exploit; it’s called Denali Diary and you can read about it for free on my website at johngraham.org
I kept upping the ante.
After college, I hitchhiked around the world. Working as a stringer for the Boston Globe, I used my press pass to get into every war zone along the way, which that year included Cyprus, Eritrea, Laos and Vietnam.
So by age 22, I’d gained the following perspective on life:
1) There was a huge wonderful, exciting world out there, just waiting for me to explore;
2) Nothing mattered but physical adventure, the bigger and riskier the better; and
3) I was indestructible. None of my adventures would ever do me in.
To say that this perspective was shallow would be generous. But I gained a lesson from those early experiences I’ve lived by ever since.
That lesson is that a full life demands passionate exploration and that means sometimes taking risks.
But this lesson needed to be tempered with another lesson, one I didn’t get until much later.
This second lesson on exploring was this: What’s important is not what risks you take in life. What’s important is knowing what to take risks for. The most significant risks often challenge not the body but the soul. They’re about finding what makes our lives truly meaningful and then going for it with everything we’ve got.
As I said, this second lesson was lost on me as a young man. My explorations then were all physical. I did what I did because of the adrenaline buzz.
After that year spent hitchhiking around the world, I was faced with a challenge. How could I earn a living and still lead an adventurous life?
I joined the US Foreign Service and it didn’t disappoint. I quickly was in the middle of the (first) revolution in Libya in 1969, then went to the war in Vietnam.
I volunteered for dangerous assignments in Vietnam, not because I was a patriot, but because I was an adrenaline junkie. My motivation was still adventure. Kill or be killed was a level of risk I’d not yet faced and I needed to experience it. And then power. Doing well in dangerous assignments was pushing me quickly up the State Department’s promotion ladder.
I survived Vietnam. The State Department sent me to Stanford for a year as my reward. I had bad nightmares for most of that year and I’d walk on the shadowed sides of the streets in Palo Alto California to avoid sniper fire. Now they call that PTSD.
But the time off in California finally led me to some severe questioning about how I was living my life.
What I was doing and why began to sit in the pit of my stomach like a bad meal.
What I found was that there was something deep under all these adventures, all the tough guy stuff I was doing—and then all the power trips. It was a set of ideals, about peace, about justice in the world, about ending the suffering caused by wars and revolutions and poverty.
It was a small, nagging voice from my heart then and I lacked the courage to do anything about it for years.
Then came a turning point—
In 1977, I was transferred to the US Mission to the United Nations in New York. Part of my job there was to represent the United States on the Security Council committee that dealt with South Africa and apartheid, which, as you know, was a racist system subjugating black South Africans. The UN was supposed to enforce an arms embargo on South Africa. It had been imposed because guns sold to the South African government in those years were used to enforce apartheid—to kill blacks.
But the embargo leaked like a sieve. Why? Because there were huge amounts of money involved in the arms trade, and the arms dealers had their friends in parliaments in Europe and in our own Congress.
I ignored my instructions to not make waves and instead worked secretly for months to tighten that embargo, helping Third World countries increase their pressure against my own government. Once our Secretary of State received a strong message from an African foreign minister complaining about American hypocrisy in not enforcing the arms embargo. In it, I recognized words that I’d drafted two weeks before and then slipped to an African diplomat at the UN, who’d sent them to his capital. And as I’d hoped, they’d come roaring back.
As the protests from the Third World grew, I reported to my bosses on the upsurge of pressure to tighten the embargo, and on the Carter Administration to live up to its promises—pressure that I’d helped generate. It worked. The US agreed to a really tough embargo and the Europeans had no choice but to follow suit. On May 2, 1980, that embargo was passed by the Security Council and, in time, it helped end apartheid.
At any time in this process I could have been fired.
So why did I do this? Why did I take these risks?
I did it because of one day spent in South Africa. The day began in the squalor and oppression of the black township of Soweto. I walked down garbage-strewn streets and felt the hate-filled stares of hundreds of blacks boring into the back of my white head. I couldn’t blame them. The day ended with a diplomatic cocktail party in Johannesburg’s fanciest white suburb, in a mansion surrounded by iron fences and guard dogs.
Apartheid stank and I resolved to do something to end it.
At a deeper level, I took those risks because I discovered that helping end the injustice of apartheid meant something to me at the deepest place in my soul, something more important than adventure or power.
The experience was like learning to swim.
I couldn't forget what I’d done.
I couldn’t forget how to do it.
I couldn’t forget the joy and fulfillment I felt in making a difference like that.
Philosophers and saints have been telling us for millennia that there’s no more important mission than to find and pursue the meaning of one’s own life.
I’d found the meaning for my life in South Africa and I’d found it, not by dodging bullets or hanging off a cliff by a rope or gaining power. I’d found it in service, in bettering the lives of others, in helping solve a significant public problem.
Now I needed to explore how I could find more experiences like this one—places and situations where I could use my courage and skill and ideals to help change the world.
I quit the Foreign Service because it was too limiting to the vision of service that now drove my life.
I almost lost my nerve—this was truly unexplored territory for me. But I got back on track after almost dying in a lifeboat in a typhoon in the North Pacific. But that’s a whole other story.
Ashore and alive, I joined groups actively trying to build peace in the world. I helped arrange a cease-fire with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, avert a major strike in Canada, and save what’s left of the Everglades. I spoke at antiwar rallies all over the world and played a small role in crafting the Oslo Accords, a once-hopeful attempt to find peace in the Middle East. I’ve worked for years as an environmental activist in the Pacific Northwest.
For the last 35 years I’ve been a leader of the Giraffe Heroes Project, a global initiative to move people to stick their necks out to make their communities and the world a better place. The Project’s strategy is simple; we find heroes already taking risks to solve tough public problems—from gang violence, to Covid to crimes against women and much more.
When we tell the stories of these Giraffe Heroes, others are inspired to stick their necks out too. We’ve created a full tool kit for activists and a curriculum for kids. We operate a global network of Giraffe Hero affiliates. Check out our website at giraffe.org.
We’ve learned a lot from these heroes we honor. Most importantly, it seems that most of them are motivated to take the risks they take not just by the need to solve a problem staring them in the face—but because of the meaning their actions gives their lives—meaning flowing from service to others and to the planet.
It’s the same lesson I learned fighting apartheid at the United Nations.
And we are hardly alone. For decades I’ve watched many other people make the same discovery, finding the meaning of their lives in service, in helping others.
They’ve used that discovery to fuel their commitment and energy to take risks and succeed—and to experience the satisfaction of living their lives to the fullest.
We all want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we’re on the planet for a reason, that we're not just taking up space.
And the surest, most powerful source of meaning in any of our lives is service—is making life better for others.
That’s a quest worth taking.
That’s the peak on which to put your flag.
I’d like to know about your explorations. I invite you to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.