#15 — Risktaking and Courage

Sticking your neck out as an active citizen is no video game---if things get tough, you can’t just press the reset button and start over. Taking a risk for the common good always means daring to act in the face of the unknown and always includes the possibility of hurt or loss. Reactions from peers can be cruel, and conflicts with people who like things the way they are can get nasty, especially if those people are in positions of authority. The risks that come with standing up for what you believe in are real. They can include:

• standing up for an unpopular idea when others are telling you to sit down and shut up, and when you could lose friends and the support of people important to you;

• speaking out in public, especially if you’re not experienced;

• failing, especially in public, where you could be embarrassed or ridiculed, and where your reputation could suffer;

• going up against difficult and angry opponents;

• spending time and money you don’t have;

• getting no response or a negative one when you reach out to someone;

• being the target of retribution for blowing the whistle on inept or illegal practices in business or government.

What’s Your Experience? Risk taking is subjective; what scares me may not scare you, and vice versa. If you’ve ever tried to solve a public problem or taken on a civic challenge, what scared you? What made your palms sweat?

An Ostrich Nation

The challenges faced by our communities, the nation, and the world are enormous. But have you noticed, when people are faced with a serious public challenge, how many of them still keep their heads in the sand, hoping that somebody else will fix what’s wrong? Just when we need more Giraffes, we get more ostriches.

After more than two centuries of being free, this nation is far from brave. From the inner cities to the suburbs, too many citizens don’t go to (let alone speak up at) public meetings, join community associations, hold their politicians to account, or set to work to solve public problems. Too few of us are willing to challenge authority---government authority, corporate authority---when that needs to be done. And the more numbingly commercial our culture becomes, the more people focus on stuff and pleasures they can buy rather than on contributions they can make. We’re so risk averse, we’re almost insulted when something unexpected happens that we don’t like. “Life should be safe!” we demand, and to the extent that it isn’t, we sue for pain and suffering.

What’s going on? Why this excess of caution? Why are so many people willing to just accept whatever’s going on around them, even if they don’t agree with it, even if they’re whining and complaining about it?

My take on it is that some people have been taught to play it safe since childhood and they’ve never questioned that, so they’ve never gotten involved. For some there’s been reasonable success on the career ladder, and life has become comfortable, even predictable. The prospect of risking any of that comfort is not appealing.

I also blame our media-soaked culture for helping create these unheroic times. News reports focus on sensational, negative stories---what went wrong and who screwed up today? The PR and advertising industries all too often focus on trivia and shallow stereotypes. Everything is driven by competition for ratings and sales. The overall message that’s left under your skin after most evenings of commercial television is: “It’s a scary, dirty world out there, beyond your power to change. Meanwhile, let us amuse you.”

A society that feeds on such messages, millions of person-hours per day, becomes so determined to protect itself, so absorbed in its own amusement and so apathetic, that it leaves little ground for growing heroes. At just the time when we need more models of people sticking their necks out for what they believe in, our media gives us celebrities instead---people famous, not because they are heroes, but for what they do in music or movies or sports. The commercial drumbeats turn us into a society of consumers marching toward the mall instead of citizens rallying to create great communities. And the sheer number of passive hours before the tube trains us to live as spectators and not players.

Turning It Around---the Giraffe Heroes Project

Since the early 1980s, the Giraffe Heroes Project has been going in the opposite direction, rallying people who care about the fate of our democracy and inspiring them to take risks for the common good (see the prefaceand also the Giraffe Heroes Project Web site, We realized from the beginning that when challenges in our society go unanswered, it’s almost never for lack of good ideas or good people. Rather, it’s for lack of good people with good ideas who are willing to stick their necks out to put those ideas and ideals into action. The Project moves people to take such risks, not by preaching at them but by telling them stories of other people already acting with courage and compassion. These “Giraffes” become models, inspiring others to get to work onpoblems important to them. By shining a bright light on the courage and compassion of ordinary people, the Giraffe Heroes Project presents a powerful alternative to the focus of mainstream media on the violent and the trite. Over the past 20 years, the Project has made a difference, but the opposing forces are strong, and the siren songs of our commercial culture can be overwhelming. Strengthening a civic consciousness in this country---making active citizenship the norm instead of the exception---takes

Turning It Around---Why You Should Take Risks for the Common Good

Sticking your neck out is, well, risky. You need to have good reasons for doing it. Here are mine.

If You Don’t Act, the Problems That Concern You Will Get Worse

The limitations of government and business for solving the problems that affect our lives are enormous. There are no men or women on white horses to ride to the rescue. Our future is up to us---as individuals, as members of groups and associations, and as citizens.

Help our culture get its nerve back. Being an active citizen demands that you be willing to take the necessary risks for your ideas and ideals. Your country, your community, and the planet need your head, your heart, and your actions.

Key Point You can’t insulate yourself from risks and still hope to solve significant problems in your community or the wider world.

Take These Risks Because Doing So Will Make You More Successful

Of course risk takers can fail, and they can suffer loss and hurt. Years of Giraffe watching, and lessons from my own life, however, have convinced me that people who are willing to take risks to put their ideals into action are more likely to succeed---not just in their civic lives, but at home and at work as well.

Why? Because sticking your neck out for what you believe in focuses your attention, commitment, and energy. It puts you on top of your game. Taking risks for your ideals also earns respect and support from others; when they see you up there without a net, they’re far more likely to take you and your message seriously and to become active themselves. Consider the example in the classic film Twelve Angry Men, in which one person’s fearless pursuit of the truth turns 11 other jurors around.

Take These Risks Because Doing So Will Add Meaning and Passion to

I think that as a culture we are boring ourselves to death, willing to do the same thing without question, though with complaints. I see too many people operating under the delusion that they can lead totally safe lives, as if that were interesting, wise, or even possible. The delusion has given us too many Living Dead, people who’ve spent years doing mind- and spirit-numbing things because they’ve been afraid to risk the quest for lives with meaning.

Taking risks for your ideals feeds your spirit and helps you be fully alive. Whether or not you take them can be the most important choice you’ll ever make.

Take These Risks Because Your Example Is Important

I travel a lot, and everywhere I go I find people hungering not just for solutions to problems, but also for examples of people who are making headway. That’s why the Giraffe Heroes Project tells the stories of Giraffes---so that more people will have these examples of caring men and women sticking their necks out for the common good, and be inspired to take action themselves on issues important to them. The Project has just scratched the surface; this country and the world need hundreds of thousands of such heroes.

See yourself as such a model, not a superhero. Few of us will ever need to risk our lives, but all of us have opportunities to make a difference. Most of those opportunities won’t grab headlines---they’re often small challenges that don’t ask huge responses from us, just responsible action by a caring citizen. By being that responsible citizen, by sticking your neck out for what you believe in, you’re modeling the alternative to the passive griping that’s infected the body politic.

Take These Risks to Avoid Regrets You Don’t Want to Have

Ohio activist Evelyn Schaeffer makes this point perfectly: “How will I feel if I look back and know I could have tried to solve the problem but didn’t?” she writes. “That’s what propelled me into my first crusade, updating local zoning after I had lived here for 12 years. When people asked why I was setting myself up as a target for people like the man who said in a public meeting I ought to go back to Cleveland, I replied: ‘In 20 years when everything I treasure about my community is paved over and franchised, I’m going to bitterly regret that I didn’t at least try. If I fail, I fail, but I’ll know that the result happened in spite of my very best effort.’”

Take These Risks Because There May Be Miracles There

Risk takers often find doors swinging open for them, almost miraculously. We’ve had that experience at the Giraffe Heroes Project. When we launch ourselves into doing what’s got to be done---whether or not we’ve got the resources in place to do it---that’s when the check arrives to fund the work, or the perfect volunteer walks in the door. When we’re super-cautious, we seem to slog through the week, without any beautiful “accidents” to ease the way.

I’m not suggesting that you be rash or ignore the need for sound planning. I’m talking about those times when you have thought and planned as best you could, but moving forward still requires a leap of faith, a push into the unknown. In 2003, for example, when we decided to create a middle-school curriculum based on the stories of Giraffes, we didn’t have a dime to do it. But all our experience told us that such a program was badly needed, and that teachers, donors, and foundations would see the value we saw. So we began creating Voices of Hope, a program that teaches kids how to read while it guides them into service projects in their communities. Three grants arrived just in time to pay for the first print run. The work is funded and moving into kids’ hands.

Key Point Reach for a life that feeds your spirit and is filled with meaning; stick your own neck out as an active citizen. Your commitment is vital to society’s health---and to yours.

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