Manifesto for a moral revolution book notes
Practices for a better world
Manifesto for a moral revolution: Practices for a better world by Jacqueline Novogratz is an urgent declaration about standing with the poor, doing work worth doing, and acknowledging our humanity. With stories that help us understand that we are capable of changing the world for the better, as long as we care enough.
The book was originally published May 5, 2020.
A new generation is rising, one that is more conscious of how they live, what they buy, and where they work. Many are unwilling to work for companies unless those companies are committed to sustainability and recognize that with power must come accountability. And a growing number of companies are listening.
Those I’ve known who’ve most changed the world exhibit a voracious curiosity about the world and other people, and a willingness to listen and empathize with those unlike them. These people stand apart not because of school degrees or the size of their bank accounts, but because of their character, their willingness to build reservoirs of courage and stand for their beliefs, even if they stand alone. Of course, this kind of character isn’t built overnight. It is honed through a lifelong process of committing to something bigger than yourself, aspiring to qualities of moral leadership, defining success by how others fare because of your efforts, embedding a sense of purpose into your daily decisions.
This revolution will ask all of us to shift our ways of thinking to connection rather than consumerism, to purpose rather than profits, to sustainability rather than selfishness. We must awaken to see workers not as inputs, the environment not as our personal domain, and shareholders not as all-powerful. And we need to move away from old models of doing what is right for me and believing it will turn out right for you.
“How can I be of use? How can I find my purpose? Where will I make the most impact?”
When we look back on our lives, we construct sense-making narratives of who we are and how we’ve chosen to spend our time. But when we look forward, the path ahead can feel overwhelmingly elusive… While there are skills to gain and character traits to develop, there is only one way to begin. Just start—and let the work teach you.
Purpose does not reveal itself to those sitting safely at the starting block. You don’t plan your way into finding your purpose. You live into it.
People often ask, “but what if I dare and then fail?” I learned from my failures, and cane to understand that to rule out failure is to rule out success.
Try. Fail. Then try again. Follow the thread as it unspools. Just start.
We grow when we stretch, when we are willing to embrace the uncomfortable.
You may not yet have a crystal-clear sense of your purpose. That’s okay. It will grow with you. But if you have an inkling that you’d like to do something bigger than yourself, listen to that urge. Follow the thread. The world needs you. Just start.
Ankit knew he would go from being viewed as successful to being considered as crazy by some. But he had attempted the conventional route to success and found it less than fulfilling. Now he had a chance to redefine success for himself. Crazy might just be the ticket.
Success doesn’t just wait for us on a distant horizon. Success is within all of us, waiting for us to live into it. It exists in the beauty we create, the goodwill we offer, the ideas we spread, the causes for which we stand, and the lives we help transform.
Of course, the notion of redefining success rubs against the status quo. Humans are status-seeking beings. We yearn to be accepted, respected, loved. Our current systems (economic, political, and social) reinforce a definition of “winning” based on money, power, and fame. Rather than being rewarded for what we give, we’re too often affirmed by what we take.
Three years into something new is often just the moment you hit the Dip: the excitement of your ambition to change the world somehow fades into the reality of daily frustrations as creeping fears… These moments can feel devastating. But they also are precisely when to remember why you are doing this work on the first place. In the end of the Dip, as Seth Godin writes, “persistent people are able to visualize the idea of light at the end of the tunnel when others can’t see it.” Dips are an inevitable part of live as an agent of change. The key is to use them to enliven and inspire a better future.
No matter who you are, the world offers you a thousand opportunities for deeper success. Daily, you might encounter moments to teach the person in front of you as if she herself could change the world, to listen with the reverence that expands the souls of another, to help someone who cannot help himself. At the end of your life, I hope the world says that you cared, that you showed up with your whole self, and that you couldn’t have tried harder. I hope they say you helped those who had been left out; that you renewed yourself, living with a sense of curiosity and wonder; learning, changing, and growing till you took your last breath. In the meantime, we’ve got a world to change.
Cultivate moral imagination
Moral imagination means to view other people’s problems as if they were your own, and to begin to discern how to tackle those problems. And then to act accordingly. It summons us to understand and transcend the realities of current circumstances and to envision a better future for ourselves and others.
Listening to voices unheard is fundamental to moral imagination. So is gathering knowledge about those we intend to serve.
“I’d love to hear your story.” First step: immersion.
Listen to voices unheard
When we dare to meet another as a friend, willing to hear painful and uncomfortable truths, we can discover the parts of our identities that overlap. We can acknowledge the other person’s—and our own—yearning to be seen. True listening is more than the act of hearing another’s words. It is the unspoken recognition of our shared humanity.
Today, we exchange more words with one another than at any time in history. Yet how many people are really listening? Not only are we distracted by our devices, but we see leaders everywhere doing everything but listening, becoming louder and shriller in their arguments.
If you want advice, ask for money. If you want to raise money, ask for advice. We all yearn to be recognized.
Real listening is not a onetime event. It you want to build a solution for a group that has traditionally had no voice, be prepared to listen continuously.
Listening is a lifelong process. It requires continual practice, especially when we’ve become too accustomed to believing that our own assumptions are correct.
We miss so much by assuming we have the answers. Instead, learn to listen with your whole body. Listen with your ears, your eyes, all your senses. Listen not to convince or to convert, but to change yourself, spark your moral imagination, soften your hardened edges, and open yourself to the world. When we fail to listen to those the world excludes, we lose the possibility of solving problems that matter most to all of us. But when we succeed at listening with all our attention and empathy, we have a chance to set others and ourselves free.
You are the ocean in a drop
If deep listening enables seeing beyond another’s words, understanding identity can provide tools to empower and unite. Identity can also be a trap, dividing us from one another, sometimes with toxic or even deadly consequences. Learning to navigate the many layers of your own identity, while also expanding your awareness of the multiple layers of others’, is an essential twenty-first-century skill, one that can take a lifetime to acquire. Begin on the path to mastery by discovering the many stories that can only be yours.
The words of the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the ocean in a drop.”
As the saying goes, you will never know the East side till you move to the West.
Each of us contains a multitude. The more identities we carry within, the more chances to discover that we are at once unique and bound by commonalities. So, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asks, why, then, do we reduce individuals to a single story, a single identity that can too easily be infused with our greatest fears about one another?
Our monsters are the broken parts of ourselves, the shamed and hurts and grievances often carried from generation to generation. If we do not confront them peacefully yet directly, those broken parts make us vulnerable to externalizing our pain through anger, violence, or a deadening bitterness. In times of insecurity, the divisive language and policies of demagogues prey upon our weaknesses, urging us to cast blame for our problems in those who are deemed “other.” Too often, such language successfully entreaty us to do horrendous things to one another.
Some fellows remained so busy defending their own identities that we collectively failed to make the effort to engage with the identities of others.
Only when I was able to integrate the person I had become with the person I once was would I be able to serve in ways that mattered.
By hiding parts of our identity, we deny ourselves and others what we can bring to the table. Identity, our own and others, is always in the room.
I understood that my job was to make the conversation safe enough for all sides to feel deeply uncomfortable at times, and to grow from it. It was to challenge anyone who was throwing around easy assumptions, asking them instead to ground their perspectives in principles for which they stood. It was to remind myself and every one of the fellows that if every one of us was not open and willing to change ourselves, we would not be able to change the world.
First, know yourself. Second, be open to the multiple identities others might carry within themselves. Third, the person or organization with greater power in a particular moment must be the bridge that extends understanding to those with less power. Without this bridge, real conversations won’t happen.
At the essence of conversation is the interplay of human dignity and identity; a yearning to be recognized and acknowledged; an unspoken promise: if you do not attempt to reduce me to a single identity, I will try to see you as a more integrated person as well.
The needed resolution is a commitment to acknowledge one another not just within the confines of the room but in the open spaces of the world.
Ultimately, our future as a human race depends on all of us subscribing to a revolution of morals in which we each commit ourselves to something beyond ourselves. We spend so much time focused on what we believe to be true rather than opening ourselves to the ways others perceive the world. A peaceful, sustainable planet demands that we celebrate our individual multiple identities while recognizing that one thing we have in common: we are all human beings.
Commit to stretching beyond your comfort zone to meet those whose realities are different from your own. You might be surprised at what you find on the other side.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the ability to look fear in the face and continue to walk forward. All of us have something that frightens us, whether or not we admit it. Only by nurturing our courage will we prevent our fears from making and then keeping us small.
Now I understand that I was caught in a system that required the silence of the weak in order to protect and maintain the privilege of the strong. We remain voiceless because we fear rejection, shame, or letting others down. We stay silent when bad things happen to us or those around us, afraid of losing status or love or the security of home. We want to keep our jobs or maintain the peace or, in some situations, stave of further violence.
Fear is conquerable if you confront it, understand what lies beneath it, and then face it, often repeatedly, until you make it a friend.
In public speaking, rather than focusing on yourself, direct your attention to the audience. Your job is simply to be an instrument of inspiring thought or provoking action.
If you want to play it safe, you shouldn’t get into the business of change. Change involves risk, and risk, which is not the same as recklessness, requires courage.
Institutions can make it easier for people to take risks, but it is up to each of us to practice small acts of courage so that we build muscles to do the right thing. Regularly, we should ask ourselves, what is the cost of not daring? Of not trying? Of not speaking up when it matters? Practice courage until you become courageous. Think of fear not as a bad thing, but simply as a mechanism to alert you to emotional or physical danger… Those wins, ultimately, will prepare you for the times when the world needs you to stand bravely in the fire and take on the seemingly impossible.
We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond.
The only way to survive and thrive is to acknowledge the imperfections, to say aloud that you could not be trying harder, and sometimes, to compare your outcomes to what would have been had you done nothing at all.
If we see ourselves only as victims, we risk failing to recognize our own fallibility, and this makes it impossible to accept the flaws of others. If we see ourselves or others only as perpetrators, we extinguish possibilities of redemption. If we refuse to see at all, we trap our diminished selves in darkness, relinquishing hopes for growth and renewal. In all such cases, we thwart our potential for wholeness.
No one escapes life without broken parts. When we find the courage to repair what is broken inside ourselves, to reconcile the hurts we’ve internalized and the hurts we’ve inflicted on others, we can finally renew our fragile world. We can finally comprehend that our individual and collective wholeness is necessarily enmeshed. This kind of repair requires moral courage, the will to face fears and to fight for those who are unlike us, especially those outside our own families or tribes. So, practice courage. It will prepare you for those times when you, and the world, need it most.
Hold opposing views in tension
Solving complex problems is rarely accomplished with a silver bullet or a single approach. Effective leaders looking to bring about change have no choice but to hold opposing values without rejecting either.
Those who see the role of business as solely to make a profit employ either-or thinking. But presupposing that profits alone signal the existence of social good limits our ability to think creatively, collaboratively, and constructively, not to mention realistically.
Use feelings of discomfort as a proxy for progress. It may not make decisions easier, but it will help you identify the forces you are dealing with, buttressed by both conscience and reason.
Fundamental objective: a peaceful, diverse community that would ultimately reinforce a sense of belonging.
If we ignore the tensions within ourselves, our organizations, and our societies—if we keep the conflicts internalized and unmentioned—they don’t disappear. Instead, as soon as we begin navigating complex issues and decisions across lines of difference, those conflicts become exacerbated. The key is to recognize and give voice to the tensions in ways that both sides of the debate can hear, a sometimes thankless task, to be sure, yet fundamental to the practice of moral leadership.
Be eager to practice transcending boundaries that separate you from others. Seek truth is what others are saying.
The early twenty-first century has witnessed growing strains that reinforce in-groups that find strength in in creating mistrusted out-groups.
By allowing polarities to dominate a debate, we free ourselves from facing the painful trade-offs and costs that every choice entails. And we deny ourselves the opportunity to rediscover that we are better than we think we are.
Rumi: “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
For each of us, the first step is to reach across the wall of either-or and acknowledge the truths that exist in opposing perspectives.
First, seek, with eager curiosity, the truths in the other side’s argument. Second, take a figurative stride, even a small one, toward the other, acknowledging where there might be common ground. And third, hold tightly to the essence of your whole self, while embracing other aspects of your identity lightly. You must be open to change and learning if you expect the other side to be the same.
Solutions require both audacity and humility.
A moral revolution demand that all of us do more to reach across the wall of either-or and acknowledge the truths that exist at opposite sides. Most of our solutions lie in the truths or partial truths on each side, “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.”
Avoid the conformity trap
My mistrust was not of him as a person but of a system that would make decisions based on short-term profitability, not on whether those he professed to serve were seeing positive changes in their lives.
When a product doing very poor is marketed as doing good while generating outsized profits at zero risk for the very rich, a moral question is born. In a world of extreme inequality, what kind of economic system is just? By conforming to a system structured solely to maximize shareholder returns, we avoid taking personal responsibility for the answer to that moral question.
Conformity to traditional market priorities is a trap that can make it exceedingly difficult to do what is right. Decisions that depend on moral choice, not transactional effectiveness, are rarely straightforward once you are clear about what’s at stake.
No matter how determined we are to do the right thing, we all fall prey to conformity traps within the system we’ve chosen. We want to “win,” to appear successful, respected, or powerful, so we cut corners and tell little white lies. We hold our itching tongues when people around us demean those from another group—not because we are bad people but because we don’t want colleagues or friends, religious leaders or classmates, parents or siblings, to think we are weak, disloyal, naïve, unsophisticated, or foolish.
Our anxieties germinate in the systems we inhabit. Who are we measuring ourselves against? Whose opinions matter to us? What does winning even look like?
Reinhold Niebuhr: “groups are more immoral than individuals.”
By shifting the blame to systems bigger than us, we tend to convince ourselves that we have no choice but to “go along to get along.” But if you dare to act on the dreams of change, you must find the guts to stand apart while also building the relationships needed to design better systems.
The warning signs of traps nearby read almost like a bad poem: It’s just business as usual. Everybody’s doing it. And I don’t want to look stupid. If I don’t do it, someone else will. No one else is saying anything. Don’t the ends justify the means? I really don’t have another choice. I wouldn’t do this just for myself. People are counting on me. Besides, I’ll do it just this once…
Self-justifying phrases, uttered by you or those around you, separate you from accountability. It’s easy to insulate ourselves from our actions. But we can make the choice to be guided by our own moral compass and play for the long term.
It’s also easy to be a critic who regularly finds fault rather than proposes solutions, or better yet, risks their reputation attempting them. So, avoid the trap of perfection, not just the trap of conformity. If you are a builder, there will undoubtably here times when you have no choice but to compromise in service if a greater goal. Moral leadership requires the judgement to make the right short-term compromises so as to realize the long-term change we seek.
Rejecting conformity outright is required for change.
If you are a change agent, then you are by definition a non-conformist. You stand for something. Get used to the awkwardness of turning right when everyone else turns left, and pursue what you know to be true. And before you partner or invest, do your homework to understand a person’s character rather than be swayed solely by charisma or connections.
“Everyone does it” cannot be society’s or any organization’s standard for decision making. But doing the right thing can be soul crushing and frustratingly lonely when peers or colleagues would rather you “won” according to the rules of the status quo.
Invest in character, in those people willing to stand apart form the crowd, sometimes opening themselves up to looking foolish but always willing to grapple with doing the right thing for their customers, employees, and society, not just for the sake of profits.
Establish a norm, a code that your team and companies would live by. In creating more just, inclusive, and sustainable systems, the means, not solely the ends, matter. You make change when you model change.
The community creates a support system for mutual accountability.
Bryan Stevenson: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I think if somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them, they’re not just a thief.”
Our modern instant-feedback society offers ample opportunities to shame and blame, sometimes with destructive and even deadly consequences.
The internet enables all of us to be instant judges, which in some cases unleashes roaring mobs.
Each of us has opportunities to avoid conformity traps and offer the world the best version of ourselves.
Refuse to see the world as separated by us and them, profit and purpose.
Use the power of markets, don’t be seduced by them
Making all sides uncomfortable can be a signal that you are on to something.
Each group clings to its own version of reality. Make a plea for nuance.
Knowing how to use and build markets is one of the most powerful tools we have for solving our problems. If you want to change even a small part of the world, learn to use the best of what markets can do while keeping them in their place. Resist the allure of short-term profit making, but don’t reject the market entirely. Hold the tension. Use the market as a listening device and let it teach you what people value alongside what they can afford.
Stand back from economic ideologies and start with the human problem we want to solve. We need a full understanding of the problem from the perspective of all stakeholders; only then can we determine the right kinds of capital (as well as the partnerships) needed to make the solution work.
The end or purpose of money is not simply to make more money, but to create something of value.
Moral framework: the more value our investments create, especially for the poor and vulnerable, the more we value our investments. Profits are a means to the sustainability of the innovations we support and, eventually, to ensuring that we also can cover our costs in the long term.
Balancing between impact and financial sustainability.
Build a community of trust.
With the single metric of profit, the results are binary: you are either profitable or not. But profit doesn’t take into account the natural resources we consume, the pollution we create, and the employees we empower.Nor does it grapple with issues of fairness that operate in systems with wildly unbalanced power dynamics. The shareholder capitalist system also does not value social and environmental capital some business are creating(which, in some cases, is enormous), focusing only on short-term profitability. But human beings created the current systems that govern our lives. It is up to human beings to change and evolve those systems. The current economic system keeps the attention on what we can count (profits) rather than on what we most value (our children’s health and education, the quality of the air we breathe, just compensation to the poorest, etc.) Companies and investors tend to allocate financial and Human Resources to achieve the highest possible financial returns, and even some impact investors count it as a bonus rather than a requirement when social impact is also achieved. Yet, only when companies regularly quantify and value non-pecuniary but fundamental human and environmental benefits will we see a more inclusive, sustainable market system.
Using markets without being seduced by them does not require a degree in rocket science, but it does require fortitude to move beyond a profit-alone mentality. The process starts with focusing first on purpose; considering all stakeholders; using the right capital; hiring competent, values-aligned talent; and measuring what matters, not just what you can count.
We are the ones who choose the kind of economy and society we inhabit. We can continue to play by tired rules that work only for the few, at the expense of the many, or we can imagine and build new rules that work for everyone. It is all within our individual and collective grasp.
Partner with humility and audacity
Mary Oliver: “Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have all the answers.”
Bring on the skeptics—we need them—but those of us who want a better world have little use for critics who armor themselves with rigid certainty, especially if they propose neither assistance nor solutions.
Visionary builders who reshape entire industries perceive the big picture while working to get their initial operating model right, even if that model starts out small. These audacious individuals must possess the character to withstand naysayers and bullies.
Gandhi: “First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
Humility is needed to recognize the barriers in your way. Audacity is key to imagining a different future regardless, firing up the resolve to overcome impediments to your goal.
Solving humanity’s toughest problems requires no single hero, but a system of people, companies, organizations, and government that rally around a common enterprise.
First and foremost, be clear about your purpose and honest about what you bring to the table, as well as what you hope to take away. Are you and your partner values-aligned and committed to learning together? Are you willing to compromised be clear on those compromises, not in an easy “the ends justify the means” way, but in that gray area that recognizes the imperfection of the world—and of every human being? To create change, we have to be uncomfortable without losing sight of what is important.
Many of us must shift our lazy assumptions about other sectors, giving up presumptions about government (“corrupt and ineffective”), media (“liars”), philanthropy (“entitled and disconnected”), and technology (“monstrous and self-serving”). Of course, some people and organizations fit these assumptions, but when we refuse to see humanity in those who share a desire to create change, we miss the chance to amplify our work and realize our mission. And we are all needed to build more just and inclusive societies in which each individual counts.
Be wildly cautious when an organization calls and says, “We love what you do. We should find ways to partner.” If they cannot articulate why to partner, how to partner, or, most important, to what end, you won’t have a partnership; you’ll have a mess.
Try. Fail. Learn. Start again.
You build trust by showing up, by listening to what someone else has to say, by keeping promises. You build trust through shared endeavor and by the consistency of your words and actions. You build it by admitting mistakes and by communicating both when things go well and when they fail. You build trust by knowing your values, living them, and being clear with others that you will not violate those values.
Accompany each other
Rousseau: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”
They didn’t show up on time. They stole from the bakery. They were too fearful to knock on office doors and introduce themselves, looking at the floor when anyone spoke to them. They had few marketable skills, no trust, and little entrepreneurial drive… Intuitively, I adjusted the role I played, no longer simply a manager, but a coach, a cheerleader, a friend. Their challenges became mine to solve not for them but with them.
Accompaniment is a Jesuit idea, meaning to “live and walk” alongside another, to make someone feel valued and seen, bettered for knowing you, never belittled. Guiding another person, organization, or community to build confidence and capabilities requires tenacity, a disciplined resolve to show up repeatedly with no expectations of thanks in return. This kind of accompaniment requires the patience to listen to others’ stories without judgement, to offer skills and solutions without imposition. It is to be a follower as well as a guide, a humble yet aspirational teacher-student focused on coaching another with firm kindness and a steady presence. With those you aim to serve or lead, your job is to be interested, to help make another person shine, not demonstrate how smart or good or capable you yourself are.
The simple act of showing up and connecting with another’ humanity can help a person rekindle hope in ways they might not otherwise have dreamed of doing.
Despair is not the singular domain of the poor. For all of us who have suffered unimaginable loss or who are in crisis or physical pain, just getting out of bed can sometimes be an act of courage. For anyone experiencing loneliness or dependency, there is great power in knowing that while you have to do the hard work of change on your own, someone out there has your back.
We reduce people to statistics in ways that dehumanizes them, keeping ourselves at a distance from the ugly realities of our decisions—or our inaction. We tell ourselves there is nothing else to be done. We blame victims’ hardships on “the system” or characterize the poor as being unwilling or unworthy. We prefer not to know.
In times of both success and failure, we can choose with whom we stand. Going beyond yourself to enable others not just to persevere but to thrive lies at the heart of accompaniment. Twenty-first century capitalism rewards money, power, and fame, not the immeasurable impact we have on a person’s confidence, their courage, or their ability to, say, remain in school or even to make it through another day. This failure to recognize important work imperils us all. By rewarding only what we can measure, we perpetuate systems that fail to honor that which we value most—and the price we pay is nothing less than our collective soul.
Many models of accompaniment in the developing world, are based on understanding that people yearn to belong, to be cared for, and that individualistic communities thrive when they are parts of larger communities. In other words, human beings thrive when we believe someone cares about us. It isn’t much more complicated than that.
What are your fears? What are you struggling with? What motivates you to live a longer life?
Wherever people feel lonely, isolated, or anxious, there is an opportunity: to prevent chronic disease, to support the elderly, to take care of the very young, to help, to help the sick and suffering, to help prisoners feel less alone, and to enable the formerly incarcerated and drug users to get back on their feet. All of us will at some point need to be accompanied. All of us have the power to accompany someone else in need.
This is the secret to accompaniment: I will hold a mirror to you and show you your value, bear witness to your suffering and to your light. And over time , you will doo the same for me, for within the relationship lies the promise of our shared dignity and the mutual encouragement needed to do the hard things.
Whatever you aim to do, whatever problem you hope to address, remember to accompany those who are struggling, who are left out, who lack the capabilities needed to solve their own problems. We are each other’s destiny. Beneath the hard skills and firm strategic priorities needed to resolve our greatest challenges lies the soft, fertile ground of our shared humanity. In that place of hard and soft is sustenance enough to nourish the entire human family.
Tell stories that matter
The job of a moral leader—which is the job of all of us—is to learn to tell the stories that matter, stories that unite and inspire, reinforcing our individual and collective potential, and paint a picture of the future that we can build and inhabit together. Stories that matter are not stories that demean, deride, divide, ridicule, belittle, blame, or shame. We must take the harder path of telling stories that hold our truths, both the ugly and the beautiful, while remaining laser-focused on the possible.
Stories matter, for they have consequences. The stories we choose to tell often define who we become. Indeed, recent advances in science are proving that the narratives we tell about ourselves and others influence even our health and longevity. Show me a happy person, and I will show you someone who owns her own narrative, who shares most happenings in positive ways and tragic events as turning points rather than end points.
The moral leader elevates, providing pathways to redemption and meaning.
Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
We will not build strong institutions or confident, capable people if we don’t tell the whole truth. And we diminish ourselves when we tell—or heed—stories that reinforce negative stereotypes.
Stories shape and then reshape all of us. Stories matter.
Too many children are raised on narratives that reinforce a sense of inferiority or meekness. Some of these children grow into adults who never escape society’s low expectations. Others seem imprisoned in bitter allegories of their own making. Somewhere along the way, they forgot that our stories are not set in stone. We might inherit stories, but it is up to us to craft the narratives of our lives.
We are raised on stories about characters in bedtime fables, proverbs, religious texts, and family anecdotes; these shape our worldview and color our moral frameworks. Many of the narratives we inherit also demean other people.
Creating counternarratives that refuse to divide and diminish requires a reclamation of the parables and histories of people too often unheard, eliciting from them insightful, true stories that resonate with everyone’s humanity. Good news lies in spectacular role models of fortitude and forbearance, decency and dignity, models who exist in every hamlet and slum, in every city and on every isolated mountain.
Recounting tales of possibility also impacts the culture we create. If you want to inspire courageous acts of integrity, celebrate those who act with courage.
Plato: “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.”
Our hope for a moral revolution rests on telling stories that unite, that challenge stereotypes and easy prejudices, and that ultimately reinforce our dignity. Telling those stories effectively, however, requires a humility that acknowledges the light and dark in all of us. When you dare to tell your full story, you will inevitably touch people who relate to your most vulnerable elements. And as you dive into the more painful stories from your past, you may find clues to help shape the story of who you want to become.
Listening to people share stories of trauma or loss within their life trajectories is a profound reminder that our tragedies neither define nor destroy us. How we respond to our trauma plays a much greater role; and therein lies the groundwork for the Mose important stories we can write, not with pen and paper but in the way we conduct our lives.
When we dare to push the edges of comfort, the narratives we tell ourselves can shape-shift and transform the world.
Our collective story is a mosaic of narratives that inspire our better selves, counter those who would divide us, and reveal the hidden gifts and capabilities that the world would rather not see. The story of us is ultimately that of love forever unfolding. And no story matters more than that.
Embrace the beautiful struggle
Skills and resources are not enough to solve our problems: we must ground our systems in a spiritual foundation big enough to sustain our astonishing diversity. Such a foundation is based on the notion of transcendence, that all living things are interconnected, that we are deserving of dignity.
Every change agent must find within themselves the strength to carry on through the dark times and the courage to push against a resistant status quo, not just for a couple years but, potentially, for decades. Anger can go a long way, yet it eventually whittles the soul. External awards may be reinforcing, yet whatever comfort they provide is fleeting. Any honor bestowed by others can be taken away. There must be something more, something that nourishes the spirit and makes slogging for years through the mud and grime of social change bearable.
Beauty is an expression of human dignity. It resides in the work of showing up, of extending ourselves and bringing kindness when we feel like being anything but kinds. Beauty lives in the narratives of those who are striving to overcome profound obstacles just to survive. It thrives in the bonds of human connection and the quiet moments of contemplative reflection. Let beauty be a powerful touchstone, not only to reinforce your own resolve, but to rejuvenate those you serve.
Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must be the joy of doing something beautiful.
There are a thousand ways to reconnect to the here and now. The Jesuits practice a daily examen, a quick check-in with themselves, once at noon and again at the end of the day. Adapted four-step version. In the morning, set your intention for what you hope to do or how you hope to be during the day. At noon and/or in the evening, step back and assess how you are doing and what you’re learning from both success and failure. Third, forgive yourself for where you failed. And fourth, express gratitude.
There is wisdom in practices that entreat us to pause, to breathe, to contemplate what we are here to do.
Faith does not have to be religious, and prayer can take a thousand forms. We are on dangerous ground when. “Faith” becomes associated with political parties, or when nonbelievers are seen as heretics rather than seekers. A moral framework for an interdependent world has no place for religious practices that divide. What matters instead is that we enable our collective human flourishing. In whatever form faith takes for you, I wish you a reservoir from which you can draw sustenance. May you find ways and rituals to remind you to be present in the world, to be grateful.
When you are broken or exhausted—and you will be—remember beauty, gratitude, faith, and love. Remember that in the struggle, there is a beauty that endures. Remember that there will be beauty in moments of tragedy as well as in times of shared celebration. But most important, remember that beauty is inside you, if you let it be.
Read the Declaration’s principles and it becomes impossible to resist shaking your head at how far the world remains from the aspirations inscribed in it many decades ago. Reread it and you might discover gaps where more aspiration is in order.
This declaration of principles is aspirational, but it has become a moral compass, a daily reminder of who we aim to be and who we practice being:
Manifesto for a moral revolution
It starts by standing with the poor. Listening to voices unheard, and recognizing potential where others see despair.
It demands investing as a means, not an end, daring to go where markets have failed and aid has fallen short. It makes capital work for us, not control us.
It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to see the world as it is, and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be. It’s having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to admit failure, and the courage to start again.
It requires patience and kindness, resilience and grid: a hard-edged hope. It’s leadership that rejects complacency, breaks through bureaucracy, and challenges corruption. Doing what’s right, not what’s easy.
It’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world. Changing the way the world tackles poverty and building a world based on dignity.
Don’t underestimate the impact you can have as a parent, a teacher, a colleague, an organization builder.
There is divinity in each of us, and we are connected to something greater than ourselves.
Every one of us deserves to be seen, to be respected, to determine his or her own life. Every one of us is owed a fighting chance to flourish.
Commitment to one another and to shared values requires a willingness to confront obstacles to listening, to seeing, to making true human connection. The work of building our community requires being open to other faiths, cultures, and traditions, to celebrating what is most essential in each of them while building the courage to speak up about that which a single human family, beyond any nation or religion, caste or tribe. This work is difficult and it is long, but it is the work of the moral revolution, the only way to build a future that will sustain us.
A revolution of values is one that necessarily relies on countless, immeasurable daily heroic acts. Unified in the pursuit of dignity, we can serve in a thousand ways. Fortified by one another, we can choose to celebrate role models who help others succeed. Strengthened by a commitment to shared values, we can build meaningful, productive, relationships across lines of difference.
Consider writing your own manifesto. It should start with what is most important to you, the world you want to create—in your school, local community, or company. Next, consider the means you will need to achieve those ends. What are the obstacles you face? The tensions you must hold? What kind of person do you want to be as you live your purpose? If you can envision your horizon, you can build a pathway there. It will inevitably be a long, twisting one, sometimes turning back on itself entirely. But I hope your path will be joined by many others, drawn to that mission, purpose, and values to which you subscribe.
All of us are needed for a moral revolution. It doesn’t matter where you live, the size of your bank account, or what you do for a living. The world needs you to flex, to stretch to uncomfortable levels, to build your moral imagination, to listen more deeply, to reckon with your sense of identity, and to open yourself up to understanding the layered inconsistencies and differing perspectives of others. It requires each of us to partner better, to tell stories that matter, and to embrace the beautiful struggle.
Critically, a revolution of morals requires each of us to rethink success, asking ourselves whether we are doing enough to serve others, whether we are enabling others to help themselves, whether we are kind. We must find the courage to recognize, integrate, and accept the light and dark sides of ourselves so that we can bolster and integrate our larger communities. Finally, we must have faith that we can solve our biggest problems, trusting that we can bridge our divides because we are connected, because we can see one another, because our shared destiny is dependent on the dignity of every one of us.
Whoever you are and whatever you do, the world needs you to lead. There will be times when happiness may feel elusive and the horizon impossible to reach. But remember that each day, we wake up to another chance to renew the world. Daily, we have a choice to recommit to the work we came to do. Daily, we can reconstitute the promise of hard-edged hope.
As we go through life on this tiny, blue planet, the only home we know, imagine the chances that might arise if we each took a step toward making it a home in which all of us could participate, where each person could flourish with peace and justice and a sense of wholeness for many, many generations to come. The world is waiting for you.
Accompanying Course: The Path of Moral Leadership
We’re in this together. We’re all here with a common vision. Fellow course participants are our larger team.
Show up. Show up equally for yourself and for others; be as invested in each others’ learning journeys as you are for your own.
Talk to each other. You’ll engage in team-based discussions and activities and interact with all course participants in the Global Conversation.
Step into discomfort. Feeling discomfort is a proxy for learning and progress.
Tend to the cultural commons. Be thoughtful and work to build solutions and relationships through dialogue.
Explore differences. So many different people, so many different contexts, cultures, and ways of being. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore.