For Innovators, It’s The Un-Serenity Prayer

Innovator Mindset blog author Dennis Stauffer has just been named 9th among the Top 40 Innovation Bloggers in the world by the editors of the Innovation Excellence global community. A humble, “Thank you!” to those of you who voted.

It’s strange what we sometimes remember. Like a conversation I had early in high school with a classmate who was forcefully advocating social change. I took a more cautious position and he asked if I really thought the world couldn’t stand a little improving. I remarked that I thought things were generally okay. To that, he blurted out, “Oh please! Deliver us from satisfied people!” Even then, long before I made innovation a personal focus, I realized he had a point. Resignation is not always a good thing. Too much serenity has its drawbacks.

The Serenity Prayer, long a staple of 12-step programs, speaks to the importance of acceptance.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

While it mentions change, it’s long been interpreted as emphasizing serenity. (We don’t call it the Courage Prayer.) American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is believed to be the author of this widely-misattributed passage that dates from 1943. But earlier variations have been found, including one by Niebuhr that reverses the key thoughts:

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it but I think it captures the spirit of innovation better than his later version. The different sequence places less emphasis on accepting the status quo and more on the courage to change it. His different word choice is also interesting. We tend to see wisdom as something we acquire through years of experience and reflection, a broad understanding that does not change. Insight is more immediate and dynamic, more specific to context, more amenable to revision based on new information…more typical of innovation.

By simply rearranging the same key ideas and tweaking his terminology, Niebuhr crafted two significantly different messages. One, that serenity is paramount; the other that the courage to change is the greater value. For whatever reason, Niebuhr apparently settled on the version that emphasizes serenity. But for innovators, it’s all about dissatisfaction with the status quo, about seeking improvements, about the courage to pursue the new and different. Apple would have been a very different company—or might not have existed at all—if Steve Jobs’ early spiritual journey had led him to value acceptance and serenity over courage and change. Where would we be if serenity had been the chief pursuit of Edison? …of Ford? …of Gandhi? …of King?

Interestingly, this earlier “courage first” form of the prayer matches other early expressions of these sentiments by women involved in education and volunteer activities in the 1930s. (i.e. innovators?)

For an innovator, the emphasis is not on the pursuit of serenity tempered by the courage to change, but rather a push for change that’s tempered by a realistic assessment of the challenges we face. The tradeoff is the same but an innovator has a different preference…a preference for activism, for taking risks, for Un-Serenity.

As we begin this new year, how personally committed to innovation are you? What are you dissatisfied with enough to find the courage to change it? Which do you value more, serenity or courage?

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2 Responses to For Innovators, It’s The Un-Serenity Prayer

  1. Denise Moreland says:

    Thank you for attributing Reinhold Neibuhr as the author of the serenity prayer. I have rarely seen him get credit for this brilliance. I agree with your points about serenity versus courage and wisdom versus insight. I often have similar thoughts about the “glass half full.” We think this points to optimism and a spirit of gratitude. I think it can also breed complacency. If one is really thirsty or everyone else has a full glass, focusing on the half-emply part is right and motivating.

  2. David B. Harb says:

    I just learned of your blog today. My first read was your blog about serenity. Upon reading it a second time, I am convinced that you may have this notion upside down. Before writing this, I went to the dictionary for “serene” and “courage”. My thoughts were reinforced.
    Courage, Dennis, almost by definition, seems to require absolute serenity. Consider the courage of a Medal of Honor recipient, the courage of the inventor (Bell), or the courage of the perfector (Jobs). Who in the world could ever believe that those men or women could ever have, in that first instant, begun to act, or in their untiring continuation proceeded to act, without absolute peace and serenity that what they had set out to do was right, or cool, or great? How serene were you when you first decided to begin your blog?

    Nothing great has ever been done by a committee. It has always been that one special person. It then occurs to one that such greatness only comes with great and unwavering serenity. That’s why it’s so important in our lives to find it.

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