For Innovators, a timely un-serenity prayer?

by Dennis Stauffer

For Innovators, a Timely Un-Serenity Prayer?It’s strange what we sometimes remember. Like the 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. I sometimes wonder if too much serenity has its drawbacks for innovators?

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?

image credit: sundayreflections.com

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Creating an Innovation Mindset - It's All About AssumptionsDennis Stauffer is the award winning author of Thinking Clockwise, A Field Guide for the Innovative Leader. He’s the founder of Innovator Mindset, helping individuals, teams and organizations boost their capacity to innovate. A copy of his new report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life can be downloaded at: https://innovatormindset.com/specialreport.htm

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