- Jean Case is the chairman of the National Geographic Society and CEO of Case Foundation and Case Impact Network, and the author of “Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose.”
- The following is an excerpt from the new paperback version of her book, “Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose.”
- In it, she describes the experience of travelling with the book and learning how its principles have impacted people around the world.
- “People become heroes not because they are blessed with extraordinary powers, but because when they see the urgency, they simply choose to act,” she says.
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I am always inspired by people who challenge themselves and those around them by asking the question: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” “Be Fearless” tells the stories of innovators and activists, artists and entrepreneurs, scientists and explorers, and individuals from organisations and businesses who answered that question with actions that spoke louder than words.
One of the five principles of the book is “Reach beyond your bubble.” Our society is in thrall to the myth of the lone genius. But innovation happens at intersections. Often the most original solutions come from engaging with people with diverse experiences to forge new and unexpected partnerships. It’s amazing what can happen when companies aren’t limited by old biases and leaders are open to ideas from the unlikeliest of sources. It is also important to applaud when larger organisations embrace fearlessness. In many cases, as large organisations find success, it becomes difficult to leave the comfort zone to forge new ways forward or to foster innovations that might be needed in a fast-changing world.
Whenever I think about established institutions and their boards facing fearless decisions, I am reminded of an important moment at National Geographic more than 100 years ago. At the time, the editor of National Geographic magazine made what was then a radical and risky decision: to put photographs in the magazine. Back then, photography was a “new tech” that was viewed by many as an unserious and passing fad. So, when the matter was taken up by the board of trustees, there was scepticism about whether photography was befitting of a serious science and exploration journal. The editor described how photos could be used to help bring the stories to life and expand the magazine’s appeal, but some trustees simply weren’t having it. In the end, the board supported the use of photography in the magazine, but two board members eventually resigned over the decision!
Of course, in the ensuing century, National Geographic became known for the iconic images capturing the front lines of the unknown, both on our planet and out in the universe. And in 2019, that bold decision made more than 100 years ago continues to enable the National Geographic brand to reach further and achieve new milestones, with National Geographic becoming the first global brand in the world to pass 100 million Instagram followers and the film “Free Solo” winning an Oscar.
This venerable institution, which I am so proud to be a part of, continues to be bold and take risks in a wide variety of ways. To update a story that was featured in the book, in early 2019 National Geographic embraced a partnership with the Walt Disney Company (resulting from its acquisition of 21st Century Fox) that holds all the commercial businesses of National Geographic. The same fearless spirit that has been in the DNA of National Geographic for 131 years is alive as ever and encourages us to be vigilant for new opportunities to illuminate science, exploration, and storytelling for people everywhere.
One of the other joys of the days on the road sharing “Be Fearless” was the new ideas and perspectives I gained from readers of the book. One young woman who is a budding entrepreneur came up to me to praise the chapter entitled “Crash and Learn” – and then she told me about her way of expressing the same idea: “Win some, learn some,” which I loved! She has applied this thinking as she has confronted some early failures in the building of her new company.
Audiences everywhere have enjoyed hearing the story from the book about chef, restauranteur, and humanitarian José Andrés’s efforts in Puerto Rico and around the world to bring food security to communities following natural disasters.
Following the publication of the book, my husband Steve and I were privileged to join José in Puerto Rico, where we saw firsthand the remarkable work he has continued to do there, after serving nearly four million of the victims of Hurricane Maria immediately following the crisis. Today, José and his team at World Central Kitchen are working to transform the island so that it can be more sustainable and self-sufficient and, therefore, more resilient when disaster strikes. Many readers have told me how energised they were by reading José’s story.
But here’s the thing about José – and it’s an important lesson on fearlessness. José didn’t just do one thing, as important as it was. He keeps growing his sense of urgency. Since I wrote about his efforts, he has crossed the globe and has continued to work tirelessly and urgently when disasters and crises threaten food security. From the cyclone in Mozambique and earthquakes in Indonesia to the hurricanes in Florida and the food crisis in Venezuela, José has been on the ground taking risks and boldly creating solutions. For his efforts, and since the publication of “Be Fearless,” José was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
With all his success, José remains humble. “My name is José Andrés, and I am a cook,” he said as he stood in the shadow of the Washington Monument in 2014 to deliver a commencement address to graduates of George Washington University. “When President Knapp asked me to speak at your commencement, I thought, ‘why a chef?’ Even my daughters said, ‘They asked you to speak or to cook lunch for graduates?'” The students laughed, charmed by this man who was anything but a simple cook.
José embodies the last principle I share in “Be Fearless”: “Let urgency conquer fear.” Don’t overthink and overanalyze. It’s natural to want to study a problem from all angles, but getting caught up in questions like, “What if we’re wrong?” and “What if there is a better way?” can leave you paralysed with fear. Allow the compelling need to act to outweigh all doubts and setbacks. People become heroes not because they are blessed with extraordinary powers, but because when they see the urgency, they simply choose to act.