The five principles of fearlessness

National Geographic Society’s chairman Jean Case explains the bold risk-taking behind great discoveries and innovations.

By Jean Case
Published 5 Jan 2019, 17:57 GMT
Jean Case, philanthropist and National Geographic Society's chairman.
Jean Case, philanthropist and National Geographic Society's chairman.
Philanthropist and National Geographic Society's chairman Jean Case outlines the qualities of change makers in her book Be Fearless.

If you think that only a rare genius, an exceptionally privileged individual, or a massively funded organisation can launch a breakthrough product or bring a world-changing movement to life, I’ll introduce you to the fearless people from all walks of life who have made the unimaginable possible. You might be dazzled by their achievements, and it’s easy to assume they possessed extraordinary abilities or advantages that set them apart from ordinary strivers. But I have news for you. Their single common trait was this: they were all passionate about making the world better. They seized an opportunity and kept at it in spite of daunting barriers, frequent failures, and loud objections—and they succeeded. Today we look at them, our most iconic creators, and wonder how the world ever existed without their contributions. But, as you will see, many of their stories provide inspiration and helpful hints on how we can all make a greater impact in every aspect of our lives, and serve as beacons of fearlessness for others.

The cover of Jean Case's book, 'Be Fearless'.
Photograph by Courtesy The Case Foundation

Today’s global challenges—poverty, civil unrest, political stalemates, economic divisions, climate change—play out daily against the backdrop of our living rooms. But if these problems seem too big and complex—easier to ignore than to even attempt to solve—know that there has never been a better time to engage. An explosion of technological innovation is transforming the way we live. And if we’re going to keep up with the rapid pace of change, we need to rethink the old way of doing things.

My husband, Steve, and I started the Case Foundation in 1997 with a fearless mission: to invest in people and ideas that can change the world. This means we’re always investigating and experimenting to find the best ideas out there, the best leaders, the best models for innovation. A few years ago, we engaged a team of experts to determine the “secret sauce” that propelled those rare leaders, organizations, and movements to success. They discovered five principles that are consistently present when transformational breakthroughs take place. To spark this sort of change, you must:

1. Make a Big Bet. So many people and organisations are naturally cautious. They look at what seemed to work in the past and try to do more of it, leading to only incremental advances. Every truly history-making transformation has occurred when people have decided to go for revolutionary change.

2. Be bold, take risks. Have the guts to try new, unproven things and the rigour to continue experimenting. Risk taking is not a blind leap off a cliff but a lengthy process of trial and error. And it doesn’t end with the launch of a product or the start of a movement. You need to be willing to risk the next big idea, even if it means upsetting your own status quo.

3. Make failure matter. Great achievers view failure as a necessary part of advancing towards success. No one seeks it out, but if you’re trying new things, the outcome is by definition uncertain. When failure happens, great innovators make the setback matter, applying the lessons learned and sharing them with others.

4. 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.

5. Let urgency conquer fear. Don’t overthink and over analyse. It’s natural to want to study a problem from all angles, but getting caught up in questions like “What if we’re wrong? What if there’s a better way?” can leave you paralysed with fear. Allow the compelling need to act to outweigh all doubts and setbacks.

Hear how Alex Honnold copes with fear while free solo climbing mountains.

These five principles can be summarised in two words: Be Fearless. Taken together, they form a road map for effective changemaking for people from all walks of life, but it’s important to note that they aren’t 'rules'. They don’t always work in tandem or sequentially, and none is more important than another. Think of them as a set of markers that can help identify when decisions are being made fearlessly.

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