S1:E29 | Risk, Adventure and the Search for Meaning

Guest Speaker(s): John Graham, Director of Operations, Giraffe Heroes Project
Host: John A. Warnick, Esq., Founder, Purposeful Planning Institute


John Graham lived a life of risk and adventure—from wars and revolutions to dangerous mountains and sinking ships. But at a certain point—and it began in the war in Vietnam—he began to realize that a life focused just on satisfying his own need for adventure was lacking any real meaning and that emptiness began to torment him. John finally found that meaning in service—in helping people solve tough public problems, in making life better for others. Some of that service has been as a global peacemaker. And much of it has been with his work with the Giraffe Heroes Project, a global movement that moves people to stick their necks out for the common good and gives them tools to succeed.

What John found is available to everyone. It doesn’t matter what your station in life is or the station of your clients. We all face the same challenge. There is no deeper human need and no more powerful yearning than to live a life we know is meaningful. And the most stable, long-term source of that meaning is service.



John Graham is an author, adventurer, former diplomat and citizen activist. No guru and no saint, he’s repeatedly sought the meaning of his life in many places where it wasn’t. He finally found the purpose he sought in service—in helping solve significant public problems, and in making life better for other people. Making and implementing this discovery hasn’t only brought him enormous satisfaction—it’s been the adventure of his life. 

For the last 35 years Graham has been a leader of the Giraffe Heroes Project, a global movement inspiring people to stick their necks out to solve public problems and giving them tools to succeed. He’s helped end apartheid in South Africa, avert a major strike in Canada, save what’s left of the Everglades, settle a war in the Sudan, find long-term environmental solutions in the Pacific Northwest and build bridges between the Muslim world and the West. 

His books include Outdoor Leadership, Stick Your Neck Out–A Street-smart Guide to Creating Change in Your Community and BeyondIt’s Up to Us, and a memoir, Quest: Risk, Adventure, and the Search for Meaning. He’s done TV and radio all over the world. For more information, see johngraham.org

JOHN A: Welcome to another purposeful planning Podcast. I’m John A. Warnick, your host for today’s podcast. And I’m very honored to have with me again, on the air with PPI production, John Graham. John, previously, almost 11 years ago, was featured on a Philanthropy U program that we did — I’ll explain in just a little bit how that came about — John’s got a fascinating background, you’re gonna be really enthralled by what he’s going to share with us today. He shipped out on a freighter when he was 16 years old. He hitchhiked through the Algerian revolution when he was 19, and he was on the team that made the first ascent of Denalis north wall at 20. That’s a climb so dangerous, it’s never been repeated. So his name is in the history books forever. Kind of perpetually, it looks like at this point, hitchhiked across the world, and at 22, he worked as a correspondent in every war he came across. He was a US Foreign Service Officer for 18 years, he was in the middle of the 1969 revolution in Libya, and the war in Vietnam, to a young John Graham adventure was everything. And each brush with death only pushed him to up the ante into bury ever deeper, the emotional life needed to make him whole. Then it changed somewhat slowly, sometimes dramatically. During one night at the height of a battle in Vietnam, John later would appear in front of the United Nations where he risked his career crossing his own government to support peace initiatives in South Africa and Cuba. And that’s perhaps where he first began to stick his neck out in a major way — we’ll talk a little bit more about that soon — then came that all or nothing moment, when he was forced to make a decision fighting for his life, in a lifeboat in the middle of a typhoon when his ship caught fire and sunk in the Gulf of Alaska. His young daughter was with him (we’ll hear a little bit more about that shortly). For the last 35 years, John Graham has been the leader of the Giraffe Heroes Project, that global movement inspiring people to stick their necks out as he has to solve public problems, and to give them the tools needed to succeed. He helped in apartheid in South Africa, avert a major strike and Canada, save what’s left at the Everglades, subtle-war in the Sudan, find long-term environmental solutions for the Pacific Northwest, and build bridges between the Muslim world and west. John’s the author of several books, including Outdoor Leadership, Sticking Your Neck Out: The Street-smart Guide To Creating Change In Your Community And Beyond, It’s Up To Us, A Memoir, and Quest: Risk Adventure, and the Search for Meaning. He’s done TV and radio programs all over the world. For more information on John, go to his website, johngraham.org. And John, with that, I want to get started. I don’t want to take any more time. There’s so much to cover. But if you would, maybe, could you give us just your own kind of brief description of your life and the adventures that you’ve been on?

JOHN: Well, John, thank you very much for inviting me out. I’m very happy to be here. You’re really covered it extremely well. I don’t want to repeat that stuff. All I can say is darn it. It’s all true. My life as a young person was all about adventure and everything you’ve noted was as I said is true. And right now I realize I’m very lucky to be alive. I came close to a violent death a dozen times, at least by the time I was 40. So it was a great life for a while as long as it lasted but somewhere along the road, usually I think I recounted back to my time on the ward in Vietnam, a life devoted to nothing but adventure and that’s what my life was: devoted to nothing but adventure. All I cared about was the next big thrill, the next big adrenaline rush. A life like that was shallow because I didn’t care about other people, I just cared about myself. I didn’t care about the world problems I was enmeshed in. I cared about my next adventure, and all of a sudden, in a battle in Vietnam, it came to me, there was death all around me. That was an incredibly shallow way to live my life, incredibly shallow. And from that moment on, I just went deeper and deeper into a hole, “What is my life about?” The adventures are fun, but it’s so empty. And I began to crawl out of that hole, because I obviously survived Vietnam, and I came back and I was in the Foreign Service. And a few years later, I was at the United Nations, and I had a chance to actually revert my life and try to strive to do something good. And I did help in apartheid, for example, at the United Nations and did a number of other things at the UN, all in an attempt to reverse the direction of my early life. And what it was, was I was finding meaning for the first time in my life. And this became an absolutely core thing for me, was that the answer to the loneliness of the despair, I felt being so self-absorbed, was finding meaning, “Why was I on the planet?” I think we all, in some sense, feel this way. Maybe not quite as dramatic of fashion, as I did, but everybody looks for meaning. The philosophers have been talking to us and telling us for millennia that there’s no human wish, greater than meaning. That’s the biggest search we can all get involved in, is a search for meaning in our own life. And it’s true, my life and in many of the lives of the people — I’ll talk to that and admit, as a giraffe project is honored — what’s important is finding that meaning of looking into a mirror and knowing that looking back at you matters, that what you’re doing matters, and look at your own. I would say your listeners think of your own personal life, in those times in your life, when you’ve been doing something meaningful, it could be with your family, it could be in your community, it could be a project when you’re doing something meaningful, isn’t that when you feel most alive? Isn’t that when you’re most electric, most passionate, most convincing to other people? Of course it is. We all know the importance of meaning. And what I discovered and what you have discovered, perhaps will discover is that the truest most stable source of meaning, is being of service and helping other people and making the world a better place. Because it’s a tougher lesson for me and took me a long time to learn it. But the second half of my life has been devoted to that first at the United Nations and then, with the giraffe heroes project. So I can say more about the giraffe heroes project. 

JOHN A: We’re gonna get to that because I think that it really has given a great deal of meaning to the second half of your life. But it’s so appropriate for a podcast with the Purposeful Planning Institute, where purpose is everything that we would start out with John kind of underlining the importance of discovering purpose and meaning in one’s life. John, what drew us together the second time was I happened to see something that you put out about a documentary that you and your daughter have contributed to significantly. It’s the story of a youth fighting for your life and trying to protect your daughter’s life in a lifeboat in the middle of a typhoon in the Gulf of Alaska. Could you just take a few minutes and share that experience? It is pretty dramatic. 

JOHN: Oh, well. This happened soon after the time of the United Nations and I had found enough meaning in my life and I got my life reoriented enough so that I left the Foreign Service because I was just gonna get myself involved in more wars and more revolutions. It wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. So I decided to leave the Foreign Service, but I forgot to think about money. This thing may resonate with some of the listeners and their clients. I forgot to think about money, so I had to earn some money and so I found a job and the job was lecturing on cruise ships. They didn’t care what I talked about foreign policy, whatever yada yada but they paid extremely well. And I thought to myself, “How naive I was? Oh well. I can save the world and end apartheid and deal with poverty and homelessness all that for half a year and the other half hour lecture on cruise ships and it will be fun.” And boy, was that naive? The very first cruise ship I got a job on was headed for Tokyo from Vancouver, and it caught fire in the middle of the North Pacific, just off the Alaska coast. And I soon found myself in a lifeboat with my daughter Mallory as the ship was burning. And not only that, but a typhoon was coming on and we were 140 miles from shore. A rescue armada had been organized and the fire broke out at night. By dawn we were in lifeboats and a big oil tanker had come by but it was too big to orient itself to rescue people off the lifeboats. So, Coast Guard’s from Canada and the United States sent helicopters and they began plucking people out of the lifeboats, but the storm got worse and worse. The good thing is, by noon on the first day in the lifeboats with a typhoon coming and I saw my daughter rescued, go spinning off into space in a helicopter and then deposited on the deck of a freighter that it answered the SOS. But for me, that wasn’t an option. And the storm got so bad the helicopters couldn’t fly by this point. There were only 10 of us left in this lifeboat number two, and basically we were dying. We were in the middle of a typhoon and we were dying of hypothermia. We had no warm clothes, cold water was raking over us. And the key thing was it was getting dark. And it would be a miracle if anyone found us at night. So the helicopters couldn’t fly. Our only option, our only chance of survival was a Coast Guard Cutter, a boat, that was criss-crossing the wild ocean that evening looking for us. But like I say, we had no lights and we had no no flares, nothing like that. It had to see us in daylight. Once it got dark, we were dead. By morning we would all be dead of hypothermia or thrown out of the boat, whatever. So I sat down there that lifeboat hanging on for dear life. And I thought about my life as you might suspect you think about your life. And I thought about the dozen times that almost died. And it says, “Well this is the 13th. I guess I don’t have 13 lives and it looks like I’m going down.” But darn it, I changed my life. I’m no longer this idiot adventurer with nothing that mattered but myself. I’m actually trying to help make things better in the world. And now, “God…” I wasn’t particularly religious. So I didn’t know what to call it but, “God. What are you doing this for? I thought the universe was supposed to be logical. Here I am trying to be an instrument of good and now I’m being wiped out. It makes no damn sense whatsoever.” And I got really angry and I shouted into the storm, “Dammit, why? Why am I being killed now just as I’m getting started on a productive service-oriented life? And this voice came back. “Oh, he’s so loud.” No one else heard it in the lifeboatman me, of course, but I heard it. And it basically said, “You’re kidding yourself. Here, you’re helping the project. Good for you, pat you on the head. But now you’re lecturing on a cruise ship. If you get out of this one alive, you’ll lecture on another cruise ship. You haven’t got the guts to live a life of meaning. You haven’t got the guts to do what you want to do. So you got to prove it. You either have to really commit yourself to the life of service, or you’ll die out here either can be arranged.” That’s what I heard. So I was beaten, I was dying. I knew I only had a short amount of time to live. So I said, “Yeah, okay, that’s a deal. I got it, I got it.” And at that moment, across is the guard cutter, it comes crashing through this storm and we get rescued. So I never looked back after that. I went back to New York and then I admitted by then and married my wife and wedlock. And she had started actually the Giraffe Heroes Project and it became a perfect vehicle for my service. Because what I found out and what I think anyone finds out, is that when you’re looking for meaning, you’re going to find it only one way and that’s in service in helping make the world a better place. And that’s what the Giraffe Project does and for the last 35 years or so, and I have done nothing but that. And if I may say so, the project is a very simple-minded strategy, and we simply tell the stories of people who are already sticking their necks out. That’s why it’s called the Giraffe Heroes project. We find these people sticking their necks out and we get their stories, retell their stories in any way we can: website, social media, whatever all over the planet. Other people hear these stories and they say, “Well, heck. I can do that too. And so we inspire all kinds of people to find the meaning in their lives through service by giving them examples of other people doing the same thing by going first. A simple-minded strategy but darned if it doesn’t work. From the feedback we’re getting, we inspired, I don’t know, thousands, hundreds of thousands maybe, of people to take up trying to solve tough problems where they live. Maybe that could be battling climate change, or dealing with a crooked city government or for a kid, it may be an environmental project someplace picking up trash, and then the local polluted river bank, whatever. We’ve now added over 1,500 people. There’s a lot more on us at www.giraffeheroes.org. I urge you to take a look at it and see what we’ve been doing over the last 35 years. But the point I want to make is that the giraffes discovered the same thing. I discovered, they found the meaning of their life, whatever they were doing. And they found that meaning in service, they found that meaning by making their world a better place. And so that’s what leaves me so adamant about this idea that the core of life is finding meaning and purpose. And that the way to do that is through some kind of service applies to all of us. I don’t care whether you’re white, or you’re black, or you’re green. I don’t care whether you’re rich or poor. I don’t care whether you run an organization or you have and have clients or you’re personally wealthy yourself, it doesn’t make any difference. The challenge is all the same for all of us, here on this planet to find meaning, you’re on this planet to find purpose. And the easiest and most permanent way of finding that is through some kind of service. And that’s my message to people listening to this podcast, and I hope through you to your clients as well. I can say more about that but I’ll stop there.

JOHN A: John, this is marvelous. And it’s so aligned with what I think our community is about. Given this myriad just amazing mosaic of adventures and experiences that you’ve had that are so unique. Can you reach back into those experiences and pull out for us some practical tips and advice that you could offer to our listeners today, and through them, to the families and the individuals that they serve? That might help everyone better understand how to navigate the challenges of wealth and well being.

JOHN: Sure, I’d be glad to do that. I’m not offering it as some kind of know-it-all, as certainly, but I will tell you, from my own experience, that you now know a little bit about it, and from the experience of these giraffe heroes. These 1500 people have all made the same discovery about the importance of purpose, and that is it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor. So I’m talking to all of your listeners and all of their clients, it doesn’t matter. Your station in life doesn’t matter. You still need to find meaning in your life, and that means, practically speaking, asking some practical advice. It means, for example, in counseling your clients to really come to understand what makes them tick, not just their bank accounts, not just how much they can give or whatever. But what makes them tick, what are they passionate about? If someone, for example, says, “Oh, I care about the environment.” Oh, great. Well, let me suggest that you explore with those clients more than just giving a fat check to the Sierra Club, for example, (which is fine). I’m not saying don’t give a fat check to the Sierra Club but I’m saying get actively involved and find ways to get your clan actively involved in some environmental pursuits. For example, maybe by joining an organization as a volunteer, forget the money for the moment anyway. joining an organization as a volunteer to do how I don’t know, deal with an environmental crisis right in your own community. Get out there and help. Let’s say, for example, that your client, you find out, is really concerned with homelessness, because every time they drive to their office, they see people living on the streets and stuff and their city. Well, don’t just write a check and leave it at that to allow someone else to try to solve the problem. There are all kinds of ways to get in and try to solve the crisis of lack of low income housing in this country. And that means more than just money. It means getting actively involved, for example, in the politics of your town. Sitting on a city council Planning Board, for example, getting actively involved. So I guess what I would suggest in some is, first of all, find out what makes your clients really tick. Deep down, what do they care about? Of course, they care about their kids and their grandkids, fine. But beyond that, what do they care about the environment, the climate, corruption in politics, whatever. And then find some way to suggest active involvement that fits their station in life. I’m not saying that someone who’s 95, and feeble should get out there with a signboard or a placard or something. But I suspect there’s an awful lot of your clients that are looking for some active involvement, at least that’s what I learned. I run a nonprofit and so, I do have a lot of contact with some wealthy people. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something like, “Again, I’m tired of just giving money. I can do that fine but it just still leaves me empty. I want to get more involved.” So look for active involvement for your clients. And that active involvement is targeted toward a kind of service that resonates with what makes your client’s life meaningful. And you’ve learned this through your own active involvement in talking with them, and finding out what makes them tick at a deep personal level.

JOHN A: John, this has been absolutely inspiring, you are a giraffe, you’ve stuck your neck out over these almost 40 years now. We’re so grateful for the decisions that you made. You’re describing some of those experiences in such intimate detail with us today. And I would encourage everyone listening to follow John’s example, let’s find ways to dive more deeply into what motivates our clients to basically join with them in helping to solve the tough problems that face society, and to make this world a better place for all of us. Thank you, and we just look forward to continuing to watch you, stick your neck out John.

JOHN: Thank you, John A.

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