What I’ve Learned: Lessons from a “giraffe-maker”

While a student at Berea College, I had occasion to have lunch with my mom and two of my sisters at a Denny’s Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. The waitress gave my youngest sister, who was born while I was away at college, a kiddie menu. The menu included a cardboard giraffe that you could punch-out and assemble.
I had recently announced to my parents that I was changing my major in college from home economics to philosophy. They seemed a bit concerned about how I would find employment with a degree in philosophy and that was a recurring theme of our conversation that day.
My sister, Crissy, who was in high school at the time, tried first to assemble the giraffe, to no avail. Then mom tried for a while. Finally, after some frustration, the task was turned over to me, with the comment, “You’re in college, let’s see if you can figure it out!” When I finished and handed the giraffe to my smiling little sister, mom jokingly exclaimed, “Now I know what you can do with your philosophy degree, you can be a giraffe-maker!”
This story has been repeated through the years by my parents as a way of describing my journey from college to productive adulthood. The liberal arts education I received at Berea College has been tremendously useful in honing my giraffe-making skills. Since graduating I have worked in the nonprofit and social change sectors, work that could aptly be described as giraffe making. We are presented with complex issues or projects and have to craft a path forward with no clear instructions. As Miles Horton would say, we make the road by walking.
This year I turned 50 and have become more reflective about the journey than usual. What have I learned from my career as a giraffe-maker? While not exactly epiphanies, the following lessons are the ones that I have internalized:

  • I learn more from people who disagree with me than from those who agree. When honest and civil, disagreements can bring about greater consciousness.
  • Social change takes time. Don’t give up, don’t become cynical and don’t assume you can do it alone.
  • I have learned far more from my mistakes than from my successes. Practice and reflection are the best paths to understanding.
  • We can’t change others, only ourselves. But others may respond differently to the changes we make in ourselves.
  • I am responsible for my own happiness. I may not be able to change a situation but I can change how I respond to it.
  • As the aboriginal creation myth asserts, we “sing the world into existence.” Our perceptions, choices and actions affect reality in significant and often irreversible ways. We bear incredible responsibility to act wisely.
  • Ceding control and letting go can open up many possibilities. But knowing when and how is difficult.
  • Never underestimate the importance of humility, humor and kindness. As Kurt Vonnegut advises, “God damn it, you've got to be kind.”

This essay by Jeanne Marie Hibberd was previously published as part of a “What I've Learned” series in the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center Newsletter at Berea College, Summer 2011.