Be the First Penguin

Be the First Penguin

Posted with permission from Brigadier General John E. Michel, USAF – Commanding General, NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan; Commander, 438 Air Expeditionary Wing

“Following the herd is a sure way to mediocrity.” Patti Wilson

Not long ago I had the opportunity to don a penguin costume and jump into a pool of icy-cold water, all in the name of supporting a good cause. About three dozen of us braved near-zero temperatures to take turns diving into a frosty pool (really an extra-large refuse dumpster) to help raise money for the Special Olympics.

    Although it seemed like a fun idea when I first volunteered, I have to admit I was a little fearful on the actual day of the event. Now don’t get me wrong, it was fun searching for and buying the penguin costume and I had a great time driving to the event with flippers on the wheel and oversized orange penguin feet on the pedals. But as I turned into the parking lot and saw the ambulance parked in front of the diving platform, I seriously began questioning what I had signed up for.

    Fortunately, I brought my teenage son, Taylor, with me, so any chance of making a quick getaway were quickly met with a “don’t be weak, Dad” comment. Admittedly, about that time I thought about Shakespeare’s paraphrased great quote in King Henry IV, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” In other words, it is often better to think carefully and not act than to do something that may later cause some very real problems.

    In this case, the problem that concerned me was catching pneumonia or, worse, taking a post-dive ambulance ride after my heart stopped beating due to the shock of encountering the frigid water. Although far-fetched, it’s funny what your mind will do when you’re scantily clothed in a penguin outfit in below-freezing temperatures waddling across the parking lot to jump into a refuse dumpster-turned-diving pool.

    Needless to say, my desire to offer someone else the penguin suit to wear so they could take the plunge for me, or make up an excuse why I couldn’t carry through with my jump, was inviting, but ultimately not the right thing to do.

    So there I stood, perched on the launching pad overlooking the frostiest water I’ve ever seen. With people watching, cameras rolling, and my stomach churning, I think I understood what it must feel like to be “the first penguin.”

    The idea of the “first penguin” comes from the late Randy Pausch’s book The Last Lecture. Paush, a former professor at Carnegie Mellon, describes how he developed a “First Penguin Award” to reward students who took great risks in pursuing their goals, even though they met with failure. The title of the award comes from the notion that when penguins are about to jump into water that might contain predators, well, somebody’s got to be the first to jump. The First Penguin award is, in essence, a celebration of risk taking.


What, exactly, is a risk? Risks are difficult to define because they are often in the eye of the beholder. For some people, driving a motorcycle is risky. For others, investing in the stock market or committing to a serious relationship are frightening and risky endeavors.

    Risks then are those things that make us feel challenged beyond our usual comfort zone. Risk-taking pushes us into areas of “uncertainty” and puts us to the test. It moves us from the safety of the “known” and forces us in the direction of the unknown. It challenges us to be different where different can get things moving in a new, more empowering direction.

    You’ll very likely note this definition of risk taking implies a bias for action. It demands movement outside the narrow confines of the status quo, abandoning business as usual in order to do something uncommon. It requires you possess, in a word, nerve.

   Much like the brave penguin that commits to being the first to plunge headfirst into the uncharted water before him, possessing the nerve to venture in a direction others fear is the stuff of pioneers. Maybe that’s why those willing to risk undertaking an action in order to achieve a desirable goal can be counted by the handful rather than the herd. Their openness to breaking out of old routines and deviating from the conventional pathway pursued by the masses certainly isn’t easy as it presents a clear potential for failure.

   How about you? Is risk taking something you avoid or embrace? Are you prone to go first, to lead the way into unchartered or uncertain territory? If your answer is yes, then congratulations. Your willingness to take the plunge and risk failing for the purpose of taking new ground or exploring new opportunities marks you as someone worth following.

   If you answered no, that’s okay. After all, taking risks isn’t easy. But let me remind you that it is necessary if, that is, you are interested in pushing the bounds of your potential and growing into the fullness of the leader you want to be and the world is waiting to see.

   Why not give being the first penguin a try? Risk being different where different can get things moving in a new, more empowering direction. You may be pleasantly s(and unexpectedly) surprised by the experience.


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