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City Year Founding Story: Lighthouse

Photo by Alex Doeringer-Smith

On a dark, foggy night, a ship came upon the light of another vessel. The captain radioed his counterpart—“Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.” Through the crackly radio came the reply: “Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.”

The captain stood his ground. He radioed: “This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.” And again came the reply: “No, I say again, you divert your course.”

Outraged, the captain spoke loudly into the radio: “This is the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north. That’s one-five degrees north.”

And came the reply: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

— Author Unknown: Adapted from story told often by Eli J. Segal

In a world constantly in need of improvement and change, humility is a critical and powerful virtue. As idealists and change makers, we are eager to see transformation and excited by the opportunity to make a difference, yet we may find our humility diminished by a competing value, to make change happen now. We feel our good ideas gaining momentum, our passion for change is fueled by the injustice and inequality all around, our drive and commitment grows stronger, and soon, perhaps without self-knowledge or intention, our humility wanes.

As humility is lost, so is our effectiveness. Vanity and self-importance cloud our judgment and rightly put off those who otherwise may want to follow, or better yet, lead, in the area of our deepest concern. Humility is not only a force multiplier, but an idealist’s paradox: to care so deeply about a cause larger than self, one needs, as has been often noted, to lose oneself. To be effective in social change, we must practice selflessness, to seek not so much to be “right” as to be effective, and to develop humility not only as an admired character trait, but as a skill. Can we see ourselves as others may see us, hear ourselves as others may hear us, and view our actions as others may perceive them? Can we have strong values and beliefs, but always stand ready to learn, realize, or even assume that we may not be right after all? By asking others, “What do you think?” and making no assumptions as to who may have an inspired, breakthrough contribution, we can effectively lead positive change, and avert disaster along the way.


About the Photographer: Alex, a six-year-old at the time, took this picture after building the lighthouse out of Legos on a beach in his hometown of Miami, Florida. Alex likes City Year and the lighthouse founding story, and hopes to be a scientist when he grows up.