Be the First Penguin

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. I, and about three dozen others, 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 the actual day of the event. Now don’t get me wrong. I very much enjoyed searching for and buying the penguin costume and had a great time driving to the event, 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 chances of making a quick getaway were quickly met with a “don’t be weak, Dad.” Admittedly, about that time I thought about Shakespeare’s words 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 I was worried about was catching pneumonia or, worse, getting a chance to take 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 initially appealing, 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.”

I remember coming across the idea of the “first penguin” in 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 Is 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 is a frightening and risky endeavor.

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. I’ve come to define risk taking as the willingness 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 you reject mediocrity and move 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.

But failure need not be seen as fatal.

The real genius behind Professor Pausch’s celebration of risk taking in the form of the first penguin award was that it was a simple way to encourage people to discover the value of thinking differently, acting boldly, and always striving to become the best version of themselves possible. And although it’s true his students pioneering efforts sometimes came up short, it was okay. Why? Because Pausch understood that in the process of pushing outside their comfort zones they were actually raising the bar higher for everyone’s sake--they were testing possibilities and learning to make mistakes while learning from those mistakes.

In other words, they were leading.

So with the example of the first penguin in mind, ask yourself several questions:

  1. What risks am I taking in my life at this moment that are stretching my abilities or expanding my capabilities?
  2. What initiatives, programs, products or services can I launch that will push me into previously unchartered territory?
  3. Am I striving to lead my life in a more excellent way in my home, workplace, worship space or community, or am I just playing it safe?
  4. What’s holding me back from leading the life I’ve always wanted?
  5. What could I do to reward risk-taking in my surroundings?

Thinking back to that frigid afternoon when I was scantily clad in my penguin costume preparing to jump into the extra-large refuse dumpster turned diving pool, I’m reminded that, although I did not have to worry about predators lurking in the icy water below me, I did wonder for a moment if what I was about to do really made good sense. It was then, however, that I realized by setting aside my own small fears in order to carry out this gesture for a cause I believed in that I was living out my personal commitment to try and grow into the best version of myself possible not just in words, but in lifestyle--one bold leap at a time.

How would things be different in your life if you choose to do the same?

 First Penguin -

This post is derived from John Michel’s forthcoming book, Mediocre Me: How Saying No to the Status Quo Will Propel You from Ordinary to Extraordinary, in bookstores 12 March 2013. You can pre-order it now at a great discount on Amazon or other online retailers.

John E. Michel is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. An accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster, he has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts and his award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible and is married to the most patient person on the planet. Together, they are blessed with two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website,