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Service & Impact
January 9, 2024

The Hope Whisperer

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When Rick Rigsby’s book about hope came out in 2019, some business leaders were critical of it because they said that hope wasn’t a strategy. But just a year later, in the wake of the widespread social unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder, they along with many others were asking the sought-after motivational speaker to bring their people what they needed more than anything—a word of hope.
“I started doing a lot of podcasts, probably two virtual speeches a day, for several months, talking about how hope had been relegated to the basement of human emotion, largely because of our casual use of the word,” he says. “But hope is dynamic. Transformative hope is powerful.”
Rigsby’s thoughtful and heartfelt storytelling has touched millions of people. One online reviewer has praised his “genuine passion for reaching people with truths that are simple to understand, but difficult to implement,” calling him “one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever heard.”
The hope Rigsby has been sharing over the last couple years he describes as “a quality within each and every one of us that places a demand, a transformative demand, to believe for the absolute best outcome.” To illustrate what he means, he adds, “I don’t want to be on an airplane if the pilots have no hope!”
Indeed, hope is “fundamental to the African American community,” he says. “I have studied the history of African Americans since graduate school; I have lived that history for the last 65 years. Try to imagine where our people would be today without the transformative power of hope.”
In bringing his message to audiences, Rigsby shares the words of some of the greats of history. Helen Keller: “Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible, and achieves the impossible.” Winston Churchill: “Never give in.” He encourages leaders to model their speaking after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who he says mastered clearly communicating, keeping perspective and making sure people saw hope.
“In almost every single speech, he doesn’t just lay out the devastation. He points us toward a better day,” he says, reminding his audience that “any leader can share with you the difficulty of the hour, but a truly great leader who is transformational and makes an impact will always point you to a better day.”
Losing perspective
Rigsby’s positive message is no glib lesson—it was forged from deep personal pain. His college sweetheart wife succumbed to cancer in 1996 after a six-year fight, leaving him with two young boys. “All I could see was loss and emptiness,” he recalls. “I had no hope. I had to see something differently.”
As he stood by his wife’s casket, his father told him: “You can’t lose what God gave you, son. You haven’t lost hope. You’ve lost perspective. Now, just stand.” Rigsby held onto that thought, forcing himself not to just go to bed and wish that life would be better when he woke up.
“That was the day that I realized, ‘Hmm, I’ve got some hope in me, even if I don’t feel it. I’ve got some hope in me even if I don’t see it. There’s some hope in me, even if I can’t grasp it,’” he remembers. “And then another day happened a week later, and then more of those days started happening over the months and I realized something: that I had to first believe in hope before I could change what I saw.”
Hope is so powerful because it helps people regain perspective, which can be lost in both good times and bad. “Just because we haven’t seen this in our lifetime doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before,” he says, pointing to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919 by way of example. Then there were “the slave narratives about the times that were so difficult and tough, but they kept perspective by focusing on the here and now.”
Rigsby’s life is an example of how hope can lead to new opportunities. He shared some of the lessons he learned from his cook-father (who he describes as the wisest man he ever met) in a commencement speech entitled “Lessons From a Third-Grade Dropout.” A video of the inspiring message went viral, its 300 million views spawning a bestselling book.
With two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s and a Ph.D., Rigsby—who subsequently remarried—worked as a television journalist and college professor before becoming an in-demand speaker in business and education circles. He is currently working on another book: The Power of Hope.
Practicing basics
Rigsby sees at least one silver lining in the pandemic: People have learned to tap into some of the resilience and resourcefulness their grandparents exhibited. He cites a personal example, when the icemaker in his refrigerator went out. He told his wife they should call a repairman, but she pointed out that they were sheltering in place. The solution: YouTube.
“It took three minutes to repair that thing,” he says. “It saved us probably $150. And I looked at my wife and I said, ‘You know, our folks didn’t have YouTube, but they fixed [things].’ I had never heard of a repair person until I went to college… If something happened to the car, you knew a shade-tree mechanic. If something happened to the pipes, it was somebody in the neighborhood that knew some plumbing.
“That’s the way that we grew up. We’ve lost that in our modern era of tremendous technology. We’ve lost this basic survival need of being resourceful.”
Speaking of previous generations, Rigsby laments how many young people these days are growing up without the older figures of influence he remembers. “We had about four or five Madeas. We called them Big Momma. We had about five or six or seven Papas. And so where are those voices today? Where are those people today? It speaks to me of a void.”
That’s regrettable, because our grandparents can teach us three things, he says. First, “they executed basic behaviors. ‘I’m gonna put a roof over the heads of your parents.’ ‘I’m gonna make sure there’s food on the table.’ They practiced basics every single day and it grew their capacity for what they needed.”
Next, they didn’t complain. He references the book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, which details how Navy Seals “own the mission by not blaming other people and by not making excuses. And I immediately thought of my grandparents.”
Finally, he applauds his grandparents’ generation’s growth mindset. “They didn’t have a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is when you know it all and a fixed mindset is when can’t nobody tell you nothing, but a fixed mindset keeps you right at the same level for hundreds of years. Our grandparents had a growth mindset; they were forward-thinking… they pushed our families here.”
Another quality he admires is his forebearers’ focus. They “weren’t concerned with a lot of things that don’t amount to a hill of beans,” he says. “I get distracted so easily by things that don’t really matter… Didn’t matter if they were making a pound cake or building a house, they stayed focused because they chose not to be distracted by things.”
Rigsby has a word for those feeling lost and adrift: you have a purpose and a destiny. He points to how all he went through has come together: “My purpose found me. Every step along the way prepared me for the day I would recognize what my purpose was.” He recalls sensing God say, at his wife’s funeral, “If you can trust me, I’m going to take this pain and use it as a showcase for my power all over this world.”
With that in mind, he tells those who are struggling, “Keep living. You might not see it [yet], but it will see you one day. I believe that with all my heart.”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.