Some people just don't quit. It's OK to quit — occasionally it's best to — but let Dr. Jane Goodall be an example to us all: Sometimes you have a far-fetched dream and instead of deciding it's a stupid idea, you do it anyway.
It's not going to be easy, mind you. Along the way, you'll navigate red tape: Some people will require your mother to chaperone you through parts of it, while others will dismiss and pooh-pooh your best, most groundbreaking work. And then, when you've achieved what you set out to do, just when you're at the top of your game, you'll realize that, while your first dream was noble and true, you now have more information than you did when you started out. So your dream changes. Your new dream is bigger and more difficult to realize, but you do it anyway.
Repeat into old age, never slowing down, and you might even get nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The key to Jane Goodall's persistence seems to have a lot to do with knowing what she liked from a very young age, and then just insisting on doing it. Her father gave her a stuffed chimpanzee when she was a baby, and she took it with her everywhere, even though it was terrifying, by all accounts. She grew up loving to observe and catalog animals, and dreamed of one day living with African animals and writing books about them for a living. Her mother, who was a novelist herself, told Goodall that seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea, even though it was the 1940s, and not at all what middle-class English girls were expected to do.
After she finished school, Goodall couldn't afford to go to college, so she worked odd jobs in London for a few years until a friend invited her to visit her family's farm in Kenya. At which point, Goodall immediately quit her job and waited tables until she made enough money to pay for the price of boat fare to Africa. While in Kenya, her friend suggested she contact the paleontologist Louis Leakey, curator of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi, to discuss primates (Leakey was interested in studying primate behavior in order to better understand early human species). Leaky hired Goodall as his field assistant on a paleontological dig, and later asked her to return to England to research primates and raise money for a long-term observational study on wild chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.
Gombe Stream Research Centre
In July of 1960, 26-year-old Jane Goodall began setting up her field station at Gombe, and would become the site of the longest-running wildlife research project in history. British authorities initially balked at the idea of a young woman doing this kind of work unchaperoned, so Goodall's mother Vanne accompanied her for the first few months. Goodall observed the chimpanzees daily for two years before she earned their trust. Her method was just to watch the animals and imitate their actions, recording everything that happened in a field journal.
Two of Goodall's most important discoveries during this period had to do with what chimps ate, and how they went about getting food: Goodall was the first to observe chimpanzees killing and eating the meat of small mammals (prior to this, they were thought to be vegetarian), and perhaps her biggest contribution to our understanding of primates was the revelation that chimps used collected and modified grass stems and sticks as tools to fish termites out of their nests. Goodall's discoveries were so significant, Leakey arranged for her to write a dissertation at Cambridge University on the behaviors of wild chimpanzees. It was accepted, and she became one of only eight people ever to graduate from Cambridge with her Ph.D. without first earning her undergraduate degree.
In 1964, Goodall married Hugo van Lawick, a Dutch wildlife photographer Leakey sent to record her activity in the field, and their son "Grub", born in 1967, spent his early life with his parents at Gombe. After Goodall and Lawick divorced in 1974, Goodall married Derek Bryceson in 1975, who was the director of Tanzania's national parks. During this time, Goodall published books about her experiences and research at Gombe, including "In the Shadow of Man", which was criticized by scientists because of Goodall's habit of naming the subjects of her research (she called her most famous study subject "David Graybeard"), but the book was wildly popular and has since been translated into 48 languages. As she lived and worked in Gombe, she began to notice changes to the chimpanzees' habitat: deforestation and mining practices forced the animals out of their homes and into smaller and smaller areas.
According to the Jane Goodall Institute, more than 1 million wild chimpanzees lived in Africa 100 years ago, but today only a fifth of that population exists. Goodall saw the writing on the wall, which is why, in the 1980s, Goodall changed her focus from observing chimps, to working to protect their habitat. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977, which works to keep human communities and wild chimpanzee populations in Africa healthy and coexisting peacefully. Roots and Shoots is a program to empower young people worldwide to make difference in their local communities. At the age of 85, Goodall spends about 300 days a year traveling and speaking about Africa, chimpanzees, the environment and her other passions.
Hope for the Future
Although Goodall sees the hideous parts of what humans are doing to our planet, she continues to be hopeful about our future, as she demonstrated in this 2017 New York Times oped:
In 2019, Goodall was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also included on the 2019 TIME 100 List of the 100 most influential people in the world.
"I believe there is no better choice to receive the next Nobel Peace Prize," says Myron Shekelle, a research associate at Western Washington University's Department of Anthropology, and the author of the petition to nominate Goodall for the prize, in an email. "Civilization is today facing perhaps its greatest challenge ever: the twin apocalyptic threats of Global Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss. Both are caused by humans, and both are linked in that both stem from human misuse of the environment. No one has done more or better work than Jane Goodall to bring peace between humans and their environment and thereby create the conditions under which humans can be at peace with each other. Jane Goodall is the global face for global peace."
What are they going to call you when you're 85?
Learn more about the journey of Dr. Jane Goodall in "Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey" by Jane Goodall. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.
Originally Published: May 16, 2019