Have you answered Jon Stewart yet?

Last night my wife handed me a Sunday New York Times article on Jon Stewart -- Is this the Most Trusted Man in America? -- telling me that I had to read it. She was right. You should, too. During a time of record-breaking Olympics, a decidedly mixed presidential race, and general social anxiety, Jon Stewart's success on "The Daily Show" holds some key insights for those of us who want to make good on our urge to do good. For me, there are at least three components to Stewart's success:

1. He and his staff display an uncanny ability to puncture false realities, a great gift at a time when so many people feel that their realities are being actively distorted in public life and politics.2. He consistently shines a bright line on a range of issues the mainstream news media often handle with kid gloves or ignore, such as the war in Iraq, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the politicization of the Department of Justice, and more.3. Stewart is able to make his points through a combination of satire, humor, profane language, and a host of other techniques, all strategically deployed to engage viewers.

Now, think about Stewart in relationship to the current presidential race, which increasingly seems to be teetering on the brink of another battle over false realities and empty hope. Recent campaign ads are riddled with half-truths, negativity, and silly efforts to misdirect conversation away from people's genuine concerns. I suppose the upcoming party conventions will be relatively better -- could they be any worse -- but how long that improvement will last before the campaigns again descend into a debate over false realities is anyone's guess. All this from two candidates many of us expected would produce a genuine debate and sense of possibility about our future.

Juxtapose these candidates to another group of high-profile individuals, the current U.S. Olympic men's basketball team: Just four years ago, this team was essentially booed off theinternational stage, as individuals who had ignored or rejected any notion of what it means to act as a team, play defense, and wear the red, white, and blue. They lived in the false realities of self-centeredness, seeming to celebrate the ugliness of professional basketball here at home. But this year, U.S. co-captain Lebron James, who played on that 2004 team, came together with new teammates and punctured the 2004 reality. If nothing else, they have proven that it is possible take a different path -- if the desire is there. Listen to these guys being interviewed, watch them play, and it's so clear that this is a stand-up group, proud to wear the USA uniform, humble in their pronouncements.

So what does all this mean for you and me? After all, there's only one Jon Stewart and Lebron James. None of us have their platforms, megaphone, or talent. What can we do? Here are some takeaways for you to consider:

  • You can puncture false or negative realities when you decide to step forward and genuinely attempt to portray life as it really is. Indeed, it is possible to break through the noise. For you, this breakthrough may come in a particular meeting, or in how you write a brochure, or produce a new Web site; it may come in how you structure a new initiative or program, or in the ways in which you talk about the challenges you seek to take on. But be clear, it is these breakthroughs in how we depict reality that people are yearning for today.
  • In your attempts to puncture false reality and shine a light on real issues, you must not disingenuously straddle the fence. Simply going through the motions will not do; nor will rooting your work in reality only when it is easy or convenient. To do is to become irrelevant. People eventually will turn away. Only look at people's reaction to mainstream news, the current dynamics of the presidential race, or local organizations that give lip service to reality and its real-life implications. People's "BS-meter" is very sensitive; they know when they're being manipulated and toyed with.
  • You must creatively make use of different ways to engage people in discussions about reality and its implications. Simply being "serious" all the time, or projecting "doom and gloom" won't cut it. You will need to engage people based on a clear understanding of your own talents to engage others and the level of credibility you hold with people. So, the U.S. basketball team has gone the route of using honor, humility, and hard work; their efforts are a reflection of keen earnestness and an understated posture. Jon Stewart mixes in humor, satire, and other techniques. In today's world of disbelief, irony, and dissonance, how will you productively engage people and help to meet their deep yearning for authentic hope?

So, the bottom line is this: we face a choice today, which Jon Stewart, the presidential candidates, and the U.S. basketball team only serve to underscore. It is a choice that existed long before they came along, and it will persist in our lives no matter what they do. Will we step forward to do what is necessary to puncture false realities and engage people in real ways; or, will we toy around at the edges, boasting of a new direction, only to stay within the boundaries of the same old game? The second option is safe; but only the first one allows us to make good on our urge to do good.