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When Ordinary People Turn Extraordinary

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Last weekend, I attended my 35th college reunion at Hamilton College, and honestly my reunions get better each time. Sure, we all look a little puffier, “wrinklier” and grayer, but with every reunion, I feel more connected to my classmates and co-alumni and more inspired by them. It’s not about their many accomplishments or high-powered jobs. What inspires me are the stories of who they are as people, beyond the executive suites—the ways that they have proactively given back to their communities in all sorts of small and large ways…from being on the board of a local theater organization to opening schools in impoverished nations.

Coincidentally, while writing this, I got drawn into a fake-news post of Steve Jobs’s final words that was on Facebook. In it, Jobs, one of the most powerful and successful men in the world, supposedly reflects on confronting the emptiness of financial rewards and regretting not making more efforts on personal dreams and connections.

“…however, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to…Now I know, when we have accumulated sufficient wealth to last our lifetime, we should pursue other matters that are unrelated to wealth…[it]should be something that is more important—perhaps relationships, perhaps art, perhaps a dream from younger days…”

These are words that every “normal” human loves to hear because it makes us feel better that we didn’t achieve that stratosphere of impact on the world…and, better yet, that mere mortals really make an impact. It’s not a new concept, but it is one that bears repeating as we race from obligation to obligation, feeling like exhausted victims rather than conscious choosers. But truly, the people I spent time with last week are mere mortals who followed their hearts to places where they could help.

Stop #1 of the weekend: Barbeque dinner at a fraternity house. Well, a former fraternity house, because all fraternity houses were closed and turned into dormitories about 20 years ago after a series of “incidents,” but they still exist as clubs on campus. Of note was the presentation by several alumni from the Psi Upsilon fraternity  who have set up a career-mentoring program that connects alumni fraternity members with current fraternity members to help them secure internships and eventually find full-time jobs. The program has been incredibly successful at helping graduates get jobs or internships, sometimes even before they graduate, and it is being rolled out to other chapters of the fraternity, including those at Duke, Michigan State and NYU. No one told one of the alumni, Pat, to start this program…he simply saw a need and took the initiative to make a difference.

Stop #2: While at the PsiU dinner, a buddy from my freshman dorm told me what he and his wife (also an alum from our school) had been up to. My friend is one of the most prominent foot surgeons in the country (or perhaps the world), yet the real inspiration was his family. He and his wife have six children—three of their own and three adopted. The most recent adoptee is a young man from Africa who had been “recruited” to his son’s high school to play soccer—he had no parents in Africa, no money and was in need of a host family in the US. What started as a one-year offer turned into an official adoption and a lifetime commitment. In addition, my friend and his wife have personally raised money to build not one…not two…not three…but four schools for underprivileged children in Africa! Why? Because they saw a need.

Stop #3: I met a nurse practitioner, Marina, who works at a rehab clinic for people addicted to painkillers and other drugs. This is not an easy place to work at all, but when she is not at the clinic, she travels with International Surgical Health Initiative to provide free surgical care to underserved communities in Sierra Leone. It takes a giant heart to work with people who are suffering the way Marina does.

Stop #4:  My roommate was a “townie,” so I stopped by to visit with her mom even though my roommate was not able to attend reunion. Amy and her husband, Sid, have started a nonprofit that provides mentoring for armed service veterans to help them transition from military to civilian life.

Besides the inspiration of these acts, what’s amazing to me is that these people weren’t amazing in college. Sure, they were nice and smart and fun, but overall we were all “dopey college kids,” drinking too much and studying too little. But somewhere in the midst of all of that was a core of goodness that blossomed through the years. The millennials today are much maligned for their self-absorbed ways. Then again, we were maligned by our parents…and our parents were maligned by theirs. Yet, somehow, each generation grows and matures and takes their place as leaders of their communities.

Saturday night, there was a reunion concert for the college choir honoring the director who is retiring after more than three decades. Rob has touched the lives of thousands of people during his career, helping them to become not just beautiful singers but amazing teammates. My sister, a member of the choir, described it as the ultimate team sport because those 135 voices must blend as one…no stars allowed. The final song of the concert was a lullaby that the director had sung to his children…but this time, the choir sang it as the director’s newborn grandchild was held by his wife who was singing in the second row of the choir. What a gorgeous legacy.

And what extraordinary legacies all of these once ordinary people have created. It just takes a little inspiration.

Live inspiring. Be inspiring.

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