Make a Long-Term Impact in a Finite Lifetime

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 11, Issue No. 2
May, 2012

By Dan Coughlin



Recently I had one of the saddest and most inspiring days of my life.

Thirty years ago I was introduced to a group of friends at a different college than the one I attended. Immediately I found them to be a fun and funny group of folks. For the next twenty years we got together multiple times a year and had a great time at each gathering. Then about ten years ago we all got busy raising our kids and stopped seeing each other. Two members of the group became more than just friends, got married, and had three children of their own. Four weeks ago on a Monday morning I received a call that their middle child, a sixteen-year-old girl, had been killed in a car accident. Three days later I drove three hours to the funeral. I almost started crying several times. However, when I got to the church the inspiration began.

Making an Impact at a Young Age

More than nine hundred people attended her funeral. More than twelve hundred people attended the wake the night before. As I stepped toward her casket her grandmother pulled me aside and told me that she had insisted on signing the back of her license to donate her organs in case she died in a car accident. She explained that the young girl had given more than eighty of her organs to a local hospital in order to help other people. This included her eyes and her arms. I was completely blown away. As I listened to the sermon, I learned that she went out for the hurdles on the track team even though she had never run before in a race. She went out for the high school swim team even though she had never swam in a race. She was an award-winning member of the 4H Club. Her younger sister raved about how she included her in as many activities as possible. She called her sister a hero and talked about how they would dance on the moon together someday because that was her stated dream.

It hit me so hard and inspired me so much. This young lady had impacted the world and left it a better place than when she had arrived, and she had done it all in sixteen years. I told her mother that it was both a sad day and an inspiring day. She said, “Don’t be sad. Celebrate her life. She did wonderful things.” That inspired me all over again.

Two weeks after the funeral I was watching the film, The Fellowship of the Ring, with my ten-year-old son, Ben. I had read the book almost forty years ago and had enjoyed it, but I was stunned by how powerful the movie was. In one scene young Frodo said to a woman, “I know what I must do. It’s just I’m afraid to do it.” The woman turned to him and said, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” I was reminded again of the young lady who donated her organs so that others could live more fully.

The Craving We All Share

Money is a good thing. It helps to pay for food and a house. It covers tuition bills and vacations. It allows people to retire with dignity. Money is important, and earning an income is a vital role for every family and single person.

However, the deeper need, the craving we all share in common, is to know that our lives mattered. That the world is somehow better off as a result of our living on it, regardless of the amount of time we have. It’s not about how many years you get or how many friends you have on Facebook or connections on LinkedIn. It’s about making a difference in the lives of other people. That’s what underlies our truest efforts, our deepest concerns.

This craving is very real and can’t be ignored. What will our impact be? How will the world be better off in some way because we lived here? If we try to ignore this craving, this desire to make a difference, we might send ourselves down a dangerous path of apathy, which ultimately can lead to a pathetic life.

Impacts Come in Different Sizes and Shapes and At Different Times of Life

Last week I met with a friend of mine named Elaine. Elaine is eighty-three years old. She has been tutoring one or two first graders on reading every year for the past thirty years. I always tell her how much I admire her. Recently she sold her car and now gets a ride to the school from employees at the assisted living community where she lives. She told me, “I want to continue to make an impact for as long as I am able.”

Isn’t it extraordinary how events happen in a person’s life one on top of the other until a message shouts out loud and clear? As I listened to Elaine, I thought again of my friends’ daughter.

My dad died three years at the age of seventy-nine. I would say his greatest long-term impact was the values he and my mom instilled in their six children. However, when we were all out of the house he wanted to keep making an impact. When he was seventy-five, I took him to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. He told me how he was volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Soup Kitchen. Then he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “I have to make a difference while I can. You never know how long you have.” Without any of us realizing it, he was in the earliest stages of Dementia with Lewey Bodies. Four years later his mind and his muscles had weakened to the point he couldn’t talk, he didn’t know our names, and he couldn’t eat.

Recently I read the books When Character Was King by Peggy Noonan about Ronald Reagan and Jack Kennedy by Chris Matthews. One was the story of the oldest person elected to be president of the United States and the other was the story of the youngest person elected to be a U.S. president. They were in different parties with different beliefs at different ages and had very different childhoods. Yet they both made an enormously positive difference with their lives.

One of my very best friends in the world found out a year ago he has brain cancer. This brilliant guy (he was an emergency room doctor when he found out) was, and is, in incredibly good physical condition, but when the news hit it brought both of us to our knees. We are almost the exact same age. And yet rather than feeling sorry for himself he has thrown himself even deeper into his volunteer efforts. He and his wife had started a not-for-profit organization several years ago called Gotta Have HOPE, Inc., which works to support the educational efforts of young people in Uganda. Between radiation and chemo and trips to the Duke Medical Center, my great friend works tirelessly with his wife to advance this cause.

Another great friend I have lost her husband in an airplane accident two years ago. Through no fault of his own, the engine of his private plane faltered, the plane dropped several hundred feet in a second, and hit above ground wires. This extraordinary pilot died shortly thereafter. My friend fought through her grief to help stage a concert for victims of Hurricane Katrina who were still being affected five years after that tragedy had occurred.

My college soccer coach, Dennis Grace, is now 58 years old. His body is largely consumed by cancer. He has no bone marrow left in his legs. They are filled with cancer. He had his left hip replaced recently. 28 years ago he was named the head coach my senior year in college. He brought an extraordinary vibrancy to coaching. He transformed our program and within a few more years had the team playing in the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time. Against the best players, and I certainly wasn’t one of them, he played a game called soccer racquetball. It’s a grueling test of stamina and skill, and he would beat the best players on the team. When word spread that he was sick with cancer, his former players started telling story after story about how he had touched their lives in meaningful ways.

Clayton Christensen is one of the most famous business writers in the world on the topic of innovation. His book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is considered by many people to be the most insightful book ever written on why companies fail to innovate more effectively. A week after I finished the first draft of this article I found his May 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review. It is called, “What is the purpose of your life?”. Here is a link to the article:, He wrote this article after he found out he had a rare form of cancer. It fits in perfectly with the theme of making a long-term impact in a finite lifetime.

What mark will you make on this planet?

Don’t step away from this article until you’ve seriously considered that question. The world needs you to make your imprint, to put your “dint in the universe” (in the words of Steve Jobs). Your mark doesn’t have to be highlighted by the media. You don’t need a book written about you. That’s not what matters. What matters is that you matter and in realizing that you matter that you step forward to leave your mark on the world. What will be your long-term impact after your finite lifetime is over?

What’s my mark?

I’m no different than anybody else. I like to earn money. It helps to make house payments, put food on the table, prepare for college tuition, and lay a financial foundation for retirement.

However, my life has to matter beyond just earning an income. I have to try to make a long-term impact beyond my finite lifetime. I decided long ago that I would try to make my mark as a teacher. I try to explain practical ideas passionate people can use to help them make their mark in the world.

In my professional life, my main focus is the world-wide business community, although I do try to do one or two pro bono presentations on leadership for not-for-profit organizations each quarter. I don’t sell a product or a service. I explain ideas. I search for them, I hone them, and I try to deliver them in ways that other people can understand them and will want to give them a try.

In my personal life, my main focus is kids, starting with my own kids, Ben and his thirteen-year-old sister, Sarah. I try to instill values in them even though they call me the cranky old man. I think that was the term I used for my dad too. I teach Confirmation Class to eighth graders and I’m sure I learn more from them than they do from me, but I try to connect stories from long, long ago with their real-life situations. I coach a youth girls basketball team and a youth boys soccer team and I try to get across ideas that the players can use for the long term. To me these volunteer efforts are just as important as my paid work in terms of trying to make a long-term impact in the world.

Hopefully in all the areas of my life the impact of these practical ideas will outlast my finite lifetime. It’s an odd thing. I put an idea out there for a business person or a not-for-profit person or a young person to consider and there really is no way to track what happens to the idea after I explain it, but that’s the way I’m trying to make a difference in the world.

Whatever Time We Get It’s Not Very Long

I haven’t the foggiest idea how much time you or I will get on this planet. Whatever it is it’s not forever. As my dad said, we have to make a difference while we can because we never know how long we have. What will your long-term impact be after your efforts on this planet are done? Be sure to feed this craving as much as your need for the basics in life.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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