By Dan Coughlin

In the past 14 months I’ve given 70 presentations including keynotes, luncheon speeches, after-dinner speeches and seminars in virtually every market in the U.S. and mainly for corporate groups of CEOs, key executives, and entrepreneurs. But the most memorable group I spoke to was the May 2008 graduating class of J.E.T. (Jobs and Employment Training) at St. Patrick’s Center on May 30th in my hometown of St. Louis

St. Patrick’s Center does noble work in helping homeless people find hope and generate permanent, positive changes in their lives. However, the thing I like the best about St. Patrick’s Center is they are very practical. They don’t just talk about helping people create permanent, positive changes in their lives; they dive in and get things done. They help people find a place to stay and they provide them with training on interviewing and job skills necessary to re-enter the workforce. One of their programs is called J.E.T., which is a twelve-week program on a variety of computer skills that will help the graduate increase their chances of gaining meaningful work.

Overcoming Life’s Greatest Obstacles
There were nine people in the graduating class at J.E.T. ranging in age from approximately 25 to 45. I met each of them briefly before my speech and got to know their names. I won’t list them here, but I’ll also never forget them. I could see the excitement over their accomplishments in their eyes. I felt the passion in their dreams. I had to do everything I could to keep myself from crying in front of the audience, which included their family members and friends. It could have been the graduation ceremonies at Harvard because that’s how excited each of these individuals was that day.

To me, these nine individuals represent everything that I’ve written about and spoken about over the past 11 years. They had just completed a 12-week course to increase their capacity to gain meaningful work, and they were incredibly proud of what they had learned and accomplished. They were enthusiastic about the future. They were ready to get on with it.

Isn’t that what life is about? Going after dreams and trying to better ourselves so we can make a greater contribution to other people. Jackie Robinson, the baseball player, said something to the effect that the whole purpose of life is to make a difference in the lives of other people. Well, if that’s true and I think it is, then bettering our selves in order to add value to other people is an important part of the process, and that part should be celebrated.

These nine individuals were moving from a life of homelessness and despair to a life of hope and contribution and carving out the careers they wanted for themselves. One lady stopped me after the ceremonies and said, “St. Patrick’s Center gave me my self-esteem back and now I’m excited about the future.” I almost said to her that no one can instill self-esteem into another person. Self-esteem means the value a person sees in himself or herself. Only the individual can strengthen his or her own self-esteem. As Abraham Maslow said many years ago, “True self-esteem rests on a feeling of personal dignity, the feeling that you are in control of your own decisions and your own destiny.” No one can give you a feeling of being in control of your own decisions. Only you can develop the feeling that you are in control of your own decisions.

But I understood what the woman meant. She meant that St. Patrick’s Center provided an environment of encouragement where she could focus on her strengths and the value she can bring to other people. In doing so, this woman took the time to realize everything she had to offer to the world. That is how self-esteem is built.

I met a teacher named John that day who told me about a life course offered at St. Patrick’s Center on realizing that every super successful leader overcame odds to make a difference in the lives of other people. I totally agree. Walt Disney and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oprah Winfrey and Mohandas Gandhi didn’t just wake up one day ready to contribute. They honed their ability to add value until one day they were so good that other people opened their eyes to all the value they had to offer. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked at writing essays and giving sermons long before he started changing the world for the better in 1955.

Graduation Day taught me or re-taught me so many lessons:

o In giving we receive. I was more touched by those 45 minutes with those nine graduates who had transformed despair into direction, homelessness into hopefulness, and frustration into focus than any work project I’ve done in the past ten years.

o We all need to take the time to recall the value we have to offer to other people. It’s wonderful to help other people see their value, but it’s just as important that we take the time to see the value we have to offer to other people. Recall your past success stories where you made a difference in the lives of other people and the strengths and passions you have to offer to other people.

o Lift your head to see the difference you’re making in the world. You can get so busy giving love to other people that you may not see the impact that your love is making in the world.

o Celebrate life’s most important transitions. That ceremony was a moment to savor like a fine meal. Climbing a mountain means resting at the plateaus. Rest, re-energize, let the success soak in, and then plot your next move up Mt. Contribution, the real-life mountain of trying to make a difference in the lives of other people that we are all trying to climb.

o Pause occasionally from helping your work team move forward and trying to move your career forward and look around you for opportunities to give to others who will never be able to repay you, at least not financially. There are so many magnificent organizations within 30 minutes of your home. What non-financial contribution can you make for them? How can you use your strengths and passions to deliver real value to people who simply can’t afford to pay you?

o Achieving a specific, measurable objective at work is important. Achievements are the basis of promotions, raises, and career growth. Hitting a number is about a goal. Living with purpose is about the soul. Ask yourself, “What is my purpose?” Write down your purpose. Then pour your efforts into both your work and your community events to fulfill your purpose.

In watching the tributes to Tim Russert, I was reminded that great business managers still take the time to give back their strengths and their passions to their communities. As many people thanked him for what he did outside of NBC as he did inside Meet the Press.

Dan Coughlin is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, and author of Accelerate: 20 Practical Lessons to Boost Business Momentum.