Don't Leave a Legacy; Live One
Date Posted: 13.12.2012
In the mid-1980s I traveled to Portland, Maine, time and again, to visit two older women, Aggie Bennett and Louise Casey. They taught me just about everything important I've ever learned about what it means to live a purposeful life, one built around work that matters, especially in the years that used to be occupied by traditional retirement.
Aggie and Louise were unlikely paragons of purpose. They were physically unimposing — neither measured even five feet tall. They had little education, and had never lived outside of Maine. For most of their lives, neither aspired to find work that did much more than pay the bills and cover the rent. Aggie worked as a waitress in a local diner, and Louise was employed at a paper mill. However, when they hit 60 things changed, and dramatically. Rather than retire — they feared they would be bored — Aggie and Louise each joined something called Foster Grandparents, which paid a modest stipend in return for spending 20 hours a week on the pediatrics ward of Maine Medical Center, the city's major hospital. It is where they met each other, and where I met them.
Aggie and Louise had no medical knowledge or experience in health care. Their role on the pediatrics ward was "simply" to become surrogate family to the children staying there, often times the sickest kids. As such, they came to fill an extraordinary void. Maine is a large state, and a poor one. I met one child, being treated for a rare form of cancer, whose parents had had to leave him after a week to return to their jobs and other children, five hours away near the Canadian border. Imagine being seven, sick, in a strange institution, hours from home, and utterly alone. That's where Aggie and Louise came in; they became de-facto grandparents to that child, and to myriad others over the years. One time I asked them, after a string of setbacks — children taking turns for the worse, some passing away — how they could bear it, how they could keep doing something so wrenching, with so many defeats.
Louise told me she couldn't imagine doing anything different, or more important, with the remaining years of her life. The way they saw it, these kids had a limited amount of time, and it was precious. Her job was to help them find as much happiness and love possible in that period. Aggie explained simply, "It's not a job, it's a joy." Her words made me think of the poet Marge Piercy's beautiful refrain: "A pitcher cries for water to carry, and a person for work that is real." That fundamental impulse is not bounded by age.
I thought about Aggie and Louise again last week, after many years, as we (at Encore.org) announced the winners of the 2012 Purpose Prize, five annual $100,000 awards to social innovators in the second half of life. The prize honors individuals who are making monuments out of what many consider the leftover years, not only finding personal meaning but doing creative and entrepreneurial work that means more — work aimed at solving fundamental problems facing the nation and the world today.
One of the 2012 winners is Thomas Cox, 68, a lawyer from Maine, who spent his midlife career working for banks. He became one of the leading experts in the state on foreclosures, literally writing "the book" on the subject ("Maine Real Estate Foreclosure Procedures for Lenders and Workout Officers"). It paid the bills and fed his family, but over time it damaged his soul. He became depressed, he suffered a divorce, he ended up estranged from his children. After the financial crisis, Cox left the law entirely. At first, he set out to become a carpenter, to build things. Eventually, he ended up volunteering as a pro-bono lawyer at a legal services clinic not far from where Aggie and Louise once worked at Maine Medical Center. Using his knowledge of the foreclosure process, Cox began defending individuals in danger of losing their homes. Helping a woman named Nicole Bradbury save her $75,000 house, Cox uncovered what became the "robo-signing" scandal, a discovery that led to a $25 billion settlement with some of the biggest mortgage lenders in the country and helped put the brakes on one of the worst abuses of the mortgage crisis.
In words that echoed Aggie Bennett's reflection on finding work that was joy, Cox told the Portland Press Herald last week: "I feel more alive and vital than I think I've ever felt," adding, "I couldn't feel more satisfied with my work right now."
When the Purpose Prize was launched seven years ago, we were determined to give out five annual awards to individuals like Tom Cox. But there was great anxiety about whether we'd be able to find five qualified social innovators, people over 60 whose work was really making a difference. That first year 1,200 nominations flowed in, and we faced the opposite problem. We scrambled to create dozens of Purpose Prize fellowships simply to honor the top five percent of the nominees. Seven years later, 400 winners and fellows have been selected from thousands upon thousands of candidates. Tom Cox and so many others are not outliers — they are members of a movement.
And while their stories might involve a measure of redemption, they rarely fit the mythology of reinvention. Few ever set out to construct grand solutions, or for that matter even to become social entrepreneurs. Rather their efforts unfold a step at a time, often fitfully. Some end up producing staggering breakthroughs.
With today's great gains in longevity and health, there is now the opportunity for so many of us to do work that is real at a juncture when previous generations were sent to the sidelines. Today, we can do more even than leave a legacy. We can actually live one.
To learn more about Tom Cox's work, and that of the 2012 Purpose Prize winners, go to www.encore.org/prize.
Source : Harvard Business Review (online), Marc Freedman, December 11, 2012