In his booming voice, Dr. Rick Rigsby, author of "Lessons From a Third Grade Dropout" and former professor and coach at Texas A&M, spoke recently in Chattanooga. He asked, "Are you living the kind of life that's worthy of somebody following?"
Everyone is leaving a legacy. That legacy is either "It's all about me," or "I'm going to make excellence central in my life so I can leave something worthy of someone else following."
Rigsby learned his most important life lessons from a third-grade dropout: his father, who dropped out of school to help on the family farm.
"My father, the wisest man I ever knew, told me, 'Don't expect other people to do for you what you can do for yourself.' If you don't have somebody teaching you, you aren't going to know that. He also taught me, 'It's not about you.' Can you help other people? My father had nothing. But he had such an impact on my life."
For 30 years, Rigsby's father left the house at 3:45 a.m. to get to work by 5 a.m., even though it was only a 15-minute walk. One morning his wife asked him why he left so early, and he replied, "There may be a morning when my boys see me get up, and I want them to know that showing up on time is the basic minimum. I'd rather be an hour early than a minute late."
Rigsby challenged us to raise our expectations and grow our hearts for the disadvantaged. "The goal is to die broke after giving your best. When I was a child," he said, "we were required to eat together at the table at the same time. Expectations were high. That time was a blessing. What are you going to do with the blessings you have received? My mom would tell us, if you think you can or you think you can't, you're right."
During Rigsby's teen years, his father told him, "I'm not going to have a problem if you aim high and miss, but I'm going to have a real problem if you aim low and hit."
His father also taught him to stand and be a man. To make his point, Rigsby shared this story: "When I was 16 years old, I had an afro so big I couldn't fit into a VW. I came home with an attitude one day. I told my dad, 'Dad, that white man told me I had to scrub toilets. Daddy, I don't scrub toilets. I fry french fries. I make hamburgers.'
"My father responded, 'Son, what does the color of one's skin have to do with you displaying excellence?'
"I realized this was not going to go the way I thought. He asked me, 'Who signs your paycheck?'
"I told him, and he said, 'As long as he signs your paycheck, you do what he tells you to do. When you own your own restaurant, you can do what you want. I want you to leave your car in the driveway. I want you to walk back to Jack in the Box and tell your boss your daddy said you are honored to volunteer for an eight-hour shift and all you want to do is scrub toilets. And when I see your boss later in the week, he better tell me you're his best employee.'"
That exchange between Rigsby and his father still impacts Rigsby today as he raises his own children.
Here are some of the other life lessons Rigsby learned from his father.
-Look for opportunities to help people who need help the most. Not everyone has the luxury of having healthy role models. The goal is to give your all so you can give somebody else the opportunity to grow.
-Challenge yourself to be the best you can be every day. Great people are always stretching, growing and doing things that other people don't. Ask yourself how you can be great today, not for yourself, but to get others to go where they will not go by themselves.
-Give people a reason to listen to you. When you go beyond the chains and shackles of your own sense of self-importance and commit to inconveniencing yourself for the sake of others, people will listen to you. We aren't drawn to people who think it's all about them.
-Tell the truth, do what you say you're going to do, and think the best of people.
-Be a servant and make sure you have a smile on your face because somebody's day might need uplifting. It's not about you.
-How you do anything is how you do everything. You are what you repeatedly do, therefore excellence should be a habit, not an act.
-Don't ever be on time again. You will grow your influence when you show up early.
-Don't judge people. Evaluate, yes; judge, never.
"I have been all over the world," Rigsby said. "We look at somebody different than us and decide whether or not we will connect with them based on our limited perception of them. How can you help somebody that you have already deemed unworthy? If all you see is what you see, you don't see all there is that needs to be seen."
As he concluded, Rigsby talked about his first wife, who died of breast cancer. He said that a dying wife taught him how to live and be a man. His third-grade dropout daddy, who wept as he stood with his son over the casket, told his son, "Keep standing. Just keep standing." His father challenged him every day to put first things first.
Through the grief, Rigsby continued to stand. Eventually, he found new love with his wife, Janet. Together, not only are they building a legacy with their own children, they are also challenging others to seek to do the basics of relationships and leave a legacy better than anybody else.
"Don't quit. Keep standing. Pride is the burden of a foolish person. You will never impact anybody if you make it all about you. Serve at the most inopportune time."
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.