5 lessons from the most surprisingly impactful person I knew

It was only when she died that I recognised the true impact that she had had on the world.

At her funeral, there were not only friends and family. There were also many, many, people from all over the country who had been touched by her life.  I forget the number of cards the family received, but it was in the hundreds if not thousands.

The request was for charitable donations rather than flowers. However the amounts pouring in become so large the charity concerned set up a special fund. The tens of thousands of pounds eventually received enabled them to offer an annual grant for families in need.

And this was just my mother, someone who had never wanted a job and had just wanted a family.  And yet she found her calling, found her contribution, and had left an amazing imprint in the world with many lives touched.

Here are five lessons from her life.

1. Your calling comes from your caring

My mother used to recall with humour the succession of jobs she had started and quit.  The truth was she had no interest in a career path. She had only ever wanted to be a wife and mother.  Not the kind of person you might expect to create such a massive impact, perhaps.

However, my sister was born handicapped. Having had little support in the early years, my mother became passionate about supporting other parents with newly-diagnosed babies. She took a voluntary role with the relevant charity in 1986 and became their first paid staff member five years later. So she ended up creating her own job, a role she was truly passionate about. And impact followed.

As Seth Godin says, you may not have a calling, but you might have a caring.

2. Your trials can become transformational

My mother’s significant impact was forged in heartbreak. She learned that her 18 month old daughter had a severe genetic condition and would never speak, never go to a normal school, never have an independent life.  There were ten hidden and often difficult years of learning to cope with such a handicapped child before her calling emerged.  But it was those very trials that gave my mother her passion to support other parents, the empathy to truly connect with them, and the experience to truly help.

3. Your balance is the bedrock

With the phone ringing day and night with people in need of support, and with the demands of her own family as intense as ever, it would have been easy to burn out or give up.  Especially as she was no productivity geek, full of sophisticated systems for optimising her time; in fact she was a natural worrier!

However – as a friend and colleague wrote in an eulogy – she was ’the most well balanced person I have ever known’.  She gave her family quality time, fulfilled her work commitments with dedication, and still had time for pursuits way more adventurous than many of her contemporaries, including crossing the English Channel in a hot air balloon in her mid 50s!

Her ability to keep her life in balance was the bedrock that allowed her to make a real impact in many other lives.

4. Your existence is ephemeral

Put another way, life is shorter than you think.  My mother died suddenly at the age of 59.  She never reached retirement.  Fortunately, she had already made her mark and lived a rich life through the service she gave. So here’s the challenging question: if you were to die at 59, would you say the same?

5. Your love determines your legacy

Here’s the summary of all of this. My mother’s legacy of (quite literally) thousands of lives directly touched came out of the genuine compassion she had for people.   I saw this first hand so many times:  gratitude flowing back from families she had lovingly supported during the toughest times.

As St Paul said 2000 years ago, “if I do not have love, I am only a clanging cymbal”.


There are many callings and many ways of making an impact.  I wanted to start the blog off in this quite personal way to encourage you that the most unlikely people can end up making a huge difference, and that impact is often birthed out of the very challenges in life that discourage us. And, of course, to pay tribute to my amazing mother.

Who is the most surprisingly impactful person you know?  Please honour that person below in the comments.

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  • Marco Nicosia

    Richard, thank you for sharing such a personal note.

    It is sometime that I do actually have the burning question of what I would like to be remembered for. Will I be doing what I am doing if I were going to dye tomorrow, next year or anytime soon?
    Reading about your mother and the many many people that were at her funeral function I did remember the funeral function of my friend Marco A. who passed away 2 and 1/2 years ago.
    He was a rising star at the IMF in Washington, DC when, in 2002 he was diagnosed a neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. In the more of then years of fight against his cancer he actually published multiple, award winning, books in the field of economics; he helped many students developing their careers into accomplished leaders and touched many many lives. Still today, after 2 and 1/2 years, people do remember him with hundreds of touching comments and notes directed to him on his Facebook page.
    For me Marco has been an example on how you turn the devastating piece of news of being terminally ill into the drive and the focus of making in life what you are willing to do and good at doing touching and transforming for the positive the lives of many.

  • victoria wadsworth-hansen

    Such a fitting tribute. I am sure your mum would be both proud and extremely touched by how her life on this earth has impacted people and how she is spoken about by you. Sometimes relatively “ordinary” lives can be extraordinary and why? Because they inspire others to be better or do more than they themselves thought possible. This was a good reminder of looking at the “ordinary” lives of those people who surround us and allowing us to see beyond the everydayness and appreciate the truly beautiful and inspiring examples that people bring, if only we were to get over ourselves and our preoccupation with comparing ourselves with strangers in the media or those higher up the corporate ladder. It was a truly generous and heartfelt contribution. Thanks

  • lenen

    It is nice to read such articles pertaining to gratitude to parents. With such knowing the people who lived to help others give persons like me inspirations to live the same productive, caring, and purposeful and meaningful life.

    Many times we neglect our parents’ and we forget to show them their worth, until the point that they can no longer hear us say how much we care, and we regret the past.

    Not all parents though lived meaningfully.

    I will live the same – helping others cope with their problems. I will give them new insights and hope in life. Because I don’t want to die unhappy not able to help especially the needy.

    • Richard Medcalf

      Thanks Lenen!