A few days ago I came across a list of the 100 most influential people of the last millennium. Most of those on the list I felt had merit and some I questioned, but as they began to conclude and announce the most influential person of the past 1,000 years I wondered who deserved such esteem.
When Johannes Gutenberg’s name was disclosed as the most influential person of the past 1,000 years, I thought, yes, that makes sense. Print, books, sharing knowledge like never before: his invention truly changed the world.
They were not all positive. Adolf Hitler was in the top twenty.
As I scanned the list of 100 names who have influenced the world, I thought, “besides those who have influenced the world at large, who are the people who have influenced my life more directly?”
In helping others tell their stories, we encourage people to make lists and brainstorm story possibilities, so I pulled out a sheet of paper and started listing people who have influenced my life. I didn’t know if I could come up with 100 names, but I started listing coaches, school teachers, family members, my dear wife, childhood friends, junior high classmates, teammates from swimming, football and track, college friends, cousins and other relatives, my first ranch manager, others I worked with as a cowboy and doing farm work, coworkers, bosses, clients, good and kind people from my church congregation, scout leaders, people I have served with and those I have hiked mountains with....
I soon had a pretty long list. I counted: there were 99 names on my list.
I had not made my list in any particular order or prioritized it by the most influential at the top. If a name came to my mind, I just wrote it down.
At 99 names I started thinking about my list. A flood of stories started to come with each one.
• How did these people influence my life?
• Why are they on my list?
• Who do I want to remember? (Maybe even: who would I rather forget?)
• What sticks? Who sticks?
The point is: many people have influenced my life, some more than others. My mind was now flowing with story ideas and reminiscences. I still haven’t ordered and prioritized my list, but my wife and my mother would certainly be at the top.
I mentioned to a friend that I had created a list of 100 influential people in my life, and he said, “Oh, I could never think of that many names. I can’t even remember that many people.” But I bet he could recall ten, or twenty, people who had influenced him, with stories to match.
The people on my list didn’t invent the printing press or form a nation, but they may have taught me how to read or write, or given me a thirst for knowledge about science or Shakespeare. They may have shown faith in me, urged me to push harder or reach higher. Perhaps I saw an example of patience in adversity or a random act of kindness that made me want to be a better person.
When you make yourself sit down to list influential people in your life, it also causes you to see priorities in your life. Who or what has been important? How have these people shaped my life? It can also show you how you have changed, and help you recognize the turning points in your life you may want to write about.
This exercise also caused me to think about now. Today. This week. Who have I come in contact with? Who has influenced me recently? Which led me to:
What kind of impact have I had on the people around me? Am I living the kind of life I want to live? Am I living up to the potential seen by those who mentored me along the way? I may not be on anyone’s top 100 list, but have I lightened anyone’s load, given them food for thought, or just made them smile?
The philosopher Kirkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Understanding what came before can help us live a better future.
So I challenge you to ask yourself: who has influenced your life, and what does that mean to you now?