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This Year, Create Your Personal Inspirational People List

I need my list for reassurance. Especially today, in a world full of frustrations, who doesn't? My Nicaraguan amigo, Chamba, and I were lamenting that, the older we get, the more cynical we get with regard to "heroes." Yet, kids definitely need a list, too. Tune into the media. It's dominated by disappointing, disheartening people. They're on fictional television, reality television and they dominate the news. Ignorant, rude, lazy lowlifes are everywhere. Evil people lurk.

It takes effort to fight cynicism, but you can. Instead of focusing on the world's riff raff, immerse in the best of humanity, past and present. Compile a list of captivating people (with pictures) who inspire you. Start by formulating an initial list. Then, as the years pass, as new people are discovered, add names. In the sad case that it's necessary, remove names. The list should be fluid – a living document. At first, choose anybody you want, just be able to justify each choice with a description of the person and why he or she was chosen. Later, focus on finding inspiring people who excel in your area(s) of interest – people from whom you can major in success. Student-athletes, check out academic All-Americans. Aspiring entrepreneurs, study the story person(s) behind the successful startup. Parents, read Chicken Soup for the Parent's Soul.

Having an inspirational people list is an asset. It's a surefire conversation starter. Every person on the list is a story waiting to be told. It gets us thinking about the kind of people we admire (which tells us a lot about ourselves). And it's a powerful document to take to an interview for two reasons. First, if an interviewer is also inspired by someone on the interviewee's list, an instant bond is formed. "Hey! I'm inspired by Cesar Chavez, too. Don't you admire how understated his charisma and power was?" Second, if there is someone on the interviewee's list who the interviewer isn't familiar with, the candidate can use this as an opportunity to share. Either way, it's impressive – especially when it's a well-thought-out, eclectic list. An inspirational people list can include people from the past or present. They can be world famous or people few people outside the list makers have heard of. I've seen lists that include both Nobel Peace prize winners and grandparents. I prefer lists that aren't loaded with obvious, iconic choices – Lincoln, Gandhi, MLK – but who can argue with obvious, iconic choices?

After you have a list, try to meet the people on it. When you do, it will be an unforgettable moment. Obviously, some people will be more difficult to meet than others, and, of course, some will be impossible to meet. Still, you can continue to learn from them. Google their names. Study their behaviors. Many of the people on my list have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Follow them. Immerse yourself in their lives. It will make you feel better about living.

As an example of an Inspirational People List, here's part of mine. But by the time you read this, it surely will have expanded.

Arthur Ashe: My all-time favorite athlete. Was way more than a jock. More like a saint.

Cesar Chavez: Two words: la causa

Branch Rickey & Jackie Robinson: Did as much for integration as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both courageous trail blazers.

Bob Marley: Not a perfect man, but wrote beautiful love ballads and incredible social anthems.

Fawzia Koofi: Afghan Parliament member and women's rights activist. Perhaps the most courageous politician in the world. Perhaps the most courageous politician ever.

Enrique Camarena: Gave his life fighting the Mexican drug lords. Red Ribbon Week is in his honor. He's gone but the fight goes on… (I had a chance to meet his widow and son, Enrique Jr.)

Terry Fox: Cancer treatment activist. Ran across Canada. Raised millions before succumbing.

Jill Kinmont: On her way to the Olympics, paralyzed in a skiing accident. Still became a life-changing teacher and artist.

Desmond Tutu: Almost God-like human rights activist. Where's America's Tutu?

Jimmy Fallon: Brilliant, talented, yet unpretentious comedian. Master of smart humor. All-around good guy.

Sakena Yacoobi: Executive Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, fighting for and successfully providing education for women – in defiance of the Taliban.

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Author of Flow. Pioneering "positive" psychologist. Teaches us how to be happy.

Rell Sunn: The "Queen of Makaha" lived a nearly perfect, "#2 Life." She surfed and served her community right to the end of her way too brief life. Her legacy will live forever, especially on the west coast of Oahu, Hawaii. (More on Rell in Lesson 50, The Five Kinds of Lives)

Ed Klum: My high school basketball coach. Great coach and man. Modeled for me that working successfully with people means treating them differently – according to what each individual needs. I should have appreciated him more when I was 16.

Jeff Van Gundy: Left Yale to pursue his passion – basketball. Laughed last and proved the doubters wrong.

Huey Long: The politician politicians should aspire to be. Immediately after being mortally wounded by an assassin's bullet, his last words were "God don't let me die. I have so much left to do."

Muhammad Yunus: Nobel Prize winner who introduced the world to the power and magic of microfinance.

Corey Booker: Optimistic, committed U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Our Tutu? Future president?(We follow each other on Twitter. Well, I mostly follow him.)

Freddie Roach: Probably knows as much about his craft – training boxers – as any person alive. Overcoming Parkinson's disease. (Got to meet him and work out in his gym!)

John Miller: San Francisco Giants play-by-play baseball announcer. The best there is at what he does.

Tommy Douglass: "Greatest Canadian." Fought for and got healthcare for all.

Jacqueline Novogratz: Author of The Blue Sweater, a blueprint for how to improve the world.

Pat Conroy: My favorite writer. His book, The Water is Wide convinced me to become a teacher. (A huge thrill when I got to talk to him at a SF Bay Area book signing event.)

Father Damien: Spent his life teaching and comforting lepers in Molokai, Hawaii – even though it cost him the ultimate price. (Visiting the leper colony on Molokai is on my life list.)

Bob Geldof: In 1984, formed Band Aid to raise money for African famine victims. Raised incredible amounts of money and started a trend – benefit concerts – that significantly improved the lives of millions of people, worldwide.

Theodore Roosevelt: My favorite president. After a sickly childhood, became a badass president who got things done.

Matt Damon: Intelligent actor with great values. Uses his fame and success as a platform to improve the world.

Dave Dravecky: Former San Francisco Giants pitcher. Lost his arm to cancer, but not without an unforgettable fight.

Thomas Peters: Management consultant/author. The guy knows what's important for business success. What he says goes for schools, too.

Roy Chin: Using his electrical engineering background, he invented innovative, non-invasive back surgery techniques, enhancing patients' lives while saving millions of dollars and countless work hours. Built a half-billion dollar company in the process. (I know him! He has been a guest speaker in my class several times.)

Maggie Doyne: At 18, she skipped college and founded an orphanage in Nepal. She began her great purpose at 18!

John Baker: Albuquerque, New Mexico track star and P.E. teacher. Died way before his time, but not before leaving a legacy and a school named in his honor.

Chamba Acosta & Minako Close: World Citizens couple builds schools, creates curriculum, organizes communities and spreads hope in El Salvador and Nicaragua. (Close friends, they inspire me to keep returning to Central America.)

Frank Ryan: My first favorite athlete. Cleveland Browns championship QB was smart and good – a real life, modern day Renaissance man. (Got his autograph when I was nine!)

Laura and Lisa Ling: For the kind of people – and sisters – they are. Smart, brave, driven. Their North Korea story is one of the best sibling love stories ever.

Don Reed: His tireless effort to increase funding for stem cell research is an example of what can be accomplished by one person with an emotional attachment to a cause. (Good friend. One of my mentor teachers.)

Steven Chu: Nobel laureate and former Secretary of Energy. Brilliant, pragmatic, outspoken, brutally truthful, gutsy. Attacking climate change like a warrior.

Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama: With her MBA education she chose to live and work on her family's six generation taro farm. The Haraguchi work ethic is admirable – and motivating. (Met her on a Hawaii vacation.)

Sara Sidner: Courageous CNN correspondent. Willing to go anywhere, enter the heart of the action and ask the tough questions.

Marisol Valles: At 20, with a baby, she took the job of police chief at a town in Mexico's Juarez Valley, an extraordinarily hazardous region, infested with drug cartels. That she was driven out by death threats and emigrated to the United States does not detract from bravery. It only strengthened others' resolve to fight the cartels.

Students: Not all of them. Some of them. The special ones. The ones who helped me get through tough times. The ones who inspired me to get better.

My wife, Norma: Forever the most important person in my life.

My daughters, Kyrra and Kylene: My inspiration. My everything.

Assignment: Make your list. For the rest of your life, add to it. When possible, strive to make real life connections and have at least one true encounter. When you need inspiration, look at your list and be reminded that the world is filled with spectacular people.

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