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Do You Know What a Difference You’ve Made?

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If you are the type to make life your teacher, then there is valuable instruction in the true story of a folk musician you’ve probably never heard of.

His name is Sixto Rodriguez. Apparently, during the “15 minutes” of limited fame he enjoyed in the late 1960s and early ’70s, his down-to-earth style was compared to Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens and the quality of his music and growing fan base persuaded a record company to sign him up.

The records didn’t sell especially well, so he resorted to playing local clubs in his native Detroit and his music also seemed to strike a chord in Australia, where he toured often.

Nevertheless, he’s lived a relatively low-profile existence in Detroit these many decades, little noted by American music fans.

But there’s an interesting twist to this story. Somehow some of his recordings found their way to South Africa—way back in the ’70s, during the apartheid era. His music spread in popularity, particularly among youth disaffected with the white minority regime. His music gave voice to the feelings of South Africans that they could somehow overcome a tyrannical system that seemed entrenched.

Because South Africa was a closed society, whose airwaves were heavily regulated, the rising popularity of Rodriguez’ music went unknown outside the country’s borders. But inside, he was more popular than Elvis Presley. Everyone knew his music, and garage bands covered his tunes far and wide. People wondered who Sixto Rodriguez was, but a legend grew that he committed suicide on stage.

A couple of curious South Africans decided to research the subject, and through an extraordinary investigation found out that he was alive, and living in a small apartment in Detroit. They called him on the phone, jubilantly, and he responded quite humbly, not really understanding what it was all about. They got him to come to South Africa, to perform a concert.

Imagine the man’s surprise when a vast stadium of concertgoers were singing his songs in unison. He didn’t think he had more than few fans, yet in reality he had hundreds of thousands of fans who knew his work intimately (his albums apparently reached platinum status in South Africa).

Rodriguez’s story could as well be a parable for the work that our Advisor Hall of Fame honorees Lewis Altfest, Sally Law, Eugene Lerner, Robert Reich and Greg Sarian have done over their lengthy careers.

While appreciated, even applauded by their peers, some of their greatest accomplishments may quite possibly be unknown to them, just as Rodriguez was unaware of the true impact of his music.

I expect that at the end of a long and productive career, the difference they will have made—and the difference you will have made— will be vaster than we can reckon at this time.

But just as a dazed Sixto Rodriguez was utterly surprised to look out to an audience of fans chanting “Sixto, Sixto, Sixto,” I invite readers to join me in congratulating Lew, Sally, Gene, Rob and Greg, and trust that their stories will inspire you to keep on doing all the good work you do for clients day in and day out. For the ability to make a difference in others’ lives is what makes life worth living.