by Nanci Hellmich
Creating a lasting legacy can be an amazing journey filled with surprising twists and turns. Just ask Dean Niewolny. By his early 40s, he was on top of the world, overseeing a $100 million business for a financial services company in Chicago. He had a beautiful wife, two children, several homes, expensive clothes, luxury cars, a boat, and a small airplane.
But one day in 2006, Niewolny looked out of his office window from a skyscraper with a view of Lake Michigan and said to himself, “There has to be more to life than this.” Despite his success, he felt empty inside. The thought occurred to him: “If I died today, so what?” He realized he wouldn’t leave a legacy that mattered.
During that period, which he calls the season of “smoldering discontent,” Niewolny reevaluated his life, searching for new passions and ways to give back. He used ideas outlined by Bob Buford in his book Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance. Buford founded the Halftime Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps successful men and women create new lives defined by joy, impact, and balance.
As part of his journey to creating a lasting legacy, Niewolny went on a church mission trip to Africa, where he saw people who had very little but were far happier than he was. When he came back, he and his wife decided to sell their boat, plane, several houses, and other luxuries that he thought would bring him joy and happiness but gave him more headaches than anything else.
The couple used some of the proceeds to start an orphanage in South Africa. “So much joy came out of that,” he says. “That was the first time I realized when I took the focus off myself and put the focus on others, I had incredible joy and balance in my life.”
Niewolny says the purpose and passion for the second half of his life is giving back to those in need and making a difference in other people’s lives. At 54, he’s chief executive officer of the Halftime Institute and author of the new book, Trade Up: How to Move from Just Making Money to Making a Difference.
Finding a Greater Purpose
Psychologists say many people hit the pause button at some point during their lives to search for a deeper meaning and purpose. It can happen at any age from the early 20s to midlife and beyond.
This kind of reevaluation often leads to a better life. In fact, studies show that finding meaning in life and doing things that emphasize your abilities, skills, and strengths contributes significantly to happiness.
Other research suggests that money is associated with increases in happiness only up to a point; beyond that point, income no longer contributes to more happiness, says Frank Farley, a psychologist with Temple University in Philadelphia and a former president of the American Psychological Association. This is true for many but doesn’t apply to everybody.
“If you’ve been doing the same gig for decades, and you are highly successful, you may want to ask yourself: ‘How many more money mountains are there to climb? How many successes do I need to chalk up?’ It may be time to look for new venues in your life,” Farley says.
That’s where generosity comes in. Many folks decide that they need to give back to the world. “I have been studying human motivation for decades, and I’m often asked what is on the top of the list of great human motives. I answer generosity, which I call the ‘G factor.’ Generosity—the giving instinct—is so profound,” he says.
Giving goes hand in hand with compassion, and most people are compassionate for those in need, says Janet Karzmark, a life coach and licensed marriage and family therapist in San Jose, California.
Successful people who’ve been busy striving and accomplishing most of their lives may not have had time to explore the compassionate part of their personalities. But if they volunteer for a humanitarian crisis or get involved in other important causes, their lives feel more whole and meaningful, she says.
“You don’t want to face your death and think, ‘Oh, I missed that part of my life. I never got around to that.’ You don’t want to face that regret,” she says.
Giving back or serving others doesn’t mean you have to quit your job or join the ministry or a nonprofit group. Some people find plenty of ways to serve in their own backyards.
For instance, Niewolny worked with an executive who helped homeless people employed by the company he worked for. Another female executive found her calling was rocking the babies of drug-addicted mothers at a hospital in Houston. Still another corporate leader helped a nonprofit group buy and renovate a house for homeless women.
For many people, using their time and talents in their own sphere of influence is key to creating their significance. That’s the case for Alan Smith, 54, president and chief executive officer of Rockcliff Energy, an oil and gas company in Houston. For years, he was so busy that “I felt like I was drowning,” he says.
After reading Halftime and working with a mentor at the Halftime Institute, Smith carved out more time in his life by stepping off several charity and industry boards. He decided to narrow his focus to helping a few organizations and other people reach their full potential.
He’s now an elder at his church, mentors younger, high-energy, high-potential men, and serves as chairman of the Center for Hearing and Speech in Houston, a nonprofit that teaches deaf children who are given access to technology to listen and speak. This cause has a special place in his heart because one of his daughters was born deaf, but thanks to cochlear implants and help from the center, she can hear now. “The center had a huge impact on her life,” Smith says.
“You have a finite amount of time on earth, and you’ve been given many gifts and talents. It’s a matter of being more intentional and figuring out how you are going to use them,” he says.
Beginning the Journey
There are several ways to begin the journey toward finding your purpose and creating a lasting legacy, Niewolny says.
He says to start with the end in mind. To do that, he describes an exercise that he calls the “80th birthday party.” Here’s how it works: Imagine you’re having a big birthday party with all your friends and family in attendance. Using a microphone in the room, the guests will recap your role in their lives. Write down what you hope they’ll say.
Also, write down the answer to these questions: What is all the gaining costing you? What in your life has the greatest value, and what are you doing to protect it? If you were to reorder your life to finish well, what evidence would confirm that you were on the right track?
Another approach is to ask yourself: If you were living a perfect life two years from now, what would that look like? Not what would you be doing, but what would it look like?
Answers to these questions vary. Niewolny says he wants his wife to be flourishing and their marriage to be a priority. He wants his grown children to have high self-esteem. And he’d like everyone in the family to be in good health and thriving in their relationship with the Lord.
But you don’t have to be a Christian to apply these ideas to your life. The concepts have been used by “people of many faiths and no faith.
We have worked with folks who are Jewish, Muslim, atheist,” Niewolny says. “I believe God has put it on their hearts to do something and make a difference.”
It’s difficult to do this on your own, he says. You need a coach—a certified Halftime coach, spouse, mentor, friend, colleague, pastor, or life coach—to guide you, encourage you, and hold you accountable. “There is a reason that the best athletes in the world have coaches even though they may be at the top of their game,” he says.
Living Out a Mission
Figuring out your personal mission in life and acting on it can be life-changing, says Fielding Miller, chief executive officer and co-founder of CAPTRUST Financial Advisors.
He speaks from experience. During the first half of his life, Miller says he set a hectic pace—trying to raise a family, build a business, stay involved in the community, and maintain an active social life. “My time was overly weighted toward work. I was a complete workaholic,” he says.
At age 40, he read Halftime, and it prompted him to reassess his values, aspirations, talents, and relationships. He started thinking about what he wanted for his family—and from his own life. One idea from the book resonated with him: “What will I do about what I believe?”
The result of that period of introspection was “a total heart change, an epiphany moment,” Miller says. The book changed his view of why he was working. It helped him think about the endgame—what would matter when his career was over.
It didn’t take long for this new mentality to yield fruit. Gradually he began to look at everything through a new lens. He made decisions differently and approached relationships differently.
“My personal mission is to live a life that is pleasing to God by being significant in the lives I touch,” Miller says. “I would like to be remembered for fulfilling my mission.”
And it’s never too late, or too early, to get it.