One Starfish at a time is sometimes the right path

Last week I did a speech about the importance of scholarships at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University. I closed the short speech with a story I heard years ago at a United Way motivational meeting. The version I told went like this:

I often worry that my scholarship isn’t big enough to help all the students I would like to help.

But then I am reminded of the story of the man walking along the beach. In the far distance he is mystified by a man who is repeatedly throwing something back into the sea.

As he approached, the man realized the guy was throwing Starfish who had been beached on the sand, back into the ocean.

“What in God’s name are you doing man? There are millions of Starfish up here. You can’t possibly save them all.”

As the guy reached down for another Starfish he said, “No, I can’t, but for this Starfish, I am making all the difference.”

A prominent man came up after the speech and asked me where it came from. A little Wikipedia research indicated The Star Thrower” (or starfish story”) is part of a 16-page essay of the same name by Loren Eisley (1907–1977), published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe.

I have probably used that story in speeches more than 100 times in the 20 or so years since I heard it, yet it has haunted me for the last week. It carries such a wonderful, powerful message. So many of us get discouraged when we can’t fix all the problems right now. We can feel so inadequate in the face of our personal problems, much less the challenges that confront the country and the world. Yet one act of kindness, one meaningful conversation, one mentor-ship or 10 bucks might change the course of events for someone.

One day last week a delightfully sincere student approached me to thank me for an unconventional class lecture I delivered. I had worried a lot about that lecture. I had chosen to deliver the lecture even though I knew many students might not find a lot of meaning in it.

After the kind student’s remarks I realized once again that you are never going to please all the people all the time. But in this case I profoundly affected that student and I am just fine with that. Sometimes deeply touching one person is better than having minimal impact on the many.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance


One thought on “One Starfish at a time is sometimes the right path

  1. Tim, the first time I heard that story was when I was training to become a volunteer guardian ad litem ( child advocate) in juvenile court. I’ve used it so many times when people ask me why I do what I do. It really makes an impact. To date I’ve help save 28 starfish, and counting.

    Thanks for sharing,


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