03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Denzel On Mentoring: "We Are All Extraordinary"

The below is the introduction from Denzel Washington's book on mentoring, A Hand To Guide Me.

I think we all have a responsibility to give something back, to leave this world a better place for our having been here. For me that means giving something back to the good people who helped to shape me and give my life purpose and direction. And that's the Boys & Girls Clubs of America -- at the national level, and at my home club in Mount Vernon. So that's what I do. For the past several years, I've been a proud spokesperson for the organization. It's a role I've taken on gladly because I can't think of a more noble or fulfilling mission than to guide our young children and to lift them up and set them down on the right path. That's the mission of the clubs all across this great land--in our inner cities and our outlying communities, in rich neighborhoods and poor and every place in between.

If you ask me, being successful means helping others. I look around at people who have accomplished all kinds of great and worthwhile things, and I think, "OK, so what have you done with what you have?" We all know about the awards you've won and riches you've received, but at the end of the day it's not about what you have or even what you've accomplished. It's about what you've done with those accomplishments. It's about who you've lifted up, who you've made better. It's about what you've given back. It's like that saying "You'll never see a trailer behind a hearse." You know, you can't take it with you. The Egyptians tried that, and it didn't work.

And so I mean to shine a light on the Boys & Girls Clubs' mission by asking a wide assortment of successful people to share their memories about role models and mentors and positive influences in their lives, because these things are universal and these things matter. My hope is that in this chorus of voices, readers might find an empowering message and a stirring reminder that we all get where we're going with a push from someone else.

Some of the folks you're about to hear from are household names, and some are known to just a few people outside their households. Many are alumni of Boys & Girls Clubs in their hometowns, and others have taken on a leadership role with the clubs as adults. Others are friends and colleagues of mine who've shared their stories with me over the years and who have agreed to share them again here. Still others are people I've reached out to because I've admired the way they've lived their lives and thought they might have something to offer in this context.

If there's a bottom line to this group it's that all of them have achieved a significant level of success in their chosen field and that all of them have overcome a hardship or two. Julia Roberts, a friend and colleague, once said in reference to her work that she was an ordinary person with an extraordinary job. Well that's kind of what we've got here with this collection of good people: ordinary folks, from ordinary beginnings, accomplishing extraordinary things. Whatever it is they set out to do, and however unlikely it might have seemed, they made it happen--with a little bit of help along the way. And with God's blessings.

Yes, destiny is what we make it after all. Same goes for legacy and opportunity and principle and all those good things. Humility too. Every individual you're about to meet in these pages has remained humble, and that's been my mantra for as long as I can remember--probably not when I was a kid, but in my young adult life, most definitely, and it's something I've tried to model for my children as well. Receive your gifts with open arms, but don't wear them on your sleeve.

But if there's one lesson to be learned from the voices you're about to hear, it is that it's not only on us. It's on the folks around us as well. And mostly, it's on our ability to keep open to their example. That's the underlying message in these pages, that you can draw a line from every great success back to some rock-solid foundation. A parent. A teacher. A coach. A role model. It all starts somewhere. And for me, that somewhere is with God. I'm not here to tell other folks what to believe, but I'll tell you what I believe, and this is what works for me. It's why I'm setting these thoughts to paper right now. It's why I'm here--by the grace of God.

Ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things? Perhaps. But I'll go one better and suggest that we're all extraordinary in our own way, and that it's what we do with our extraordinariness that sets us apart and makes all the difference.

January is National Mentoring Month. Why the need for a National Mentoring Month? Most successful people say they had mentors along the way who guided and encouraged them. The Harvard Mentoring Project has been conducting videotaped interviews and collecting written essays in which prominent people from various fields talk about their mentors. Who mentored you? --The Harvard Mentoring Project