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How to Leave a Legacy Worth Remembering

09/03/2015 05:41 EDT | Updated 09/03/2016 05:59 EDT
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Picture this: You've got friends over for dinner, and you're just about to tuck into a delicious dessert. The conversation has been energetic and positive. And then you ask: "If you were taken away (died, bit the bullet, croaked, etc.) tomorrow, what do you think your legacy would be?"

I'll bet many of your friends will stare into the crème brulée. You might hear "My kids are my legacy," but mostly you'll hear "Haven't had time," "The job and family are first," or "I'll get to it later."

Most of us, it seems, are happy to wait and hear what our eulogist thinks our legacies are. A little late, don'tcha think?

I think it's time to lighten up the legacy conversation by creating and enjoying a variety of legacies that you can enjoy now!

When we see stories of legacy, it's often about a famous athlete posting some great numbers or a business giant putting their name on a new hospital wing. "I could never do that," we think. Our legacy will probably be the money and other stuff going to the kids (if you have them).

I began to think about legacy after I assisted my father in writing a book about his heroic WWII experiences. I was also just recognized nationally for my non-profit work. A friend heard those stories and told me that those were great legacies. At the time, however, I didn't think I'd be able to leave a legacy, as my wife and I had just lost a baby and there were no more to come. Stuck in my old belief that you needed kids to leave a legacy, I thought I was done, finished, kaput.

A few years later I had a moment with the Dalai Lama and asked him the age-old question: "Why are we here?"

"To be happy," he said. "To be happy."

I'm a Boomer and, yes, have wondered about my life and what I'll leave behind of value to others. I think thoughts like these are natural in the minds of those 40 years of age or older. Here's what I've learned: Happiness, Connection, Purpose and Story are the good things that will emerge from thinking about and creating my new legacies.

(I mean, if legacy-building will assist in a happier, more connected life, I'm all-in!)

But first, I wanted to create a description of a legacy, and concluded it should incorporate the ideas of giving, timelessness and story. Here's my definition:

"A legacy is something I create that connects and enhances lives now, and will continue to positively affect others when I'm gone."

Philosopher William James said: "The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it."

So, let's do a little "spending" to create a new legacy that just may outlast you. There are a variety of types of legacies, and this one I call: Tell your story!

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If you had letters from successive generations of grandparents going back hundreds of years telling you who they were and the lives they led, would you enjoy them? I'm guessing that you would. I would love if I had letters from my great-grandparents (above) who brought their nine children from Ireland to mosquito-ridden, boggy northern Ontario around 1880. I have stood on the outline of that cabin. I've held onto the pump that gave them water. But I have no idea how they carved a living out of that wholly unfriendly landscape, nor do I know what their lives were like because they didn't tell us!


But we have the technology and wisdom to tell our story to our future generations and know they will love it. Here's how to tell your story in a "legacy letter."

Pick three, five, or 10 values that are important to you (my five are integrity, connection, wisdom, creativity, joy). For each of yours, write why this value is important to you and how you've incorporated this value into your life.

For Integrity, I tell a mountain-climbing story.

For Connection, I tell of walking into situations around the world where some may not go.

For Wisdom, I talk about the power of listening.

For Creativity, I tell a story about standing in the middle of Australia's desert.

For Joy, I tell the story about breaking into tears after completing the wish of a sick child.

When you've told the story of your favourite values, later on you could add to your "legacy letter" by writing or speaking a few words about your beliefs, talents, triumphs, failures and many more categories (detailed here in Legacies aren't just for dead people).

But, for now, just start with a few values. Write them on paper, and put it away. A few weeks later, add to it. As time goes on, you will build your own "legacy letter." Let your family know it's there. One hundred years from now, your ancestors will get that paper, video on an SD card, or something, and say: "Ah. That's who he/she was! And that's who we come from!"

I promise this: whether half a page, a beautifully bound book, a YouTube video, or a feature film, you'll love having a part of your story ready for future generations. It's your legacy gift to them.

And if you have kids, it will be the most important item you ever leave them -- "This is my Dad." "This is my Mom."

What's your legacy? Why not tell us the next time you're over for dinner?

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