In keeping with my recent focus on issues of aging, my blog this week comes from change management consultant, Jann Freed, whose most recent book looks at aging with wisdom, or “sage-ing.”
We often think of a legacy as something that emerges at the end—the end of our lives, the end of a job, the end of a career. But in reality, we leave our legacy daily with what we say, how we say it, and what we do.
I like to ask: Are we living our lives in ways we want to be remembered?
After the death of Robin Williams, people reflected on his many movies. While I loved Good Will Hunting, my favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society. As someone whose first career of 30 years was that of a college professor, I was enamored by the way in which his character, John Keating, engaged the students in learning. Here is one of my favorite lines from that movie:
“We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer: that you are here; that life exists, that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
What is your verse now?
We often think of legacies as positive—people who have made a positive difference. But legacies can also be negative and it can happen fast, as we witnessed with Coach Joe Paterno and even more recently with Bill Cosby, whose legacy went from great to bad almost overnight.
Yet, legacy thinking is forward thinking. When we are intentional about our words and actions, we are anticipating how we affect others. Many of us do not have the money and influence to have our name on a building, an endowment, or a stadium named after us. But are we leaving the world a better place?
When talking about legacy, I advocate writing an ethical will, which is more than a legal document that describes how we want to allocate our financial and physical assets. An ethical will (www.ethicalwill.com) is a document that communicates our values, beliefs, and other stories that we want to pass onto others. Sometimes this document is referred to as a legacy letter, but the intent is the same—to share with others what matters most to us. An excellent book on ethical wills is titled So the Tree Grows—Creating an Ethical Will—The Legacy of Your Beliefs and Values, Life Lessons, and Hopes for the Future by Jo Kline Cebuhar.
Since many families are scattered and most of us are not sitting around the kitchen table every week sharing stories, being intentional about what you want people to know is important. When I realized that my sons kept the notes, letters, and cards I sent them at camp, during college, and beyond, I have started writing them “legacy letters” on their birthdays. While I don’t call them that, I write the letter with the mindset that I am sharing what I want them to know and remember right now. As they have gotten older and grown in maturity, the subject matter changes. This has been a nice tradition—whether they realize what I am doing or not.
As Barry Baines, the founder of “EthicalWill.com” says: “We all want to be remembered and everyone leaves something behind.” It is the little things that can make a big difference. Being intentional and thoughtful helps give purpose, meaning, and direction to our life.
So rather than drift with the wind, I challenge you to think about how you want to be remembered.
What will your verse be?
In Jann’s first career as a college professor of business management, she held the Mark and Kay De Cook Endowed chair in leadership and character development at Central College in Pella, Iowa. She retired in 2011 as professor emerita and is now a leadership development and change management consultant with The Genysys Group. She calls herself “The Transitionist” because her focus is on helping organizations and individuals get from where they are to where they want to be.
She is the author of five books and the latest is titled Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts. If you want to explore how some of our great leaders have created a legacy, you might enjoy Chapter 9, which is titled “Leaders Live Their Legacy.”