Legacy: What Will Your Verse Be?


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.”


legacyWe 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?  


Jann Head ShotIn 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.”


  1. Thanks for hosting this post Mary, and thanks to Jann for writing it. I’ve begun pondering the matter of personal legacy relating to memoir and realized that beginning memoir students generally focus on leaving a documentary legacy — what they did when and where and maybe why. While not wanting to downplay the importance of that material, after all, it does provide context for deeper thoughts, a legacy of self, of internal experience, will be more compelling and possibly more important.

    I’m currently listening to the audiobook version of Elizabeth Berg’s novel, The Pull of the Moon, written as a series of journal entries and letters to her husband written during an “escape” trip. While some find the plot rather shallow, the issues that form the bones of the story are sturdy and deep. Few readers will share Nan’s situation as a woman who can afford to run away in a Mercedes, staying anywhere from a fleabag motel to a city-center Radisson, and not all her issues touch everyone. But I view the book as 242 pages of writing prompts! It would work equally well for men.

    Real, personal material disclosing transformative thoughts like the ones Berg shares would make create a fascinating personal legacy of sage-ing, one I’d love to read, even in raw, draft form.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sharon … an interesting perspective … even as a memoir writer, I hadn’t focused on the legacy of writing. What struck me about Jann’s essay was the comment about the day-to-day — that your legacy is built upon the everyday impact you have on people. As an introvert, I too often feel that I miss opportunities to make an impact on others.

    • Sharon–Thanks for reading and commenting. I advocate memoir writing to people in workshops because it is so easy to self-publish and even include photos. Journal writing is another way to think of legacy work also. Thanks for sharing your resources.

  2. Aging, expressed here as sage-ing, intrigues me. Before retiring from my professorship, I read George Vaillant’s Aging Well, which includes Harvard’s landmark study of adult development. Fearing I wouldn’t know what to do with myself after I left teaching (!), I took copious notes including quotes. A favorite thought: relinquishing self-importance without losing self-esteem.

    One way to retain self esteem is to frame a legacy recognizable to the next generation. I am creating such twice weekly in my blog posts, many of which tell stories of my forebears and my own childhood. I have not heard of an ethical will or of the website you have shared, which I shall hop to next.

    What will my verse be? I am writing it by the choices I make and the actions I take every day. And I am recording it for posterity through my writing and with my collected artifacts. Mary, you are publishing a life-changing series here. Thank you, Jann, for this thought-provoking post. Brava to both!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Marian … wow, a wonderful new idea: relinquishing self-importance without losing self-esteem. I may do a blog on that sentence alone!

      I think your blog, with your stories, is simply wonderful … and yes, your legacy is what you do every day. I still lots of time (I hope) to improve mine.

      Happy Thanksgiving.

    • I, too, have read Vallient’s classic book. Ram Das said that post-midlife is a stage of becoming a nobody. To most people that sounds strange. But it is about letting go of ego and status. It is not about what others think of us, but more important what we think of ourselves. Thinking of legacy daily reminds us to ask: Are we living in a way that we want to be remembered?

  3. Mary, I applaud you for this provocative and relevant series on aging issues.
    Jann, your question, “are we living in ways we want to be remembered” highlights the importance of focusing on what matters the most as we live our daily lives. I appreciate the notion that with aging comes a deeper connection to our true selves. We are in charge of how we will be remembered , not by our big achievements or the value of our estates but by the simple, day-to-day ways we live our lives and impact the lives of others. I have never heard of ethical wills but I’ll be checking out your links. Thanks for an informative and inspirational post.

  4. I too am deeply interested in the questions of sage-ing, and have been for some time. My childhood memoir BLUSH was written both to leave a legacy of stories from a time and place now gone but also to help me with the continuing project of clarifying the nature of “my verse.” Several years ago I wrote, along with my husband, a “Last will and TESTAMENT” for our heirs. The idea came from an estate planning attorney who led a workshop while I was a college president. I really liked attaching my values to my will. I enjoyed these ideas and recognize Jann as a kindred spirit. Thanks, Mary!