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Leaving a Legacy

Do you know what sort of impact you want to make on the world and how your business and your life factor into that?
December 15, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/171980

Maybe it's because a good college friend died recently in a tragic accident. Perhaps it's because the year is winding down and we're all naturally focusing on closing one chapter and starting another. But I thought it was interesting that the topic of legacies came up in a handful conversations and meetings I had last week.

The discussions ranged from "What's it all about anyway? I thought by this age I would've figured it out already" to "Why am I working so hard with no end in sight?" to "Does anybody other than me really care if this succeeds?" to the stated desire that the world be left better because of a person's presence. Personally, I find the concept of leaving a legacy fascinating, especially since I don't have any offspring, which most people believe is the natural way to leave a lasting mark on the world.

I once read a proverb that said if you lead a meaningful life, you never really die. Instead, you break into 1,000 pieces, each of which stay alive within the people whose lives you've touched along the way. I like that concept and think about who those 1,000 people would be in my life. My family and close friends would certainly make up a large piece of it, but I hope it would also include my mentors and mentees, team colleagues, fellow board members and even strangers who were touched by my articles or speeches, shared a cross-country plane ride conversation with me or somehow crossed paths with me along the way.

I'd much rather be remembered by a few dear people on rainy days as the friend you could talk with for hours in front of the fireplace, in a coffee shop, on the phone or on warm days when taking a walk together than have my name on a building or plaque that thousands of people pass and never notice or wonder who I was and why my name was there. Making a lasting impression on the people who mean the most to me is what I really care about, and I want to be remembered for the right reasons: for being kind, warm, sincere, generous, unique, special, funny and fun. Being remembered as an entrepreneur or leader matters less to me than being remembered as someone who was a good listener, gave great advice, showed good judgment, and really cared about what I did and who I did it with every day.

I don't know who said "Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life,"but I think that sentiment is true. I want to be remembered as a multiplier, someone who raised the level of play of everyone around them, who always created positive energy in the room and sparked new ideas. A good rule of thumb to help guide you in life when you're trying to decide which path to pursue is to take a longer view of your options. So do you attend the wedding of a close friend or agree to speak at a prominent industry conference the same day in a different part of the country? In 10, 20 or 50 years, who will remember or care about the decision you make? Going through that exercise can help clarify priorities quickly.

As my dear friend in Atlanta once said, you can leave a legacy or lead one--it's your choice whether you're passive or proactive here. Thinking about this topic in my 40s, I now realize the choices I make every day with my time and my calendar directly impact how I'll be remembered. Who I spend my time with and how we pass that time together really matters. I will never get those moments back again, so I want to make sure I spend them each wisely.

I hope it will be many decades before we find out my legacy. To be honest, I still have a lot to accomplish. I think my biggest opportunities to make a difference and have an impact are still ahead of me. I want to change the world in some important way and know that it's in fact better because I was here.

My company is the platform from which I operate daily, so now that I'm thinking about these things, it occurs to me I don't have any succession plans in place. Like many entrepreneurs, I've been so busy building my business that I didn't make the time to think about the bigger issues like who'll keep my dreams alive without me here. I think the secret is to include others in your big dreams along the way, so even after you're gone, they continue to expand and reinvent them in relevant ways. That way, your spirit will live on in perpetuity.

The old saying that it's amazing how much you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit may apply to leaving a legacy as well. Your good work and good deeds live forever in the hearts and minds of those you touch along the way. So as 2006 comes to a close, remember those people who've left lasting impressions on your life, and share the lessons they taught you with others in the new year. What a wonderful and memorable gift for the holidays and beyond.