What Type of Legacy Do You Want to Leave?

A legacy isn't only about leaving what you earned but also what you learned. Here are 6 ways you can have an impact after you're gone.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
November 24, 2014

"If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?" is the well-known aphorism from Hillel, a famous Jewish rabbi. Throughout history, we have been conditioned to look out for ourselves, or no one else will. But if we're consumed with pursuing only our selfish interests, what are we? And more important, what legacy will we leave?

There's a lot of criticism today about people's lack of civic responsibility, but stories of altruism and generosity also abound. For example, there are countless people who abandon a comfortable lifestyle to help those during major disasters. And more and more, we see people who want to make a difference, who are looking to leave a positive imprint on the world and a legacy of goodness.

But a legacy isn't only about leaving what you earned but also what you learned, and we all have an opportunity to make a difference. It doesn't call for wealth, fame or even taking giant steps—you don't have to be a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King to leave a positive mark right now, one that will linger long after you're gone.

So where can you start? Here are some pointers to inspire you.

Identify What Matters to You

What's important to you? What are your values? How do you want your life to touch others? What would make you proud? If you had to do one thing to improve your world, what would your contribution be? How can you increase the well-being of those who depend on you? How can you leave your mark on whatever you do?

The answer to these introspective questions will help you develop a meaningful philosophy of life that goes beyond just creating financial wealth. Your words become the building blocks of your legacy. Knowing what's important, what drives you and how you want to be remembered creates tremendous clarity in how you should live your life.

As Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner remind us in A Leader's Legacy, "by asking ourselves how we want to be remembered, we plant the seeds for living our lives as if we matter." Considering your legacy gives you a compass to help you move with purpose and determination even in the most uncertain times. Creating a legacy statement will help you commit to what you wrote down and live your life in line with your higher values.

If you need more guidelines for developing your legacy document, check out the resources at Plan Your Legacy.

Write a Six-Word Memoir

The Six-Word Memoir is the brainchild of Larry Smith, founder and editor of SMITH Magazine. It poses a simple challenge: “Can you tell your life story in six words?” The unsubstantiated story is that Ernest Hemingway wrote the now-famous six words "For sale: baby shoes, never worn" to prove that an entire story could be told using just half a dozen words.

In a similar manner, the Six-Word Memoir is a way of naming your mission in life. Staring at a blank page can be daunting, but choosing six words to define your mission and what you want your life to stand for may not be so hard and may even be energizing and stimulating. Try thinking of six poignant words that can define the footprint you want to leave in your life's path.

Create an Ethical Will

Everyone thinks of creating a will to distribute their material possessions, but what about spiritual gifts? An ethical will is a spiritual legacy that you leave for your children, your family, your friends and associates. It's an important document where you capture the essence of who you are and what you stand for by writing about your life lessons, values, accomplishments and hopes. It's a way of recording significant milestones and defining moments in your life, something you leave for those who matter to you.

Try your hand at writing your own ethical will—you can start creating one at any age and build on it with the passage of time as you continue to accumulate wisdom and knowledge. It may be as simple as a legacy letter expressing what you want most for and from your children. In So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, Rabbi Jack Riemer asks you to think about what you'd say if you had time to write just one letter: "To whom would it be addressed? What would it say? What would you leave out? Would you chastise and rebuke? Would you thank, forgive or seek to instruct?" Riemer's book provides guidelines on how to write an ethical will as well as examples.

Leave a Legacy of Leadership

Research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership reveals that most managers could have benefited from a leadership development experience earlier in their lives. A full 97 percent state that leadership development should have started by age 21. The sad thing is, many people never participate in leadership development training at all, and most aren't given that opportunity until after they've been promoted to management positions. What are you doing to develop the leadership pipeline in your company? "A leader's lasting value," leadership expert John C. Maxwell says, "is measured by succession."

Develop a plan not only to pass on your technical mastery and knowledge of your business but also your wisdom and your leadership philosophy. Teach people about creating lifelong customers, balancing profits with ethics and doing well while doing good. These lessons are some of the most valuable teachings you can pass on to equip your company's leaders to carry the torch into the future.

Give of Yourself

One way we add value to society is through volunteering to share our knowledge and skills, our labor and our heart. As a business owner, chances are, other people helped you on your path to success. Why not pay it forward by helping young entrepreneurs make their mark? The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, for example, offers various volunteering opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to share their business expertise with young people from low-income communities to guide them on their road to success. Check out, as well, Ashoka, a worldwide network of social entrepreneurs that's dedicated to changing the world through new ideas to solve social problems. Ashoka's motto is "everyone a changemaker." You can be one of these changemakers by getting involved with one of their volunteer opportunities. Many are virtual and require just two hours a week for short-term projects of a few months.

Not everyone can afford to take time off from their businesses to volunteer for weeks at a time. But why not consider a volunteering vacation where you and your family can volunteer a week of service to others? For volunteering ideas, check out Leave Your Mark in the USA or Get Involved: Find Your Volunteer Match in Canada. You can also work from anywhere to support people in crisis through CrisisCommons, devoting as much or as little time as you choose. 

One never knows where such involvement leads and the long-term impact of the ruffle it creates.

Live Your Life as a Mensch

When Robin Williams died, Steve Martin called him "a mensch." It's safe to say that everyone considered Robin Williams not only to be a very funny man but also one of the kindest. Calling him a mensch is the greatest eulogy because a mensch is a person who is decent and honorable, a person of high integrity who has genuine caring for his fellow man. A mensch always looks for an opportunity to do good in life, to be of help to others and to give without regard for anything in return. A mensch doesn't cut corners in their relationships with people. You always feel safe in the presence of a mensch because you instinctively know that they will not deceive you, undermine you or diminish you in any way. Being called a mensch is the ultimate compliment you can receive.

Strive to live your life as a mensch, and you'll have left your greatest legacy for anyone who has come in contact with you. For pointers on being a mensch as an entrepreneur, watch entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki's talk at Stanford University's Entrepreneurship Corner.

The third question from Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote is, "If not now, when?" It's never too soon to start your legacy—to pursue both success and significance. What is one step you can take today?

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow

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Photo: Getty Images

President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.