What Do You Want Your Legacy to Be?

I’ve been struck (as so many people have) by Steve Jobs’ death — in part because I own just about everything he’s ever developed (iPhone, iPad, iMac, you name it) but also because his life has truly impacted each of our lives. No matter whether you’re a fan or not, there’s no denying how he changed the world in which we live. As a former Apple VP, Jay Elliot, said: “No other CEO has had wreaths laid in memory of him where people bought his products.”

And it got me thinking: what will my legacy be?

We don’t have to be a billionaire tech genius to make a difference: it’s so not about the money. I distinctly remember the funeral of a friend’s mother; at it, neighbors, friends, students (she had been a teacher), and relatives spoke about how warm and welcoming she was, how patient and kind she was, how she always baked the yummiest treats for everyone in the neighborhood, and how she always had an open door at her home. That was her legacy—how she touched other people’s lives.

As we move along our own daily paths, we can get so caught up in the grind that we lose sight of the bigger picture. I’m saying we should live our lives with the sole purpose of having a legacy after we die. That’s not it at all. It’s just that: there is a bigger picture to life. And we can lose focus of that.

After much pondering (and already pre-ordering my copy of Steve Jobs’ biography, due out today), I came up with a short list of lessons to help give our lives more meaning—and in so doing, will make each of us happier and more fulfilled.

1) Don’t make money the end goal. Yes, I like nice things as much as the next person, but Steve Jobs couldn’t take any of his billions with him—and neither can any of us take what we make in this lifetime with us. And besides, work and earning money is no real gift to leave behind. I have a quote posted above the phone in my kitchen to help remind me of this fact:

One Hundred Years from Now
(excerpt from “Within My Power” by Forest Witcraft)

One hundred years from now
It will not matter
What kind of car I drove,
What kind of house I lived in,
How much money was in my bank account,
Nor what my clothes looked like.
But the world may be a better place because
I was important in the life of a child.

I would also tweak the ending to say: “But the world may be a better place because I did something to make that happen.”

2) Follow your passion. So many people I’ve met are stuck in what they call “dead-end jobs” — ones they really have no interest in. They’re doing it, they say, because they need the money, but what they really want to be doing is: _____________(fill in the blank). Carpe diem, I say. If you don’t try to follow your passion today, one day you’ll realize you don’t have time to do it anymore—and you’ll regret it. (And I have always believed that the worst thing in life is to have regrets.) Following your passion (as Steve Jobs did) is, in a sense, following your gut: your own intuitive sense knows what you should be doing in life. By listening to it, you’ll be more likely to do something that actually makes a difference.

In his now very well-known commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs said:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like, ‘If you live each day as if it were your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ Since then…I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Your time is limited…Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…Everything else is secondary.”

3) Learn to appreciate silence. It struck me one day in the midst of the craziness of New York City—with cabs honking, sirens wailing, people talking (or, more often, shouting)—how we have lost our ability to be quiet. It’s this daily cacophony, I believe, that drowns out so much of our own inner voice. By just taking time to be silent each day (be it through morning meditation, an after-dinner walk, etc), we’ll discover what’s important in our own lives. And in so doing, we can start to make a difference in the lives of others.

4) Be nice. This sounds so simplistic and, some may say, naïve particularly in business (after all, didn’t Steve Jobs make people cry in his quest to make Apple a success?). But I disagree. Treating people with the respect that each person is due is part of what you will leave behind. I once had a boss who treated people horribly—every single day—screaming at them, de-moralizing them, making them cry…only because he could. And employees went home depressed, angry, resentful, and with low self-esteem. I’ve always said to everyone who’s ever worked for me: you can be strict, you can be firm, you can be a visionary, but never ever treat others with disrespect. Because at the end of the day, when you’re gone—that’s what people will remember.

5) Believe in something greater than yourself. Whether you call this religion or spirituality or whatever, the sense that we’re part of a greater purpose will help drive you to do what’s best in your own life. We are all linked together in this web of life. And by realizing that, we can begin to do what’s right, for us and for others. And that, at the end of the day, is what legacy is all about.

Tell us: What do you want your legacy to be? Join the conversation below.

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