“I want to leave my mark on this world – something that really shows I was here!” Gary tells me.
That’s not uncommon. The desire to leave our mark, to show we were here – that we mattered – is nearly universal. So, I ask him, “What would be a meaningful marker to you?” For some people, it’s having their name on a building, for others it’s a foundation or a scholarship. “It’s really different for everyone, ” I tell him. “What REALLY matters to you?”
Gary dithers around a little bit, telling me about other people’s legacies – people he admires – their legacies are all quite grand, but none of them sound like his heart is really in it. I’ve learned over the years to listen for the catch in someone’s throat, the sign that we’re tapping into meaningful territory, not just egocentric competition, so I keep nudging him along, digging for that buried treasure.
Legacy is a topic I talk a lot about, so I engaged Gary in a little journey about what it means to him to “leave his mark.”
Over the past year, I’ve been hosting small dinner parties in each city I visit, bringing together people I know in each city who may not yet know each other. (Message me if you’d like to be included in my next one where you live.) I typically pick a topic and suggest it to each of the people coming, an opening question so we begin to know each other on a level deeper than our professional masks. Together we go on a bit of a treasure hunt for meaning.
This year, one of my favorite topics has been: What constitutes a lasting legacy?
I ask each of my guests to come prepared to answer this opening question: If you could take on anyone else’s life (living, deceased or imaginary), who would it be and why?
The answers are varied and often surprising. Frequently, their answers are famous people – Einstein, da Vinci, Warren Buffet, Gandhi, Churchill. Sometimes their choices and the reasons behind them are surprising. One guest told me that she would take on Princess Diana’s life and make different choices so it didn’t have such a tragic ending. These conversations open the door to glimpse what matters to each of them.
I never know exactly how the conversation is going to play out over the evening, but sometimes I like to make the next question – Do you think their private legacy was different than their public legacy and, if so, what do you think it was? Would you accept the public legacy if it also meant living their private one? Or, is their public legacy more important than their private one?
Throughout these fascinating dinners, we talk about many aspects of our lives and how to find more meaning in our daily existence as well as what will outlive each of us.
I sometimes ask, “Who had an important impact on your life and may not know just how important their simple act was?”
I have a story I sometimes share to prime the pump for stories from their own lives. When it was time to go to college, my parents had saved no money for me. Neither of them had graduated from high school and college just wasn’t something they were promoting. I had worked and saved and luckily earned a scholarship, but I was still $2500 short. My parents were unwilling to cosign for a student loan and I was sixteen years old. It looked like college was out of the question and disappointment is simply too small a word for what I felt. Honestly, college was my escape from a bleak and violent home life.
A local banker, Mr. Finn, made an unsecured $2500 student loan to me and off I went. Looking back, i have no idea if he know the gravity of my situation or the impact his action would have or the many ripples it would send out into the world. It was a seemingly small act, with a big result in my life. Perhaps it was a risk on his part, perhaps it was something he did offhandedly, without realizing how much my survival depended upon it. I graduated from college, and then law school, and repaid all of my loans – with gratitude more than obligation. He’s gone. Sadly, it came to me late in life to seek him out and thank him for that act of grace. I wish I had thought to do it when he was still alive.
I suggest to Gary that he write a letter to that person in his life. But, more than simply mailing a letter, I urge Gary to call his Mr. Finn, ask if he can stop by to say hello and read the letter to him face-to-face. He is reluctant, telling me he doesn’t think he has the courage to do it face-to-face. Oddly, it would be easier for him to confront someone in person who had hurt him or doubted him, just to prove the other person wrong and show how he had succeeded despite them. I gently suggest that THIS is the more important letter and meeting for him to commit to. Sharing with someone the truth of how their action changed the course of your life is a moment of gratitude that is unequaled for the giver and the recipient.
I had an unexpected instance like this happen to me a couple of years ago. I was a guest speaker at an event. After I spoke, I noticed a woman looking at me intently during the rest of the afternoon. Frankly, it became uncomfortable after a while. Finally, she approached me and said, “Do you remember me?” “Uh-oh,” I thought, “this is going to get awkward.” I did not, in fact, remember her and was rapidly scanning every possible scenario where she might have come from. She promptly announced that I had changed her life. I was stunned.
Apparently, more than a dozen years earlier, I had consulted for a law firm where she was a paralegal. According to her, I had said something like “You have tremendous potential. Don’t waste it. Find a way to get yourself to law school, get out there, seize your future and use it to change the world.” She had, indeed, gone on to law school and was now general counsel to the organization where I was the guest speaker, something close to her heart and mine. There were tears in our eyes as she hugged me, thanking me for believing in her and how often she thought of me when times were rough and she had wanted to quit. I had no idea. Sadly, I didn’t even remember spending time with her at that firm. But she did.
Her courage in approaching me, unexpectedly at a random event, profoundly affected me. It affected the way I use my words. If my offhand comment could have that kind of positive impact, I was certain that my words could easily have the other impact, too, if carelessly used to criticize. I started to look for ways to leave my mark, to show that I was here – whether or not I ever heard of it again.
My client, Gary, has a vacation home in Florida. Our conversation last week, as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the coast, was a tense one. He was, understandably, anxious about how the storm would impact his vacation home. I quietly held space while he aired his worries about what might be lost and whether they would rebuild if it came to that. I used our time together to continue our conversation about his legacy.
I asked Gary what he would take from the house if he had just a half hour to gather his most prized possessions. We both knew that people all over Florida were trying to do just that at the very moment – deciding what they would take and what they would leave – truly sorting out what mattered on a tangible, physical level. And, two weeks earlier, people in Houston had faced that same dilemma. People in the Caribbean hadn’t had that option as entire islands were devastated and millions of people lost everything and were struggling without food, water or power, likely for weeks to come, and feeling forgotten and hopeless.
When he answered my question about what mattered most in the home, it was his family and his pets. Everything else was just stuff and, fortunately for him, he and his family and his two dogs were safely ensconced in their primary residence a thousand miles away from the storm. Perspective. Not that his worries and fears are unwarranted, but they were now in perspective – and we would deal together with the grief and loss of beloved possessions, if it came to that.
I usually ask clients to tell me a story they most hope someone will tell about them at their funeral. A story that would inform other people gathered what their life was most about. This begins to get at the heart of our legacy, because if the stories that are told at your funeral are about your biggest deal or the way you squeezed the last concession from an opponent or how you looked away as you closed the door to your private jet sweeping your family and possessions from the path of a hurricane while leaving others behind begging for you to take their child with you because they weren’t as fortunate as you, you may question whether the mark you left behind is the one you intended. But, have no doubt, we always leave a mark.
This morning, I have been checking in with clients and friends who live in Florida or who have homes there. Hearing their relief or their pain. Holding space for them as they process their intense gratitude or shattering grief. Each of them i have asked to tell me three stories – one about who they helped leading up to the storm, one about who helped them, and another about who they have reached out to help now. You see, the treasure really isn’t buried, we just have to mark the spots.
In the end, we make our marks choice by choice, day by day, not just dollar by dollar. Those are the key aspects of our enduring legacies. What is the story that will be told from your choices today? You’re not dead yet.