What’s Your Legacy?

John Greenleaf Whittier

In John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem  A Legacy it’s clear that he wants to be remembered for his friendship, although, together with his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, he spent a large part of his life fighting against slavery and is remembered today more for his poetry than for anything else. If, as Lucretius said more than two thousand years ago, we are no more than a bundle of swirling atoms, it’s surprising that we have such a strong desire to leave a legacy, to make a difference, but we do.

A Legacy

Friend of my many years!
When the great silence falls, at last, on me,
Let me not leave, to pain and sadden thee,
A memory of tears,
But pleasant thoughts alone.
Of one who was thy friendship’s honored guest
And drank the wine of consolation pressed
From sorrows of thy own.
I leave with thee a sense
Of hands upheld and trials rendered less,
The unselfish joy which is to helpfulness
Its own great recompense.
The knowledge that from thine,
As from the garments of the Master, stole
Calmness and strength, the virtue which makes whole
And heals without a sign.
Yea more, the assurance strong
That love, which fails of perfect utterance here,
Lives on to fill the heavenly atmosphere
With its immortal song.

Is a legacy simply a way of purchasing immortality or of wrestling some significance from a meaningless world? Whatever the reason(s) the need to leave a legacy of some kind appears to be an integral part of what it means to be human. As a result the issue even makes its way into the financial planning process. One of the questions we regularly ask clients is the following:

“Now imagine that you are eighty years old and it’s the last day of your life. Reflect on the texture of your life. What gave you the greatest satisfaction? What gave you the confidence that your life had meaning – that you had made a difference?”

The point of the question is not to look back but to look forward, to get the client to compare the life they are currently living with the life they would need to live to reflect the legacy they want to leave behind.

A legacy can be a life well-lived that inspires and positively influences others, like the lives of Steve Jobs and Mother Teresa, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. As in the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, children can be our legacy, the notes in our magnum opus, or even a blog…

Jews have long had a tradition of bequeathing a spiritual legacy either in the form of a codicil to a conventional will or as a separate document. The purpose of these ethical wills is to transmit personal reflections and the motivating values and events in one’s life experience. Such documents have now moved into mainstream financial and estate planning and a small cottage industry has grown up to help individuals write their own ethical wills. In the book So That Your Values Live On – Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them the authors point out that you can learn a great deal about yourself in the process of writing an ethical will and they quote the example of someone who tried to write a letter to his family but found he couldn’t because he realized they were no longer a family.

Our stories are too valuable not to pass them on to our children. Immigrants know this only too well as they struggle to convey to often unbelieving and/or uncaring children the life they left behind, the hardships, challenges and incomprehension they faced in their adopted country and the values that kept them going. Write down your stories because one day your children will be ready to read them and by so doing you might be able to help them make the most important decision of their lives. You might be able to get them to stop and consider what they are living for.


“I am convinced that the greatest legacy we can leave our children are happy memories: those precious moments so much like pebbles on the beach that are plucked from the white sand and placed in tiny boxes that lay undisturbed on tall shelves until one day they spill out and time repeats itself, with joy and sweet sadness, in the child now an adult.”  Og Mandino

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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37 Comments on “What’s Your Legacy?”

  1. Says:

    Hi Malcolm, I found this blog thought provoking. At my age of 74 the thought of an ethical will captures me although I’m rather sure I have done all the good or harm to my children’s value systems already. I’ve sent for the book that you linked to and will read it before I begin my draft. Thank you for this interesting message. All’s well that ends well. Phil


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Phil, glad you enjoyed it. Unfortunately the book I quoted is misnamed as it has very little on how to write an ethical will and consists in the main of a wonderful collection of them, some of which are very moving. Knowing you as I do, I am sure this is more than sufficient.


  2. matt Says:

    Incremental legacy building through our children probably does more to change the world than any one single event by any one person.


  3. kateshrewsday Says:

    Thought provoking! I have no idea what I will leave. I think there are some things you just have to allow time to reveal. A life matures after it is gone, and its implications may take a very long time to bubble to the surface. Henry VIII’s clown; a young woman sacrificed in a Viking boat-burning; a soldier from the trenches in world war I: each leaves that which might surprise us even centuries after they die, if the wisdom of mankind chooses and is able to unlock it. Some of us leave our footprint in family stories or local folklore. And some just leave the planet a set of atoms ready to become something else. Fame is not really necessary, though it is in us to desire it.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Kate. “A life matures after it is gone” That’s an interesting thought to mull over a glass of wine sometime. Maybe we need time-delayed legacies to allow sufficient time for all of us to be appreciated 🙂 Seriously, this is a great comment.


  4. becwillmylife Says:

    It was so interesting to see your entry today. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I lost a friend recently to her battle with cancer. Another one of her friends talked to her about the legacy she was leaving behind. For some reason this irritated her. She said, “One’s legacy is a perception. I hope I made an impact in other’s lives, especially my son. What they think of me is what they think of me. I have no control over that.”

    I think she’s right. I’ll be remembered for my signature red velcro rollers that have been a part of my morning routine for years. My kids, their friends and anyone who has spent time in our home always talk about me and my rollers. Other than that, I have no idea what I’ll be remembered for. I hope I’m perceived in a postive light.

    I love your comment about passing on our stories. That is one of the main reasons I started my blog. I want my children, my nieces and my nephews to know about their heritage….from mental illness to inventions. It’s a rich history. Thanks for making me reflect a little more deeply.


    • Jon Sharp Says:

      Well said. I agree with you and your friend. I will try and live my life as well and as constructively as I can. What people make of me when I am dead is up to them. The attempt to reach from beyond the grave and continue to impose one’s values and ideas on people still alive strikes me as a characteristic human conceit.


      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        Jon, thank you for raising an issue I neglected in the post, bad legacies, legacies that attempt to do exactly what you describe. It’s a fine line. I’ve seen family land bequeathed to children on the condition that all the children must agree to a sale. The purpose was innocent enough as the deceased had wanted to keep a family estate together. However, because of hostilities between the children it was not possible for any of them to sell to become more liquid and more diversified.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I must say I think blogs make wonderful legacies although you get into all sorts of thorny issues about what happens to your online content when you die. I think Facebook gives one the option to freeze an account after death in perpetuity but I’m not sure about WordPress.


  5. L. Marie Says:

    The relationships we build and maintain are the best legacy anyone can have. I would want my family and friends to know for a fact, “She really loved me,” even if I don’t have a dime to leave anyone.


  6. Jill London Says:

    A really thought-provoking post, Malcolm, inspiring some truly insightful comments. I loved it all, but most especially I enjoyed the quotation from Og Mandino. Just perfection.


  7. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Hi Malcolm, wonderful post – thought provoking and touching. It is a scary thought for me, to look back at life and think – I have left so much undone, what really is my legacy? I suppose that thought worries me more, than the thought of how others may remember me when I am no longer around. I need to know what I have done has been OK with me. I think it doesn’t matter what we have done throughout our lives or how others perceive us – it is how we feel when we reflect that counts and makes us feel OK. We are the ones left with our stories, we know the truth and how we feel – we can’t dress that up with lies. I think being all we can be in life is a great legacy, but often a huge pressure for us to live up to – and perhaps that legacy will suffer as a consequence. We perhaps think of, and dwell upon leaving a grandiose legacy, rather than a small and meaningful legacy. Right up until the end, we will no doubt probably be missing the point!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Bex, thank you. You raise the important issue of regret and that it might be more important make sure that one’s life had been lived to its full potential rather than worrying about how it might seem to others. I agree with you and I think you also touch on an important communication issue when you say “We are the ones left with our stories, we know the truth and how we feel – we can’t dress that up with lies.” Ultimately we are the only ones that know our truth and I’m not sure that can ever be authentically conveyed to someone else.


  8. rdmilligan Says:

    Leaving a legacy through financial achievements, or even artistic accomplishments, seems to be a trap. It predominently focuses on the ego and a desire to be heard (now, and beyond the grave). Yes, the true legacy is the time spent connecting to and inspiring others. But even as i know this, i still don’t find myself doing it enough 🙂


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. Allow me for the sake of argument to play the devil’s advocate on this one. When we spend a great deal of our time nurturing our children we are actually just following the blind instructions of our genes who want an assured future for themselves, so maybe we should not give ourselves too much credit on that one. On the other hand the miser may decide on his or her deathbed to leave his fortune to enable children without resources to achieve their full potential. Another challenging example might be a selfish family business owner who just wants to ensure the business remains intact and within the family when he dies. However, by doing so he also ensures the continued livelihood of employees, suppliers and other partners. I pose these scenarios because I think you raise a great point, but is it that easy to discriminate between legacies that are worthwhile and those that are not?


      • rdmilligan Says:

        Thanks for the reply Malcolm. If we are nurturing our children purely for the perseverance of our genes than we would likely teach them to be cunning, ruthless survivors – i’m sure there is some basic primal guidance we are giving them, but i believe this should, and is, mixed with something more meaningful (we must be asking the question, what’s the point in continued evolution if only to dog eat dog?). Perhaps the miser on his deathbed is buying himself some easy ‘feel good’ and hedging his bets 🙂 – if he’s been a bitter miser all his life then i doubt the revelation. The business owner seeks assurance that his futility is not in vain (does he really care for the suppliers – i mean, really?) Of course, i am being black and white – playing devil’s advocate also. I think the question of legacy that you raise – what gives our lives purpose – is driving us every minute of every day (in ways we don’t realise). It’s worth finding out if we are doing things for the truely right reasons. One other thought – we have a great opportunity to affect those around us now – but what gives us the right to expect to muscle in, one hundred years from now?


  9. Kavita Joshi Says:

    Hi Malcolm…I have nominated you for Tag, You’re It! – Blog Award …..this is to recognize your efforts in sharing all these beautiful posts with us….Thanks for making this journey of blogging wonderful and congratulations!


  10. Stan Dorn Says:

    Nice post, Malcolm! One can think of a personal legacy in a broader context, as part of a whole. Of all people, Danny DeVito brought this home to me one evening, as he received an award on television. He talked about his body of work as building one part of “the cathedral.” He was alluding, of course, to the medieval construction of cathedrals over generations, in which anonymous artists each labored for a lifetime, with the joint effort resulting in a glorious structure. DeVito saw his work as part of the broader cultural contribution of film.

    Whatever you think of the movies in general or Danny DeVito in particular, his point was quite striking. An individual legacy is best placed in context when seen as part of the broader whole, as contributing one thread to the tapestry of humanity’s unfolding destiny. Thanks for this blog, which contributes such lovely threads! 


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Stan, thank you. That’s a great perspective on a legacy that I didn’t think about. I don’t know if you’ve read Ken Follett’s wonderful books, The Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End, but the subject matter is the construction of a medieval cathedral over many generations and the plot is very apropos to your comment.


  11. A Gripping Life Says:

    This is a beautiful post, Malcolm. I have a constant eternal perspective and so I often think about what I will leave behind for my family. I have done extensive genealogy and have preserved, as best I can, our family tree dating back into the 1500’s.
    I also want my legacy to be happy memories and the guidance and lessons of living that I’ve passed on to my children. As with everyone, I’d like to leave the world a better place and return to God with honor. 🙂


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Lisa. I’m impressed you have managed to trace back your family tree to the 1500’s. Doesn’t that make you an American aristocrat? Incidentally, I love that phrase “return to God with honor”.


  12. Dina Says:

    Provoking and very inspiring thoughts for the day. Thank you so much!
    Greetings from the North


  13. Brett Says:

    Your posts are always an excellent synthesis.


  14. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    “if…we are no more than a bundle of swirling atoms, it’s surprising that we have such a strong desire to leave a legacy, to make a difference, but we do.” And surprising that we get goosebumps when we hear things that move or startle us, surprising we should be fascinated with life, and worship a God bigger than ourself.

    But back to the point, what is the legacy yOu wish most to leave, M?


  15. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Clay, thank you for the linkback.



  1. What’s Your Legacy? | Life * Faith * Community * Sustenance - May 20, 2013

    […] What's Your Legacy?. […]

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