The Legacy Myth

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There’s a lot of talk about legacy these days.

As I ease deep into my middle years, it’s on my mind quite often.

What am I building? What will I leave behind? How will that matter and to whom?

Increasingly, though, I’m wondering if that’s the wrong approach. The questions, they’re just so big. So unwieldly. So possesed with the power to paralyze, rather than catalyze.

I’m more inclined to look at the question of legacy from a position of present day action. And trust that if I get that right, I’ll one day be able to look back and, as Steve Jobs famously shared in his Stanford commencement speech, see how the dots connect backward.

What if, instead of obsessing over the need to define what I’ll leave behind, I focused on creating the best possible present day dots and trusted they’d someday weave together to form a worthy story over time?

What if the secret to deliciously-resonant present-day dots was to guide my choices and actions by this simple question:

Will this opportunity allow me to absorb myself in activities and relationships that fill me up, while surrounding myself with people I cannot get enough of and serving people I feel deeply connected to?

What if each dot to be connected later in life was simply the outgrowth of my ability to answer yes to that question as often and as loudly and as truthfully as humanly possible?

Put another way…

What if your legacy wasn’t about what you leave behind, but what you do today? And the next day. And the next day.

And, what if you started.


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35 responses

35 responses to “The Legacy Myth”

  1. cassia says:

    I think if you have your guideposts, your north star, and stay true to them the dots can’t help but connect as they are always moving in a general direction. This has always been a concern of mine as I often feel scattered in interests, in vocation, in medium as an artist… I often compare myself to Sybil(purple crayons…). Then this spring I went to see the Isa Genzken retrospective at Moma and saw in the space of the museum how seemingly random, and honestly without context to the other work confusing for me, pieces totally made sense when sharing space. When I could see the whole story, I could connect the dots and it gave me hope that if I stay true my dots will someday all connect too… legacy or not…

  2. Monica says:

    Powerful insight. Thanks for being real.

  3. Andrew Thorn says:

    Yes. I believe that our legacy is something that we carry with us everywhere we go. Others feel its impact but we take it with us. If you haven’t seen it yet, I think you will enjoy reading a book called Leading With Your Legacy In Mind.

  4. Great perspective for sure. I’ve always believed that my legacy will be the sum of what I do every single day therefore, I’m currently living my legacy.

  5. Anne Wayman says:

    This is one reason I like zen so much!

    • Andrea says:

      I like that you talk about your legacy being in the present. If you live in the now, your legacy will reveal itself as it should and to whom it should. Living to make a legacy may not necessarily be living…but living to experience and be present to life is a legacy worth making:) Thanks for saying it so eloquently.

  6. “Will this opportunity allow me to absorb myself in activities and relationships that fill me up, while surrounding myself with people I cannot get enough of and serving people I feel deeply connected to?”

    That question alone changes the approach most people would take to everything – work, life, you name it.

    Well, it did for me, anyway.

  7. Create the “dots” instead of trying to create the whole picture.

    So long as the dots you are creating will form a picture, or are focused, a picture will be formed.

    That picture is your legacy.

  8. Pam Torres says:

    Thanks for the reminder and nudge to center myself again. Always enjoy your words.

  9. What an awesome post, Jonathan! Your legacy is not just something you intentionally leave behind. Some of the greatest legacies were created by people who never thought about them for a minute – their only concern was living and breathing their passion. I try to make that my only concern, too.

  10. I appreciate reading this. It contributes to a centered rather than anxious sense. Thank you.

  11. Vicki says:

    Love your thinking Johnathan. Another thought… Don’t you have to know what you value and what is important to you as a human being, and decide WHO you want to be FIRST, then live each day onto that? So living true to who you want to be, consciously, every day will lead us there… Thank you for the great question to remember being conscious in my daily living.

  12. Lisa says:

    Beautifully written and succinct! It’s the crux of living with the notion that each and every day matters. Be present, with more focus on making today awesome. Everything else will fall into place.

  13. We see it all the time. The press tells us that an ex-President or CEO is working on building his or her legacy. However, we notice that the first thing that person does is run out and hire a publicist. Then we see nothing but a series of photo-ops and P.R. events centering on the legacy builder.

    The manifestation of your legacy is not really about you or how people remember you. It is about the impact you have made on others. The definition of manifest is “to make clear or evident, to reveal.” The only way to make your legacy evident is through action, the objective of which is the welfare of others.

    You are not your legacy. You are the one who manifests your legacy. What is ultimately important is not the image of yourself that you leave behind, but the purposeful action that results in a positive impact on other people’s lives.

    In the Bible, Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.” He repeatedly used the analogy of “fruits” to represent a person’s works or service to others. The Dalai Lama has stated the same principle when he said, “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our sense of well-being becomes.”

    The legacy that is manifested is strictly a by-product, maybe even a reward for our part in making the world a better place. The quest to leave a legacy is ultimately inspired by love. Our love for our family, for our community and for our fellow human beings.

    Unfortunately, to many people, legacy is about fame. We see people who aspire to be famous by being famous. Their legacy is printed on the covers of tabloids or in video archives. The true legacies are earned by those who made the world a better place, those who made a difference in people’s lives, those who made their communities better.

    True legacies are recorded in the hearts of others, not on the printed page.

  14. Suzie says:

    Reminds me of this: Look to this day, For it is life, The very life of life. In its brief course lie all the realities and verities of existence, The bliss of growth, The splendor of action, The glory of power. For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision. But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day. (Twelve steppers will recognize this)

  15. Thanks Jonathan. Love the question. And the message of the post brings to mind the Annie Dillard quote ‘How we spend our days is how we live our lives’.

  16. Lovely reflective piece here Jonathan

  17. Anthony says:

    Thanks for a valuable insight.
    As Buddhists teach and as Ken Wilbur, (Integral), points out, the present is the only reality. The past is a story we tell ourselves in the present, the future a story we imagine in the present.
    So now is all we have to work with.
    I like your simple self question, but does it need a reminder about doing what’s right in there somewhere?
    Great post though.

  18. Megan says:

    Yes, indeed. And it reminded me of the irony — how often we are busy striving for the big “legacy” work, while a child stands by craving for our attention (an opportunity for intergenerational legacy…passing us right by).

  19. True Black says:

    Great post.

    I’ve thought along the same lines for a while. You expressed the ideas in a simple, clear way.

    Thank you.

  20. Dangerous Christian says:

    Thanks for posting, Jonathan.

    As a father, I too hear the “legacy” thing as well. You’ve shown me it’s not what i “leave behind”, but what I do today. So many of us think that leaving money and a name is legacy, however that’s far from the truth. We get so “future oriented” we never enjoy the present with those we love; and realize that we can make differences in the lives of others now.

    I felt a “legacy weight” removed from my shoulders. Thanks again. Peace!

  21. Man I love how this makes it so damn simple. Refreshing. Nicely done!

  22. Nancie says:

    I think you’ve figured it out 🙂

  23. Rachel says:

    I really needed this post. I’ve often found myself paralyzed by the “What am I leaving behind” question. In the end, it’s all about soaking up the beauty of the present moment. Thank you – you’re a huge inspiration to me.

  24. Lou Blaser says:

    I love that question… “Will this opportunity allow me to absorb myself … ?” I believe we are the same age Jonathan, and I too have been thinking about legacy lately. This is just the kind of post that lands on one’s lap when she’s ready to receive the message. Thank you.

  25. On the dot! Jonathan 🙂

    Thank you. I always look forward to learning and hearing from you.

  26. My life experience, which like many includes everything from joy to tragedy, has taught me to focus on the here and now. That does not mean I don’t plan for the future – I do! But I would be unlikely to organize myself and my actions in terms of legacy narrowly and traditionally defined. That is why your piece had such resonance with me. Thank you.

  27. This is such a timely piece for me this week Jonathan. I explored this idea in an interview and podcast and fell even more in love with the idea of legacy. How beautiful that we can all embrace and live our legacy in every single moment and not just at the end. Imagine what a revolutionary force it would be if we could get everyone to live life from this perspective.
    This week has certainly changed my perspective on it and has put a little skip in my step! Thanks so much for contributing to that with your great writing. A lovely way to finish up my ‘week of legacy living’.

  28. Scott Asai says:

    Makes sense to enjoy the moment and control what you can (present) instead of always daydreaming about the future. You also can do some tangible building now instead of waiting for later. Carpe diem!

  29. Thanks for this post. I agree that the legacy is what you do today and to make it meaningful to you and to the others. That is the reason why I have decided to start a non-profit organization that is focusing on giving teenagers the power to be heard and to help their peers.

  30. Jeff says:

    “Increasingly, though, I’m wondering if that’s the wrong approach. The questions, they’re just so big. So unwieldly. So possesed with the power to paralyze, rather than catalyze.” I love that line! YES, let’s focus on what we are doing right now and not 60 years from now!

  31. […] then I stumbled upon this post from Jonathan Fields, wherein he echoed the same sentiment.   He talked about legacy in the context […]

  32. Katie says:

    I like this perspective. The question is very helpful to me especially since I don’t yet know what leaving a legacy means to me or for me. Until I do, I think I’ll use your question as a guide. Thank you.