This week I ran an event in San Francisco about legacies. Knowing I wouldn’t be back for a while I chose what I thought was a good closing topic.
In fact, it turned out that legacies raise more questions than I expected.
I’d been thinking about legacies as the mark you want to leave on the world, much like Steve Jobs’ ‘ding in the universe’ quote. But felt conflicted about this - firstly because the focus on leaving your mark seems extraordinarily egocentric, and secondly because, when I think about my own legacy, what becomes clearest to me is not some big impact, but rather the way I’ll be remembered by those closest to me.
At the event I posed the question of legacy in two ways:
The wider impact you want to have
The way you want to be remembered
A couple of days later I was replaying the discussion to two friends over dinner.
When it came to talking about our wider impact – the big legacy – all three of us stumbled. Both friends were strongly motivated by their careers and the value of the work they were doing. They both referenced this as part of their ‘legacy’ as such, but struggled to put it into words.
But when they talked about their impact on those closest to them both became much more specific – the importance was much clearer to them.
Then my friend Audrey told the story of Yvette - an unusually kind woman who had adopted her as a surrogate East Coast daughter after rescuing her lost cat.
Audrey has forever been grateful for Yvette’s unexpected kindness. The impact of Yvette’s actions on Audrey’s life have became a kind of legacy in the here and now.
In the days since our conversation I keep coming back to this idea: that legacies as a grand gesture, as the epitaph at the end of our lives, might be missing the point.
We leave legacies in the everyday with the people we brush up against. These ‘legacies’ are never intended as such and most of the time they’re just kind things done in the flow of life.
In focusing on the ‘big impact’ we want to have it becomes easy to miss these opportunities to touch each other’s lives; to forget to do the small good things.
Thinking of our lives in the context of our last day on earth puts our actions in perspective. It makes us realise what’s really important. Sometimes it isn’t the product you want to invent, the charity you want to start, or the big issue you’re working on.
When I interviewed the philosopher Roman Krznaric he talked about the need to be aware of the choices we make, to make the most of our freedom in the present. Too often we get lulled into a sense of complacency. Reminding ourselves of the nearness of death is a way to put our current life in sharp focus.
To think that your legacy in life must equal some indelible mark on the universe misses the point. At the end of our lives what is left of us is carried in the memories of those we came closest to.
Our legacies can be small, they can be many, and they can happen in the here and now.
It seems fitting in talking about legacies that today is Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. In the Mission district of San Francisco people are buying marigolds, painting their faces and paying tribute to those they’ve loved and lost.