Why are we grappling with legacy?

Why are we grappling with legacy?

Most of us think that as soon as we retire, our legacy does not exist anymore because we as the owner of this legacy, are not there anymore in the capacity established previously by our profession, our income, our wealth. This is the hard cold reality but is it? I was asked this very particular question by a colleague after I had given a lecture on our medical profession and retirement.

Many people think that a legacy is a part of a person that lives on long after that person has passed. A legacy also leaves behind the story of a person so they are not forgotten. Legacies may become important pathways in the future to follow or to be guided by in order to make better decisions in life. What does it mean to leave a legacy? In simple terms, a legacy is passed from one generation to the next and often refers to gifts of money or property. However, leaving a personal legacy involves more than the financial assets you bestow on the younger generation. A legacy identifies the principles and values most important to you and describes the most important role you played in life – your family role, work role, and roles in the community are all a part of your story, your legacy.

Life is all about money or it seems so. We can think about all the things we work toward or wanted, but chances are it  often stems from our level of income. We strive for that job promotion, we take two years to get a master degree, and we strategize the best way to get a raise. We move for work, or we stick around for work, perhaps related to the benefits.  Either way, it’s most likely because of the money. Why is it that we are so focused on our earnings? Why do we often define our legacy by our ability to stockpile wealth?  Humans invented money. It is not like it started as a necessity like air or water. However, we have built a society where it has become  necessary. And since we constructed it, it is  therefore up to us as to how much we want to dictate the value of our lives.  At the end of the day, we are all going to die and we cannot take our money into the afterlife. So, would not our time be better spent in more life-affirming areas, rather than chasing the almighty dollar?  So, how should we define our life legacy? And here comes the concept that a legacy is not just expressed in the past, it can be expressed or lived or developed in the present and for the future.

We can live our life legacy in three steps: 1) understand the definition of life legacy, 2) define our own life legacy and 3) live our life’s legacy during our life and  build for afterlife.

1) Understand the Definition of Life Legacy

What’s the point of our life?  Is it to be a loving father or mother? Be a good friend and family member? Make a million dollars? Have as many new experiences as possible? Essentially, what is it that we want to be remembered for?  That’s where the focus of our life should lie. It’s our legacy, and it should supersede everything else.

First, let’s define legacy. According to Webster’s, legacy is “an amount of money or property left to someone in a will.”  Even the modern definition of legacy is focused on money, but  a second definition of legacy is something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor. However, the first definition highlights an acute problem in life. We think our legacy, and therefore our personal value, is derived from money. This is not the case. Rather, we need to think of our legacy as the positive thoughts and experiences we leave behind. How do we want people to think of us? What impact do we want to make? That  is our legacy. And none of it involves our lifetime earnings or our 10% raise. Forget the first definition of legacy and focus on the second. We need to decouple our self-worth from money and couple it with your legacy.

My answer to my colleague was about the patient’s he treated and help, the teaching he did to new students to pass on knowledge and perhaps the administrative duties he had that made a change in our health system.

2) Define our Own Life Legacy

We have established that legacy is an important aspect in our life. However, it is somewhat ambiguous as to what it actually is. Which means, of course, that each of us  can define it for ourself, as it will be different from one person to another one.  And the beauty is it can be anything…even money. So, what is our personal legacy? What is it that is most important to you?

If we want to be remembered as an amazing spouse, make sure that all our actions make it so. If we want to be a loving father or mother, ensure that everything we do supports that. And, if we want to make a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates level impact, strategize accordingly. It is interesting that all of us are quick to define the job title we want or the annual income we desire, and yet we rarely define the type of person we hope to become. We know what we want, but we do not know how we want to be remembered. We should try to maximize our positive emotions. And in a very real sense, that is a part of your legacy. When we focus on our positive experiences, we spread the message we want to share with people and it is or will be our legacy.

But legacy is also a multi-generational legacy. It could be through an industry-changing impact like Google or it could be through the lessons and values we teach our kids, our students, our friends, our colleagues who in turn teach their people in their life, and so on and so forth. Ultimately, our legacy is two parts: first, it is how we live our life, and second, it is how people remember us once we are retired and then gone. And the beauty is that we are the master of our destiny and therefore of our legacy, which can encompass multi-generation.

One of my point in my lecture was planning early in our career, and for me , early in  my career as a surgeon, to do my best in helping neonates, infants and children and providing support to their parents. I wanted to build the best pediatric cardiac surgery program and I strived for it during my entire career. I thought that a similarity would apply to most of my medical and surgical colleagues.

3) Live our Life’s Legacy during our life and build for afterlife

Legacy does not get built overnight and is in many ways a lifelong work and achievement.  But it sounds easier that it may be because life is not always easy, presents many obstacles and difficulties that may affect the direction or path  of our legacy. It may also take a lot of hard work and dedication before we reap any rewards, if we do.

Which brings up the final point: we can live our legacy during our life and our retirement. If we live our legacy, we will  feel fulfilled, and money may follow or not, if it is important or not. We can choose to follow a safe path, and not be planning only on the basis of leaving a legacy, or we can choose to live our legacy by allocating  our time toward something we  both love and something that can yield incredible results in the long-term. I can understand that such an approach may not be easy or possible for many people, but one should not be afraid if our legacy does not pay off in the short-term. You can also play the long-game. Remember: our legacy represents the complete body of our work. We may choose to live it during our working life or during retirement. If it is money that one is interested to use as its legacy, one can start doing philanthropy anytime before or after retirement. One can decide to help charitable organizations, help families in need, teach younger people or colleagues even in retirement , write to provide a long life information. Living our life’s legacy can take any forms, any aspects, any directions and explorations that we decide. Legacy is ours, and only ours. My message to my colleague’s question was exactly about the fact that its legacy was not starting in 2 months when he retires, but was already present in his daily work and his career.



I believe legacy is a confusing concept for many people, and most often than none, associated to money we can give to charity, to philanthropy causes. And it is a large aspect of legacy but there is the personal life aspect of  legacy.  We choose to develop our legacy  early in our life as a beacon of light, the guiding force of our life, which will define who we are and ultimately our own legacy.