Traditionally, “legacies” have been financial: a bequest, usually at death, to families, churches, charities, and sometimes others. Most of us are pretty limited in what we can bequeath in this fashion, though. In fact, many of us will have little or nothing financial to leave behind.
But even so, we still have a legacy, often an important one. We leave the impressions we have made on the world, and these come in a variety of forms.
There is the impact of what we do, or have done. There is also what we have taught others, by word and by example.
And there is still plenty of time in retirement to magnify these non-financial legacies, and to make sure that they work to the good of others.
This benefits those others, of course, but it also helps us feel good about our own lives, and ensures that we will be remembered positively when we are gone. So it’s well worth thinking about.
What is your legacy? If you died today, are you comfortable that your net impact on the world would be positive? As positive as you would like it to be? Would anyone other than your closest friends and family ever think of you five years down the road – and if so, what would those thoughts be? Would family members and friends regret that you had died before your time, or would they feel just as well off, maybe even better off, without you?
These can be scary issues to contemplate honestly, but fortunately, if you are not entirely satisfied with the answers, you have time to turn things around. And even if you are pretty comfortable with the answers, you have a chance to do even better.
Ideally, a person is attentive to such matters throughout life, or at least adult life. But before we retire, and especially if we have families of our own, the struggles of day-to-day living can stand in the way. Once we retire – or reach that age, even if we don’t fully retire – our lives are usually more our own, more under control, and this is the right time to reflect on issues like our legacy.
There are three main ways that you can secure your legacy.
First, you can get more active in community, social, charitable, or political affairs. Give of yourself. “Give back,” as they say. There are innumerable opportunities to do so, and no matter what your interests, skills, experience, and personal style may be, there is a way for you to contribute, if you want to.
Second, you can get more involved on a personal level with people you are already connected with. This is especially true if you are married or have any kind of Significant Other, and/or if you have children or grandchildren. But it also applies to other family relationships, and to friends. If you have been at all neglectful, or even if you haven’t but see the opportunity to get even more connected, this is a chance to re-define your legacy. You can take more initiative, offer more help, be more present, be more consoling to those who need it, offer unexpected gifts big or small, or just show an interest where perhaps you used to fail to do so. Of course, if you change too much too fast, you might find some people unreceptive. But others will welcome it. No matter how little material help you can offer people, you can always offer your time, your kindness, your presence, your smile. Always.
Third, you can tell your story. You can write it down as memoir, you can record it on audio or video, or you can tell it to others, especially those of a younger generation. Not everyone will want to know every detail of your life, but as you become an “elder,” you earn the prerogative of dispensing wisdom. And if you do it in a time and fashion where it is helpful, and not just an opportunity for you to spout off, what you say might be much valued, remembered, and even passed on to later generations. Another method you might consider is an “ethical will,” in which you write down what you believe and what you have learned in life, in a succinct fashion, so that it is preserved for others.
For more details about some of these possibilities (and others), and for references to other resources you can use to find the right way to leave your own legacy, check out the webpage on Civic Activity and Your Legacy.
Chuck Yanikoski is a retirement adviser who lives and works in Harvard. For more about him, or to contact him directly, visit www.ChuckYRetirement.com.