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Leaving a Legacy
Leaving a Legacy

Leaving a Purposeful Legacy: How will you impact those that knew you?

Warwick Fairfax

February 17, 2020

When we think of legacy and purpose, it can be intimidating.  When we are gone, how do we want our loved ones and friends to think of us?  What will be our legacy?

Do we want to be remembered as someone who worshipped the almighty dollar, and would ruthlessly destroy anyone in their path?  As someone who was always out for themselves? Someone who did not really care about anyone other than themselves, indifferent to the sufferings and pain of those around them?   

As is often said, what do we want written on our tombstone: “A Lonely Man of Great Wealth” or “A Woman Few People Loved”?

The key to living a different kind of legacy is living a life on purpose — a life of significance — that is in line with your values and beliefs.  It is fine to go for your goals and try to be successful.  But how do you treat people along the way, especially those you love and those around you?  Is it success at any cost?  Is that truly what you want your legacy to be?  Few of us really want that.  So let’s be intentional about what legacy — what epitaph — we want on our tombstone.  Let us live our lives on purpose, not by accident.

We can influence what others will think of us, our legacy, after we are gone.  We need to order our priorities carefully:

1. Our life needs to reflect our beliefs and values.

We need to live our faith and values.  Common to a number of spiritual and values perspectives is to treat people with kindness and compassion, to treat them like we would like to be treated.  Forgive as we have been forgiven.  Do not hold grudges.  Reconcile.  Live lives of integrity and humility.  Think of others before self.

2. Our careers need to be in line with our beliefs and values.

We need to work for organizations and in environments that are in line with what we believe.  Why would we work for a company that gouges consumers for a life-saving medication, for instance, or for a company that mistreats and underpays its employees?  We often become like those around us.  We often tell our kids to hang out with friends who enhance their values, not those who would tear them down. Perhaps we should take our own advice.

3. Our families must be a priority.

If we decide to have a family, we cannot neglect our spouse and kids.  If we are never there at our kids’ soccer games or ballet recitals, or never remember our anniversary or spouse’s birthday, what effect will this have?  Over time, it will have a devastating corrosive effect on how those that we want to love us will remember us.  One of the worst things in life would be to be on your deathbed and to reflect on how much your kids hate you, and you might think deservedly so, and how distant your spouse is from you, who may have left you years ago.  It is a bit late at that point to say you are sorry.  You only get one chance to live your life the way you had wished you had lived your life.

Historical Examples

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who Americans celebrate on Presidents Day, understood the truth of living their lives on purpose in line with their values and beliefs. King George III, whose British army was defeated by Washington, called the then-colonial general “the greatest man in the world.”  The same year, 1783, that the Treaty of Paris ending the war between Britain and the US was signed, some of Washington’s officers felt that he should be put in charge, essentially making him a dictator.  Washington, at the height of his power, would have none of it and retired to a quiet life, only to be recalled a number of years later in 1789 as the first president of the United States.  It was his not seizing power that caused George III to make his statement.

Abraham Lincoln, president during the U.S. Civil War, kept the United States a united country and helped pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery. Lincoln received almost unparalleled praise.  His attorney general, Edward Bates, said Lincoln “comes very near being a perfect man.”  Lincoln’s commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, said of him that, “He was incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.”

Closer to home for me, my great-great grandfather John Fairfax, who founded the 150-year-old family media business I grew up in and at one point led, had this praise given him on his death.  His employees said, “We feel that in his departure, we have lost a kind employer and a valued friend.”  John Fairfax’s pastor at the Pitt Street Congregational Church in Sydney chose as his text 2 Samuel 3:38, “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?”

Do you see the similarities here? Washington, Lincoln, and John Fairfax lived their lives rooted in purpose,  dedicated to pursuing significance, and in keeping with their values and beliefs.  A life that is on purpose, committed to helping others, to making the world a better place.  The key point is that it is not as important as to how much history will remember you, or whether you make the top 10 greatest humans of all time.  That sense of public worldwide acclaim centuries later, is almost certainly not going to happen.  What matters is how those that knew you, those that loved you, remember you.  How will your spouse and kids think of you?  What about your friends?  What about those that worked with you?

Life is won and lost in the small things

Few of us will ever be remembered by history.  Almost none of us will be considered in the same breath as Washington, Lincoln, or even my great-grandfather John Fairfax.  But we can control how we treat our families.  We can control how we treat people at work.  And we can control what we give our lives to.

Doing these things (treating our families well, being kind to people at work, and doing meaningful work that we feel will help us live a life of significance) is possible for all of us.

You see, we can have a legacy in line with Washington, Lincoln, or John Fairfax.  Maybe not on the scale of worldly accomplishments, or how many people honor their memories.  No, we are unlikely to have a front-page story in The New York Times or Washington Post that says, “Bill, a great and beloved man, has died,” or “Mary, one of the great and kind women of our generation, has passed.”  But for those that knew us, our families, our friends, and coworkers, that is eminently possible.  At our funeral or wake, it is possible to influence what is said about us.  Years after we have passed, it is possible to influence the memory that our kids and grandkids have of us.

So, while the whole world may not say, “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?” there may be a few of our close friends and families that might say, “One of the kindest, most giving, most self-sacrificial people we have ever known, has passed.”  That is a legacy we can influence.  Wouldn’t we want that to be our legacy?  Wouldn’t we want that to be on our tombstone?


Take five minutes to write your responses.  Once you stop to think what legacy you would like to leave behind, it will be easier to make life choices in alignment with that.

  • How do you want to be remembered, especially by your family and friends?
  • What do you want people to say about you?
  • Write out what you would want on your tombstone.
  • Write out what you would want said at your funeral.
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