The day I turned fifty, the passage of time seemed to speed up. I started seeing expiration dates on relationships and activities I had assumed would last forever.
What is it about midlife? It kicks up questions that no independent, high-achiever ever thought to ponder. Our original equipment seems to include a sensor that is activated sometime in our fifties to remind us we’re mortal and invite us to reassess our priorities.
Asking Big Questions
Although you’ll resist it, the best practice for evaluating your priorities, living a present and fulfilled life, and preparing for a peaceful death is contemplating your death. I’m grateful to have the option to practice dying, many people have no choice when they get sick or lose someone close to them.
Regardless of what brings it on, when you think of your imminent death you start pondering questions like, “What’s my life been for?” “How’s it gone so far?” “What do I want to do with the time I have left?” “For what will I be remembered?” “What will be my legacy?” If you’re not careful, these important questions get buried under a pile of full calendars, thoughts about career, and retirement and estate planning.
What are You Really Worried About?
When we contemplate our legacy we usually think about tangible or observable things. We think about our money, our stuff, our kids, our companies, service organizations or movements we started or grew, acts of service, and the beneficiaries of our philanthropic donations.
In spite of or because of their size or impact, these things are important but often don’t feel that significant. We are left wanting to do or be more. We still seek a second half of life in which we have more clarity and peace.
Peace and clarity about our legacy will come only when we let go of a fundamental fear—the fear that we will be forgotten. We don’t want to die but, if we have to, there is a part of us that certainly doesn’t want to fade into obscurity when we do.
Get Over It
Do you remember the names of your four grandparents? I bet you do. Do you remember the names of your eight great-grandparents? I bet you don’t. And if you do that’s probably the last generation you recall. So there you have it, you’ll most likely be forgotten in three generations, even by your own family. No amount of money, success or service will change this fact. It’s probably best to get over it and turn your attention to more important matters.
It takes effort to be unattached to our identity. It’s why we fear our death, not to mention retirement or selling the business. Our base brain leads us to think we are our personality, body, looks, roles, deeds, and IQ. A legacy built by our base brain will keep us clinging to what we inevitably will have to let go of.
High-achieving leaders share a common fear that is revealed in a core question, “Do I have what it takes to succeed?” At deeper level they’re asking, “Am I an okay and valuable person if I don’t succeed?” The beliefs that raise these questions are powerful motivators to succeed in the first half of our lives. These beliefs also keep us from feeling fulfilled and point us to the unfinished business of our past.
What role does your quest for okayness play when you think about your legacy? Do you think you need to do just a little more, give just a little more, serve just a little more? Are you doing whatever it takes and more to hear the words, “Well done my faithful servant” as you are ushered into heaven?
Creating a legacy you’re happy with is confusing and unsatisfying when it becomes a process of self-assessment. Asking questions like, “Have I done enough for the world?” “Have I been successful?” “Have I been there enough for my kids?” is a recipe for anxiety.
Gutsy tennis star Billy Jean King recently recounted her biggest regret, “Taking the advice given to all pro-athletes: To quit while I was on top.” There’s no formula for the perfect legacy. Looking for one becomes a distraction from living your life today. Creating a perfect picture of what a “good” legacy looks like will lead you to attach your okayness to something you can’t control. You’ll seek to freeze an image of you at the peak of your career then run down the clock for the next forty years. Access your self-compassion, be adventurous and true to yourself or risk becoming a hostage of others’ opinions and the fear you won’t look good.
What Really Matters
When it comes to your legacy, the only person whose opinion counts is yours. Remember, everyone will forget about you in a couple generations, regardless of what you’ve done.
The point of life is not about doing or getting it “right.” What really matters is being present for what unfolds, no matter what that is. It’s about who you are, not what you have done. It’s your values and traits that people will miss when you’re gone.
I choose to think that life has unfolded just as it should have. Our lives contain the perfect mix of pain, success, wounds and failure. Wanting it to be different is arguing with reality and living in the past.
A Legacy of Peace
You’re in luck, there’s a part of you that’s way more evolved than your base brain. This part knows that it’s never too late to be at peace with your legacy. Every night as you begin to fall asleep you can tap into this evolved self and choose to be happy with and grateful for your life, just as it is. It’s the part that understands the value of the intangible. It’s also the part that knows you leave your legacy every day. Every glance, gesture and word you utter is part of your legacy. The sooner you stop planning or worrying about your legacy, the sooner you’ll start living for today. That’s the way to leave a meaningful legacy.