When you think about what leaving a legacy means, know that a legacy is the connective tissue between the past, the present, and the future. When we reflect on the idea of legacy, and on the unique legacies of our own lives, we are considering our place in the world’s generational rhythm. We are making a connection to something bigger than ourselves, a desire for meaning that defines being human.
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Thinking about our death can help us decide on the sort of life we want to live. We want to be remembered fondly. We desire to feel immortal—that some part of us will “live forever.” We want to feel like we matter. We create and perpetuate society through legacy, and we must consider the kind of society we are building if we don’t leave a positive legacy. As Warren Buffett has said, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
Legacy can take the form of children or grandchildren, a business, or a lasting contribution to our community or our society. It can be as intangible as the wisdom we shared or as concrete as a home we built. It can be gifted via a deliberate bequest of our resources to a worthy cause, through the ways we inspire others, or through the difference we make in others’ lives.
What's the Definition of Legacy?
Historically, we have used legacy to describe a financial bequest, such as an amount of money or property left to someone in a will.
This narrow interpretation (primarily focused on monetary transfers) has gradually given way to a broader definition which includes anything transmitted or received from a predecessor. We often refer to legacy as something—anything—that a person leaves behind to be remembered by.
This shift is important, because material wealth is only a small fraction of your legacy. Our gifts to the generations that follow us are about our values, not just our valuables. Can we inspire others to see something through to fruition? What do we have, and what can we do, that will outlast our time on earth?
9 Examples of People Leaving a Legacy
We are all familiar with historical and contemporary figures who have changed the course of history with their lives, leaving a notable legacy of some kind.
Many of the individuals below are featured because they or those around them have spoken openly about their responsibility to make a difference in the world—to leave a legacy for the future that benefits us all.
1. Elie Wiesel
Wiesel’s personal account of imprisonment in a Nazi camp transformed our view of history for generations to come. He shared the powerful message that “One person of integrity can make a difference.”
When Weisel died in 2016, President Obama issued a statement calling him the “conscience of the world.”
2. Benjamin Franklin
Franklin changed the course of history as a printer, an inventor, a statesman, a diplomat—but he saw his most impactful role as a writer.
He once said, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” His focus on leaving a legacy by sharing his wisdom and through public service made him one of the most celebrated and influential Americans who has ever lived.
3. Oprah Winfrey
Oprah’s message of overcoming obstacles and personal transformation blazed a path for others ever since she began hosting a TV program at the age of 19. She also became the first woman of color to become a billionaire.
She has shared her view on the lasting impact that love can have in our immortality: “When you make loving others the story of your life, there's never a final chapter, because the legacy continues. You lend your light to one person, and he or she shines it on another and another and another.”
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4. Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is remembered as a science-fiction novelist and short-story writer. “Fahrenheit 451" and “The Martian Chronicles” became literary classics that transcended the genre and gained broad acclaim.
About legacy, he said: “It doesn't matter what you do...so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away.”
5. John W. Kluge
Kluge, the creator of Metromedia, made a $400 million bequest to Columbia University, the largest single gift ever devoted exclusively to student aid.
Kluge (who himself was a scholarship aid recipient) said, “I want to help ensure that Columbia will always be a place where the best and the brightest young people can come to develop their intellect, make something of their own lives and give something back to our communities, our country, and our world.”
6. Martin Luther King Jr.
King worked tirelessly toward his goal of achieving rights for all through nonviolent protests. He achieved advances in human rights that reach far beyond the civil rights movement.
Cornel West wrote, “King's legacy is never to be measured by bricks and mortar, but rather by the kind of lives that we live, and the kind of love and service that we render.”
Mary Elizabeth Moore wrote, “The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is to say No to a culture of death and Yes to a complete transformation of culture to protect and nourish every community and every person. He pronounced racism, poverty, and war as threats to humanity, and he led a movement to generate protest, structural change, and nonviolence. That is a legacy to claim.”
7. Paul Tsongas
Paul Tsongas may not be a household name beyond his native Massachusetts, but the achievements of his too-short career in public service meant the world to his constituents. He transformed the once-dying mill town of Lowell, MA, helping to create a national historic park and many other revitalizations.
He was thoughtful about his legacy, and that of all of us: “We are a continuum. Just as we reach back to our ancestors for our fundamental values, so we, as guardians of that legacy, must reach ahead to our children and their children. And we do so with a sense of sacredness in that reaching.” He also notably said, “This land, this water, this air, this planet—this is our legacy to our young.”
8. Barack Obama
Obama did his part to bend the arc of history toward justice. He demonstrated that a black man can become president of the United States. He shepherded the Affordable Care Act, the Paris climate change agreement, and the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals act.
Here’s what Obama said about leaving a legacy: “I saw myself as a relay runner. I would take the baton and I would run my leg of the race. And then I’d pass the baton to someone else. . . Each generation tries to make progress knowing that what we do is not going to be perfect. . . But, hopefully, we’ve run our leg of the race effectively—and the world’s gotten a little bit better.”
9. Nell Melgers
Known as “Miss Nell,” Melgers is an ordinary woman with a great legacy (and probably doesn’t realize it). Through her volunteer work as Foster Grandparent at the Halls/Powell branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley, Melgers has made a tremendous difference in the lives of the children she has cared for.
Her colleague expressed “Miss Nell’s” legacy beautifully: “As they grow older, many of [these children] may forget her name. When they grow up and have children of their own, their children may ask them why they are doing something. Some of them may say ‘Miss Nell was that way with me.’ Others may say ‘I treat you this way because a woman at the Halls/Powell Boys and Girls Club treated me this way when I was very young.’ A hundred years from now, their descendants will not know her name but they will be treating others as she treats their ancestors today.”
Her legacy will live on through generations through love and kindness expressed in vital everyday acts.
Preparing Your Legacy and Beyond
Now that you know what it means to leave a legacy, it's time to prepare. Your legacy is the final result of all of your actions throughout your life. It also includes your final wishes when your time does come.
Taking a few moments to consider your final wishes and estate plan by creating an online will with Trust & Will is an important first step. From there, talk to your friends and family about legacy and what it means to you.
How do you want your legacy honored when you're no longer here? Would you like your work to be honored? Do you want your friends and family to join together virtually with GatheringUs to celebrate your life? Would you like to be scattered to the sea? This is part of your story, even if you're no longer here to tell it yourself.
Live Your Legacy
In the end (and there will be an end) only our story will remain. The fruits of your life are a gift you can give to yourself and to the world. Build that connective fabric between here and eternity. Consider the end of your life and the lasting impact you can make.