What will you leave behind?

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“You can’t take it with you.”

I’m sure you’ve heard that statement or something very much like it. It states a basic truth. When you and I are gone from this life, the only thing left will be what we leave behind.

It’s called your legacy. Today is the only opportunity you have to shape it. If you’re in your twenties or thirties you may think you can do it “someday.” But there’s no day on the calendar marked “Someday.”

Remember all the people you’ve heard of people being cut off in their prime. My friend Jeff Zaslow was having a good life and had a fine career until he was killed in an auto accident at 53. My friend Mike Soto was killed just weeks before he was due to retire from the police department.

It’s your challenge to shape your legacy today. Here are some ways to think about that challenge, based on the different things you will leave behind.

You will leave stuff behind

My friend Terry Moore calls this, “the cash and the keys.” You spend your days accumulating all kinds of stuff. Make sure that it goes where you want it to you.

Different states have different probate laws. The probate laws will decide how to distribute your stuff unless you draw up a will that reflects your wishes.

Just distributing your stuff is not enough. It’s up to you to make sure the people who get it can and will use it wisely. The more stuff you have, the more you will probably need professional advice on this score.

Paying attention to the stuff you leave behind is important, but your stuff is not the most important thing.

You will leave memories behind

My father used to say, “You’re alive as long as they tell stories about you.” That was so important to him that he assigned money in his will for us to hold a memorial party. The instructions were simple. “Have fun. Laugh a lot. Tell stories about me and our time together.”

My parents and my in-laws have all gone on to the next life. No one at any of their memorial services talked about “the cash and keys.” Instead, they shared stories about each of those four wonderful people.

Last year I visited my children in Colorado. It was the first time I had been with my great-grandson, Everette, who was born during COVID. My daughter set up a session where she asked me to tell several stories about our family. She videoed the session so that Everette would be sure to hear those stories even if I wasn’t there to tell them.

Memories are important and powerful but there’s one more thing you will leave behind.

You can leave your values behind

I’ll go back to my friend Terry Moore, again. He defines “legacy” as “the way people act because of you and the way you lived.” You can leave that up to memories, stories, and chance or you can make your values explicit.

Fortunately, there’s a way to do this that’s been around for thousands of years. It’s called an “ethical will.” It’s not a legal document, in fact, it’s most often a letter that was written to the members of an individual family. There’s no standard form for an ethical will, but many include the following.

  • The lessons you’ve learned from life and important stories.
  • Your core values and beliefs.
  • Advice and hopes for the future.

You will leave stuff behind. Assure that it’s disposed of wisely. People will tell stories about you. Live so the stories are good ones. You will develop your values. Sharpen them by writing down your best advice.


You will leave the cash and the keys

You will leave memories and stories

You’re alive as long as they tell stories about you

You can leave your values if you write them down

Legacy is how people act because of how you lived.

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