What do I want my legacy to be? 1/2

This two-part post series is the reply to an overdue commitment for a contribution to Brazen Careerist’s blog series, and personally to Ryan Paugh. In this post, I will talk about my personal commitment to creating my legacy. In the second post, I will talk about why this is such a great question to ask.

In the beginning I thought it was an easy question because I already had an answer in my mind: I want to be remembered as a helper. I supposed all I had to do was to add some meat on top of that skeletal idea, simply and quickly. Then I looked up the meaning of “legacy” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Legacy: a gift by will especially of money or other personal property

Which means leaving a legacy = helping others. Therefore my answer just amounted to “I want to leave a legacy.” I was back to square one and had to look further into myself to find out WHAT legacy I wanted to leave.

I looked into my mental hole, in a manner similar to peeking into a well from its edge. There I saw a man in his late 30s who has gone halfway through his entire life and still “checking out opportunities” with no “dividends” to leave for others. He looked like a wannabe athlete who has been doing nothing but training for the unseen big event for his entire professional life, finally realizing that he has no trophies in his closet because he hasn’t joined any race yet. To make things worse, his biological clock had already turned into a timer.

The good news is, I saw something clear. The bad news is, that guy was me. Cold sweat ran down my back. I backed off from the edge of my mental black hole and stopped thinking about the legacy issue.

Recently, I finally mustered the courage to tackle the question again. The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that hit Japan had no doubt influenced or shaken me up profoundly (this will be a separate blog entry). Every Japanese was forced to rethink of his or her life onward and I was no exception. What should I do for my family and communities back in my home country? The old questions resurfaced: What should be my legacy be? What should I do?

The result is, I still have the same answer: I don’t know. But this time, it is followed by “I don’t care much—I just leave legacies behind all the time.” Let me explain.

Leaving a legacy is an act of giving. The act of giving is ultimately about the receiver, not the giver. In other words, it is the recipient who decides what to make of the gift—or legacy in this case—just like the audience in the bar who judge whether the stand-up comedian is funny or not.

Therefore, thinking of the legacy in terms of “what” sounds like dictating people’s reaction to receiving your gift. We all crave praise, attention, admiration. But aiming for these reactions belongs to the realm of “crossing the line,” because in doing so we are wanting, not giving. Besides, what’s the point of knowing how well your work/life is going to be perceived, if you are no longer there?

Now that I have eliminated the “What” from the first question, “should I do?” is the only part left. To do or not to do, that is the question. For this centuries-old question (in a slightly different form), a 20th-century sportswear company has already provided an answer: Just do it. So let’s just do whatever we can to help others. That’s what leaving a legacy is about, for me.

What about the worry of not having done much in my life? Well, if I think of leaving my legacy as an everyday act, not an accumulation, then I might have been leaving legacies behind anytime, anywhere, with anyone. That wannabe athlete I saw in my mental hole was probably joining the competitions all along, without realizing so. Maybe I can be more forgiving about myself, my life so far, and my life ahead. Maybe I can just carry on with glamourless everyday stuff with the act of giving more integrated into my core philosophy, leaving others to judge what’s left in the end. All I have to focus on is to give rather than take.

And therefore this blog post, as well as any of my writings, is also a gift, a piece of legacy. I can only hope someone reads it and not think he or she has wasted her time.


For us wondering what it means to be leaving great legacies (= being a mensch), Guy Kawasaki offers a great summary in his book.

The big point, and what separates a mensch from a good schemer, come from helping people who cannot help you. In ascending order of karmic purity, there are three reasons to help these folks:

    • You never know—they might be able to help you someday.
    • You want to be sure to rack up karmic points just in case the theories are right.
    • You derive intrinsic joy from helping your fellow man.

The first reason will get you in an exit row in coach class. The second will get you into business class. The third will get you into first class on Singapore Airlines in a seat that converts to a fully reclining bed with a power outlet for your laptop and noise cancelling headphones on a plane with in-flight Internet access.