I often hear people talk about “leaving a legacy.” And I believe they mean what important accomplishment of theirs will stand the test of time. In other words, they want to identify what individual success they will be remembered for long after they’re gone.
The word didn’t start out with that meaning. The legal meaning is property or money bequeathed to someone in a will. Another meaning is that of heritage which is defined on Wiktionary as “a tradition; a practice or set of values that is passed down from preceding generations through families or through institutional memory. ” And in university-speak, legacy means a person who is the descendant of an alumnus.
I’m surprised that the more contemporary definition of individual legacy hasn’t been officially accepted since it’s so widely used.
Oprah Winfrey tells the story of the time she was reprimanded by her long-time friend and mentor Maya Angelou. Oprah was over-the-top ecstatic about having established a girls’ school in South Africa. She was enthusiastically sharing the details with Maya and concluded with, “This school will be my greatest legacy.”
But Oprah said that Maya stopped her right there and said: You have no idea what your legacy will be. Because your legacy is every life you touch. It’s not one thing; it’s everything.
When we are feeling less than (and I believe we each go through times like that), we need to remember Maya Angelou’s words. We may not be rich or famous or have a world-class education or run international companies, but my gosh, think for just a moment. Really, I want you to think about the lives you yourself have touched with kindness or encouragement or gratitude or generosity or any of the dozens of other positive traits that exist.
Trust me on this: Your legacy will be absolutely amazing.