The thing I thought of most when preparing my remarks was the legacy each person left behind. I considered what made each of them memorable, and whether or not the impression they left was strong enough to last beyond a few years. I considered how they inspired the people who knew them. I also discovered that there's nothing like a funeral to make you ponder your own mortality and legacy.
Legacy is one of those words that makes us nervous. We like to pretend that we'll always be around, even though we know better. More often than not, as we go about our lives, we get bogged down in our routines and we forget about the big picture. We don't think about our legacy much, and when we do, most of us probably think of it as something big and momentous that we hope to do, and so we place it on our to-do list for a time far in the future when we believe we'll be better prepared to do something great.
But I think I've figured out the secret to legacy building, and it was really kind of obvious: Legacy is more about the quality of countless small actions and habits than it is about the big accomplishments. It's not so much what you do, but the way you do whatever it is you do. You have to think of it as a building that you build on a little bit every day. You use small building blocks of actions that add up over time and grow into something that lasts.
Building blocks for your legacy don't have to be huge ones. Little ones like a kind word or an encouragement to others every day have a way of building lasting legacies. How about things like creating good memories for your children, or helping someone (even a stranger) with something when it would be easier to make an excuse and go along your way? Or what about being there for others who are struggling instead of shying away from getting involved in their problem? Those are the things that last beyond your lifetime because they will inspire others to do the same kinds of things.
If you think of the things that people have done to make you feel good, and do those things for others every day, you'll build a lasting legacy without even realizing the impact you're making. You probably won't even remember doing a lot of the things that will end up being meaningful and memorable to others.
There's a reason for that, and it's something I learned by attending and speaking at funerals. It's this: The thing that people remember about you most is the way you made them feel, not what "greatness" you were able to accomplish in life. People remember the way you were more than what you were.
That's a sobering thought. It means that you could just as easily be remembered for making people feel bad as you could for making them feel good.
The people I've known with the greatest legacies never got rich or had huge success. They never set world records or became famous. They were humble people of high integrity who cared about others more than themselves, and were intentional about finding ways to show it all the time. Example: I knew one man whose children remembered how he constantly wrote each of them special notes throughout their childhood, and not just on special occasions. He just noticed when they needed a little extra encouragement. They kept those notes because they were part of their dad's legacy, and it set him apart from other dads they knew. His legacy will live on because he has inspired his children and grandchildren to do the same thing. How amazing, yet simple!
At ServiceMaster by Cornerstone, we begin every day with a reminder to "impact the lives of others at every opportunity so we can lift people up," and we discuss how we have done that lately. I like that we do that. It keeps our legacies in the forefront and reminds us that our work life can and should be part of something bigger than just completing tasks so we can get paid. Work is a part of our lives, and it's an opportunity to make something that seems ordinary on the surface into something extraordinary.
Consider that someday it'll probably be you that people are remembering at a funeral. What do you hope they will remember about the life you lived; about the way you were. It's worth thinking about.