A few years ago at my twentieth anniversary on the job, I was interviewed by a business journal as one of the top female executives in Western Colorado. The reporter asked me how I had gone about building my career and asked about my greatest legacy.
I was taken aback by the questions. I thought to myself, “career?” I had figured I was just going to work every day doing the best job I could do. But never for a moment did I think I was building a “career.” While I had been involved with many significant projects, awards and accomplishments, what was my real “legacy?”
This got me thinking about legacies and what we leave behind. I tried to think of a person whose legacy I most admired, and I remembered a next door neighbor of mine I’ll call Patti.
On the day I moved in, she invited me over for coffee with the neighbors the following week. I was excited to meet everyone, but when I walked into her house, I thought I must have gotten the date wrong. There were kids’ toys and piles of clothes everywhere. I stepped over stacks in the living room like it was a mine field. That’s when I learned that while Patti wasn’t the world’s best housekeeper, she was a generous hostess. Her comfortably messy kitchen was where the neighbors gathered for hot coffee and chocolate chip cookies on many occasions.
Patti arranged the neighborhood block party. She organized her own “Meals on Wheels” for anyone on the street who had undergone surgery, had a baby, or lost a loved one. She couldn’t carry a tune, but she became the church choir secretary so she could contribute. She wasn’t athletic, but she was head cheerleader in the stands at every community sports event.
Tragically, Patti died suddenly in an automobile accident while driving home from a gymnastics meet. At her funeral, there were many eulogies. Of course, nobody cared about Patti’s housekeeping limitations. What they remembered was her compassion, her generosity, her warm household, and the way she made everyone she met feel special.
Patti’s life made me determine that a legacy isn’t always a monument, achievement, building or accomplishment. Our greatest legacies are the small acts of kindness, recognition or words of confidence that prompt people to tell us we’ve made a difference in their life.
Like John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
You see, legacies, like careers, are founded while we least expect it. True legacies are built day by day. You begin building your legacy as soon as you are old enough to reason, interact and contribute to the world around you. In the nonprofit management profession, we are fortunate to have a network where we can connect to others and make a difference in their lives. We have the ability to be true legacy-builders.
I wonder what your legacy will be? Whatever it is, you are contributing to it today.