What Do You Want Your Legacy To Be?

Yesterday, I gave a talk and then did two breakout Q&A sessions at EO Alchemy 2015. It was a lot of fun and many of the questions were thought provoking to me, which I enjoy greatly.

One of them caused me to pause and answer extra deliberately. Near the end of the second breakout session, I was asked “What Do You Want Your Legacy To Be?

I don’t think I’ve answered this question before publicly and I realize I never think about it, so I took a few seconds to roll the question around in my mind and make sure I agreed with what was about to come out of my mouth.

“I don’t care about what my legacy is.”

My original thought was “I don’t give a shit about legacy”, but it came out a little cleaner and crisper. I riffed for a little while on why I didn’t care and gave evidence of me not caring. Two big things are (a) Amy and I don’t have any kids and (b) we plan to give away all of our money while we are alive. But there were some others, especially around intrinsic motivation (which I’m driven by) vs. extrinsic motivation (which I’m not).

When I got home last night, Amy and I talked about our respective day over dinner. I mentioned this question to her and asked her what she thought. Her immediate response was “You and I don’t care about legacy.” She then when on to explain this in detail, which mirrored most of what I had said earlier in the day.

I was clear in my answer that this wasn’t a judgement. Some people care deeply about legacy. That’s great. But others, like me and Amy, don’t. The more interesting thing to me is how one’s view around legacy drives behavior. The question stimulated a lot of thought by me over the last 18 hours – I hope it does with you also.

  • Aren’t you leaving a mark through your work or this blog though? 🙂

  • Dave Linhardt

    I think perhaps you care about having a positive impact on the world around you. You seem very motivated to do that. You may not think of it as a legacy, but it is.

    If you died tomorrow, entrepreneurs around the world would weep and be very sad at your passing. If that’s not legacy, I don’t know what is.

    I think it’s cool you don’t care about your legacy. You don’t have to. Just keep doing what you are doing — making a dent in this universe. That’s enough.

  • Don’t you care deeply about impact? In my mind, sustainable, lasting impact is legacy.

    I think what most people think when they hear legacy is that people remember them and their name, not what impact they have had.

    • It seems that we agree that impact and legacy are different things.

      I do care about impact. I don’t care about having my name attached to it.

  • John Fein

    I’ve thought about this, especially since my dad passed away, though not in a financial or generational sense. I view legacy as “what will you be remembered for” after you die. More in the sense of “what stories will people tell about you at your memorial service?” and more importantly what lasting effect can I have on individuals and communities.

    There are general altruistic things I’d like to be known for long after I’m gone and I hope I can achieve those. It’s the best kind of immortality.

    • Good frame of reference.

      The half-life of remembering humans – for 99.99% of humanity – is very short. So I’m living now, without any expectation around being in the 0.01% (or whatever tiny fraction that Ben Franklin is in.)

      • Love that phrase – half-life of remembering humans. So true.. most people (99.99%) are remembered just by surviving family members. Yet, so many of us struggle in vain because we are afraid of being forgotten after we die 🙂

    • Todd Nagle

      The passing of a parent or other loved one certainly gives pause. I’m sitting next to my mom in her hospice room as I write. I share similar views.

      I believe the longevity of our actions in life is a large definer of who we are – both positive and negative. Is that “legacy” by definition? I’m not sure. But consideration to the longevity of our behaviors is not only mindful but part of our contract with humanity and this planet.

      I told myself years ago that when my day comes, I would ultimately be judged by the quality of relationships. I found peace and purpose in that realization.

      Thanks all for a thought provoking conversation. Life is a journey of lessons. Good to have this dialogue as part of mine.

  • Chris Heivly

    The best part is that you and Amy are totally on the same page.

    • Indeed. And a lot of that comes from me learning from her, which is even more awesome (at least to me!)

  • I think that part of this comes down to how you define legacy – meaning, do you not care at all what happens after you’re dead, or do you just not care about having your name attached to it?

    I’m curious why you say that planning to give away all of your money while you’re alive is evidence that you don’t care about legacy. I think you mean that it shows that you want the impact to happen while you’re still alive. I guess that means that you’ll give your money to organizations with a much shorter-term outlook (learn-to-code programs vs. light speed travel research). If you’re planning to give money to organizations with much long term outlook, then I’d be curious as to why.

    On the subject of philanthropy, Bryan Johnson’s post on ‘Doing Good Tech vs. Doing Good With Tech’ resonated with me deeply. (http://techcrunch.com/2015/07/31/doing-good-tech-vs-doing-good-with-tech/). I really admire his philosophies on entrepreneurship as well as impact / meaning.

    • I don’t care about having my name attached to it.

      We give away money to have short term, medium term, and long term impact. For example, we care deeply about gender diversity and women’s education. We believe that’s one path to a better civilization. So we fund a lot of programs in developing countries around this. The impact will take a long time.

      We also care deeply about the environment and fund a lot of things to preserve land indefinitely.

      We also don’t want any of the money to hang around and be doled out slowly over the next 100 years. We are both big believes in the notion of compounding value, which comes from investing early.

  • Alex Devkar

    Maybe the disconnect is definitional. Many of your actions—helping people and companies whether or not you have a financial stake—have a lasting impact on careers and lives. I think that creates a legacy AND that you care about that. No?

  • I have said my legacy will be the people I’ve hired and what they’ve gone on to do.

    Yours will be the people at the companies you funded and mentored and what they’ve gone on to do.

    I suppose you are right who gives a shit, but you have changed many lives.

  • Being able to have an impact on peoples’ lives (customers, employees, and third parties) has been great fun. And profitable, as those people go on to be your network, and wind up all over the place and think of you fondly.

    I’ve also never cared about being remembered after I’m dead, but watching Bill Gates put his smarts to use for the world, and more recently, the YC labs effort’s announcement, has gotten me thinking about what groups of great ex entrepreneurs could accomplish with a slightly subdued, but definitely present, profit motive.

    Especially if the $ was invested in research and practical applications, and weighted towards nimbler and smaller groups and efforts.

  • But your legacy isn’t just determined by you, i.e. “you” don’t have to “leave” a legacy. The legacy is left for you, based on what you have accomplished, done, marked, affected, written, funded, touched, etc.
    Sorry Brad, your legacy will be there, whether Amy and you like it or not 🙂

  • “My life is my message” – Mahatma Gandhi

    • mark gelband

      perfect for this discussion

  • mark gelband

    legacy has come to mean something beyond its denoted, dictionary definition. the way we currently use it, it feels like an ego driven concept.

    the wonderful Gandhi quote Bala provides just below seems more in line with the “how” others might perceive the lasting impact beyond our mortality – which clearly matters far less than how “I” feel when I look inside each morning.

    William Mougayer raises the new connotation of the word which goes to what will people say about you when you’re gone? For me, and it seems Brad as well, that matters far less than how I live each day.

    how do we help manifest a world where the choices we make – here and now – moment to moment – matter much more than a shallow perception of “wealth” to be passed along.

    and thank you Brad for your rigorous commitment to writing about internal challenges, setbacks and successes – which model a “legacy” well worth being passed on.

  • I just want to live my life knowing that I tried my best to create value for the world and that I enjoyed the journey. If I’m able to do that then I’ll die a happy man.

  • Your legacy will be imprinted in the interactions you’ve had with individual people (like me) and how it impacted their lives. As you say “it is what you do” and not because of leaving a legacy, this is where people get into the choreographed life that seems fake and unreal.

    On the topic of giving everything away what about the concept of a foundation that lives on continuing to provide the values you both live by to the future generations.

  • mbyrne

    You definitely are working with the wrong definition of “legacy.” It has nothing to do with money, being remembered or credited. Ultimately it has to do with transfer of knowledge, wisdom, and values to the world you leave behind and the effect your life has had on others during your life and after. I leave it for you to reconsider whether that is important to you or not. I would guess it is actually what drives you.

    • I agree with you philosophically, but I’d encourage to be careful using the word “definition.”


      I prefer the word “impact” to “legacy” to cover what you are describing.

      • mbyrne

        I did look up the word before posting, and was comfortable with M-W’s ” 2. something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past (the legacy of the ancient philosophers)” Also, I do think there is a current meaning that dictionaries are lagging in capturing, which is what I was advocating for, and of course words shift and change in meaning over time. When I worked at local university’s school of government, the tagline was “Impact” which still induces a slight gag reflex to this day when I hear it, so maybe that is why I shy away from that term. Also, I would say that impact is a term that is implicitly orthogonal to human values and more about power, while legacy has an implicit connotation to human values and the meaning of life. Anyway, I think we do agree philosophically, and I really was arguing not against your point, but for a meaning of legacy that I think should take precedence to one that implies legacy is an impact created by being ego-driven rather than value- or meaning-driven.

  • Well I used to think about legacy when I was a child. But then I heard about great pyramids of Egypt and how no one was sure how/who built many of them.
    Then I realised that legacy is meaningless and moved on to thinking deeper intrinsic motivations.

  • Glenn Whitney

    (Not a trick question) What do you think of the relationship between the terms “legacy” and “kharma”?

  • Ha, never thought of legacy. Thought that was only for Presidents. Since i have kids, that’s where my legacy will be I guess. I did think of something the other day which made me happy. With every check an angel writes, every check a VC writes, they create hope for the world, since the person on the receiving end of that check has so much hope tied into what they are doing and will spread it to people that work for the company if successful.

  • Arun Tripathi

    Some good knowledge and thoughts to ponder over. I think legacy is what people leave behind and they don’t deliberately do it. It just happen to because that comes to them naturally.

    Just wanted to add in second last paragraph “She then when on to explain this in detail” is I think “went on”. I cannot find a way to connect to author directly anywhere 🙁

  • I think legacy is rather meaningless, and in some cases can lead to lots of negative consequences. Lots of people have been killed because some ruler somewhere wanted to be remembered long past his death.

    Obsession with one’s own legacy is just another form of self-absorption.

  • “I don’t give a shit about legacy” – I love this.

    Focus on the present and the impact you can make now and don’t optimize for when you are dead. Fantastic!

  • Isn’t it already handled? As in you care greatly about your current, by your very good and honorable actions – and so that IS your legacy (to play out). Which is why you don’t care – you are already taking care of it..