What Legacy Do You Want to Leave Behind?

What Legacy Do You Want to Leave Behind?

Have you ever known someone who has died, whether someone close to you, an acquaintance or even a famous figure? What legacy did the person leave in your life or the world? What made him or her so meaningful or memorable to you?

In “Want to Leave a Legacy? Be a Mentor,” Jane E. Brody writes about how making a positive impact can keep people alive in the memories and lives of others:

Encouraged by a grandfatherly professor at Cornell, in my sophomore year I gave a speech asking my fellow students “when you come to the end of your days, will you be able to write your own epitaph?”

I urged them to focus on establishing meaningful goals and the legacy they may want to leave when their physical lives end. By legacy, I did not mean money, structures or any other tangible object. I meant the positive impact they might have that would help to keep them alive in the memories and lives of others.

Thus, when I read Marc Freedman’s new book, “How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations,” it spoke volumes to me. It reminded me of that dear professor, George Eric Peabody, who was in effect my mentor, encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and develop talents I never knew I had.

Professor Peabody, who died in 1967 at age 70, did indeed leave an enviable legacy. As stated in the university’s memorial, he was “an inspiring and challenging teacher in helping thousands of students develop poise, self-confidence and, in his concise words, the ability to ‘stand up — speak up — and shut up.’”

Mr. Freedman, the founder of Encore.org and co-founder of Experience Corps, both dedicated to helping older adults find purpose later in life, calls himself a social entrepreneur. Asked what it takes to be a mentor, he said succinctly, “Showing up and shutting up: Being consistent and listening. You don’t have to be a charismatic superhero. You don’t need an advanced degree. It’s more about the relationship than imparting sage advice. The key is not being interesting. The real key is being interested — being present and paying attention.”

The article continues:

Mr. Freedman’s latest endeavor, now in its second year, is called Generation to Generation, a foundation-supported nationwide project that aims to “build a movement of older people focused on the well-being of future generations.”

The annual increase in life expectancy attests to the importance of this effort. More and more people are living 20 or 30 years beyond traditional retirement age. Do they all want to spend those “golden years” watching TV, playing cards or golf, reading or traveling? Or might some prefer a more productive and meaningful old age, one that could enrich them physically, mentally and socially, and in some cases economically?

“The real fountain of youth is the fountain with youth,” Mr. Freedman said. “It’s spending less time focused on being young and more time focused on being there for the next generation.” As the developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said nearly 70 years ago, “I am what survives me.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— What do you think about the premise of this article? Do you agree that leaving a positive impact on the world and others is more memorable than the money, property and other tangible objects one has to one’s name? Why or why not? Can you think of an example of someone’s life that supports your opinion?

— Who has been a mentor to you? What influence have they had in your life, the lives of others or the world?

— When your physical life ends, how do you want to be remembered? What do you hope people will say about you? What kind of lasting impact do you want to have made on the world, whether it’s through your work, accomplishments, relationships or something else?

— What things are you doing or working toward now that are helping to shape the legacy you want to leave?

— The developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said nearly 70 years ago, “I am what survives me.” What does this mean to you? How might you apply it to your life?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.