Leaving a powerful legacy is a dream and aspiration for many of us. But dreaming is no longer enough, we’re constantly losing time. We do, however, have the capacity to immortalize our efforts. This article shows you how the institutions you help build, the incremental knowledge you share and your children are three things that can outlast your career (and your life!).
When I was about 9 years old, I saw a statement posted on a door in our home, which only now has taken on a deeper meaning, more than 25 years later. The statement says:
“The best that one can leave behind after his death is three things: a righteous child, an ongoing benefit, and a knowledge that continues to be implemented after him.” Hadith, Sunan Ibn Majah
I didn’t realize its impact until more recently as I reflected on what I found myself chasing. Was I chasing achievements? Was I chasing recognition and fame? Was I chasing acceptance and acknowledgement of success from society?
It then occurred to me that none of these will be remembered or benefit me or anyone else when I pass away. As I had repeated conversations about legacy with those around me, this statement came up on more and more occasions – with others and internally in my own head – perhaps as I find it the most succinct way to think about legacy.
So I thought it’s time to share my reflections on this issue in case they may be of benefit to others.
What’s the purpose of our daily pursuits?
We all strive for some form of success – most of us believe that has to do with climbing the career ladder, becoming a blue-chip CEO one day, owning a business, paying off your house, becoming a millionaire or for many of us – just having enough to live a comfortable life.
We work and spend more than a half of our working lives (at least 8-9 hours each day) building towards these ephemeral goals. Yet when we achieve those goals, we find ourselves devoid of purpose and disappointed with a life spent in the pursuit of superfluous goals.
None of it will be taken with us when we pass away or retire – no one will genuinely thank us for being a CEO or owning a great business – most likely we will be forgotten just a few short months after leaving our offices and replaced by the next ambitious executive. If indeed we are remembered it will be not for our achievements but our acts of humanity and kindness, by someone whose life we touched or who had a deep reliance on us.
So, to what end did we spend most of our lives? What was it all worth?
I have asked myself these difficult questions repeatedly over the past few years – perhaps it’s a function of my age and stage of my life. So when I remembered that statement about legacy again more vividly – it was very powerful and real.
I wondered: why is it having such a profound impact on me?
I think it’s because it was so simple, logical and intuitive. You retire from your life – you pass away – what is left of you – what do people remember of you? Not much. Your wife and your siblings may continue to remember you. However, they too will pass. So what remains? What continues to live on after you?
What remains of our daily efforts?
Back to my initial point of legacy: the only ways people will continue to have a sustained memory of you are if you’ve left children behind (who go on to procreate themselves), or because you’ve given them a benefit in the form of knowledge that has helped them, or if you’ve left something that people derive continuous benefit from.
We intuitively understand the reference to children. Many of us have children or will go on to have children. Children will remember you, pray for you and go on to have more children for whom you will be a lasting memory in their ancestral lineage. However, some of us may not have children and even those individuals can leave behind a strong legacy.
What is a legacy?
That is why the aforementioned statement is so profound. It effectively articulated legacy in a very simple manner and answered a question that comes across most of our minds: What do we leave behind when we pass?
It provides us with two key gifts (other than children) that we can leave behind – either knowledge or a utility that benefits others.
Let me break this down.
Contributing knowledge that continues to be implemented after the individual’s passing might seem like a tall order, but it isn’t.
It could be any beneficial knowledge one share with the right intention. It could be a principle someone lived by and taught others to follow it. It could be day-to-day mannerism that those around us learn and follow and pass on to others. Perhaps, it could be a book you have authored, delivering fresh insights or new takeaways in a field of interest that is relevant to your specialization. Another extensive way to do this is to undertake substantive academic research or perhaps through years of asceticism or experience in a field. Some scholars dedicate their lives to finding new challenges.
How many of us really contribute knowledge of valuable and perpetual relevance to others?
Tip: before you consume or share knowledge haphazardly, think of why you do that? Think of how what you share with those around you daily-whether on a small or big scale, contribute to leaving behind an honorable legacy for you?
That leaves us with an ongoing benefit. What could that be? The words in the original Arabic quote refers to ‘Sadaqah Jaariyah’, which essentially transliterates to ongoing charity. Other narrations cite specific benefits such as ‘a house that he/she built for the two wayfarers, a stream that he/she ran, or a charity that he/she gave from his / her wealth during his / her healthy life so that it would reach him/her (in rewards) after death.”
Note, this narration was written more than 1400 hundred years ago – so the examples may sound basic now.
In my humble opinion, the broader definition of benefit serves to define the purpose more clearly. Of course, the idea of building a bridge or a well or a water stream that continues is effective. That said, for many of us, in our urbanised modern and globalized settings, there are far more accessible and impactful activities that one can do that will continue to derive benefit beyond our existence.
If we think about ongoing benefit these days, there are none better than institutions or platforms that provide a social function utility in society but continue to operate sustainably (and profitably). These are what, nowadays, are commonly referred to as social impact enterprises – they are companies that serve a social purpose but are structured to be profitable and sustainable.
These could be some form of technology or medicine that will impact a great number of lives or simply a school that operates profitably but also serves the underprivileged.
What’s clear is that considering a more encompassing definition of “benefit” can help individuals clarify what they are working towards and carve out a course that sets up a legacy that lasts. It doesn’t have to be a not-for-profit and it doesn’t have to be a school. It could just be a highly successful start-up but one that continues to benefit humanity long after they are gone.
Profitable social impact-oriented institution
The key is to clearly delineate between the person and the institution. Institutions, if properly established and administered should outlast our existence.
If I am a specialized doctor, could I think about establishing an institution – a clinic that provides these services beyond my retirement?
If I have conducted deep research in a field, could I think of a start-up that could be established that could commercialize this research and make it widely available to the populations that need it the most?
If I am a lawyer, could I think about establishing a practice that benefits the underprivileged and those without access to legal advice, while operating sustainably?
If I am a business leader who’s identified an unmet need, could I think about how I could establish a company that serves that need on an ongoing basis?
When this scope is clear in our minds – to build institutions instead of personally focused contributions, it’s easy to start looking for opportunities to make an impact that lasts long beyond our lifetimes.
I made a conscious decision to shift my focus to start building institutions back in 2014. It’s one thing working for global institutions that can make an impact, but when you are not in control, that impact evaporates. I came to the realization that the only way to sustain such an impact is to ensure that I build institutions that undertake such an impact. At that time, my focus area was encouraging the growth of responsible practices in finance.
That led me to support the establishment of the Responsible Finance and Investment Foundation (RFI Foundation), an institution that is sustainably funded through members to encourage the convergence of the various forms of responsible finance, ethical investing and Islamic finance, through events, partnerships and consulting..
More recently, I realized that the most exponential impact I can have is to help other social impact startups grow and scale their companies – that’s why a group of like-hearted colleagues and myself founded Goodforce Labs – a Sustainable Development Goals Plus focused social impact startup incubator. I hope this institution goes on to be sustainable and profitable in the long term, and we are moving in the right direction. The beauty of this is that you get a double effect – if Goodforce Labs is sustainable, you have built an institution. If the companies we support are sustainable and profitable, the ‘ongoing benefit’ then has a multiplier effect.
Tip: think of your own specialty, capacity, and resources and figure out how you can use that to create institutions that outlast you. It is not about how big or small projects are, but about the benefit attached to the work that makes it live longer, and about how your work is genuine, sincere, humble.
What if I don’t have the capacity to build my own sustainable impact start-up?
That’s not to say that the only way you can contribute and create ongoing benefit beyond yourself is by founding such initiatives. Not all of us have the opportunities, networks and resources to do so. Sometimes, supporting other institutions that have a lasting impact is one way to sustain a legacy. However, having a sustained material impact for the institution’s trajectory is probably needed for it to considered as an ongoing benefit.
For instance, helping a struggling social impact start-up to grow its revenue base and become profitable might be a good way to create a sustained impact. It could also be that a not for profit needs restructuring or development to make it more sustainable and you can help it grow.
One of the things I did recently is supporting a wonderful lady I met who set up a free school for underprivileged children in Bangladesh called “Choice to Change” which is currently funded through donations. I said to myself ‘I have access to professional expertise, knowledge, skills and networks that she could benefit from” and therefore I offered to help with whatever I could. The first thing I did is place a mental target of helping her raise and sponsor 80 children’s funding for a full year from sustainable sponsors who will continue to support the kids. I hope to do more and help further the School’s operation and impact. Eventually, I’d like for all these children to undertake university studies and go on to make a noticeable impact on their communities they have left behind in the slums.
Tip: You don’t always have to lead projects to achieve a legacy. As long as you are contributing to something that will be sustainable, it doesn’t matter who is leading or whose initiative it is. Never belittle any good work you do, even if it isn’t leading or conceiving or funding the good work. That’s the beauty of thinking about the hereafter in everything we do – the accounting is not based on material measures, but on substantive contribution, however small or big it is.
Can I create a lasting legacy?
All of us have an opportunity for creating a legacy that matters. We have to first change our mindset from doing something for immediate impact to focusing on building institutions that outlast us. Secondly, we have to keep our eyes and ears open for those opportunities and the best way to do that is to make it known to all those in your networks that we are seeking those opportunities. The rest is all action and I’m sure all of us can do this part with our individual strengths and competencies.
…So what legacy are you working on leaving behind?
Dr. Sayd Farook is a Strategy and Foresight Advisor at the Executive Office of the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Dr. Sayd is also an early-stage investor in more than a dozen mission-oriented startups through Falcon Network, an angel investment network he co-founded. He is a guest author on Halalop.