Legacies are sown, not something we leave behind

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read or heard someone refer to a family legacy as something that is “left behind” for future generations, I’d be writing this (with a different topic, naturally) from my own private beach, on my own private island, somewhere in the Caribbean. And while I applaud the focus that a family’s legacy is increasingly receiving, unfortunately the concept of a family’s legacy is largely misunderstood. As a result, many families unwittingly fail to establish the legacy they intend to, and instead sow the legacy they hope to avoid.

The modern day concept of “leaving a legacy” has a number of connotations. The term is often used in the philanthropic community to denote a benefactor that has committed to leave a portion of their material wealth to an organization or institution upon their death. They are typically referred to as “Legacy Donors”, and are approached by fundraising professionals with an appeal to create a lasting legacy through a charitable act that will make an impact in their community after the donor has departed for the afterlife. Thus, their material wealth, by virtue of its impact, lives on and carries the family’s legacy beyond their mortal years here on earth. Hence, they “leave behind” a legacy of charity and generosity with the stroke of a pen.

Occasionally a family’s legacy is defined by the behavior of successive generations. To our dismay, a family’s non-financial legacy is typically noted only when the behavior of successive generations is destructive or otherwise disappointing. In these cases, there is a general acknowledgement that the patriarch and matriarch “didn’t do enough”, and therefore, their legacy is viewed through the perception of their own inaction – what they failed to do, rather than what they actually did.

In both cases, society defines the patriarch’s and matriarch’s legacy by “what they left behind”. To focus on the outcome, and to ascribe to it a single stroke of the pen, or continual inaction by the patriarch and matriarch, diverts attention away from the true nature of legacy. It is this erroneous focus that leads 9 out of 10 families into the shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves pitfall.

In truth, what we refer to as what was “left behind”, is in fact a harvest. What we witness is not so much “what was left behind”, but rather, the culmination of what was sown and yes, even cultivated. In this sense, legacy cannot be the result of a single stroke of the pen, nor can it be the consequences of continual inaction. Legacy is the result of innumerable actions taken over the course of decades. The stroke of a pen that creates a “Legacy Donor” is in fact the harvest of many seeds that were sown and cultivated in a manner that yielded material wealth. The disappointing behavior of a child is the harvest of many seeds that were sown and cultivated during that child’s life, not the inaction of the child’s parents.

Consider then, that if a family’s legacy is a harvest, sowing and cultivating it is a process, one that has its own course of seasons. There are seasons to sow, seasons to nurture and cultivate, and seasons to reap. The nature of the harvest depends on both intentionally sowing the right seeds and cultivating them, but also upon rooting up those wild seeds that we ourselves unintentionally sow. Whether we intend to or not, whether we admit it or not, we are sowing and cultivating the seeds of our legacy every day, eventually to be harvested by our family and our community. If we aren’t purposeful about the seeds we sow and cultivate, our legacies are more likely to resemble weeds,  and less likely to resemble wheat.

As you consider your own legacy in the context of sowing, cultivating, and harvesting, ask yourself: What seeds am I sowing and cultivating? How am I sowing them and cultivating them? What wild seeds am I sowing that require uprooting? How will the harvest of my legacy be defined?

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