What Will Be Your Legacy?

“The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.”
–William James (The “Father” of American Psychology)

I will never forget my wife’s paternal grandfather, John Dangerfield West, because he impacted my life in a special way. My fondest memory of John was seeing him at a family, holiday gathering crawling around on the floor playing with the little children and making them laugh. I marveled that this 88-year-old man had such child-like zest for living. I quietly thought to myself, “I hope I am like that good man when I am 88 if I have the privilege of living that long.”

“The great man is he who does not lose his child’s-heart”  -Mencius

A few years later when John passed, my wife and I attended the graveside service. As I stood there listening to the various speakers, I thought back on all the pleasant memories I had of John, including the one above.

During this personal reverie, I happened to look at the head stone by my feet. My attention was immediately drawn to the epitaph: “To live in the hearts of others is to never die.” I quietly thought, “You will always live on in my heart John Dangerfield West.”

Suddenly, I was jarred back to reality by the 21-gun salute that was part of the service to honor John for his service to this country.

After thinking about the life of John Dangerfield West earlier this week, I started thinking about “legacy.” What should a person’s legacy consist of? What is most important? I have spent much of this week considering these two questions.

For those of us who have chosen to raise children, I’m quite sure that our “legacy wish lists” would contain the following items. We want to leave our posterity with a “good name”—a name that they can be proud to bear. We want to have raised our children in such a way that they are happy and successful—and contributing to society in positive ways.

In addition to families, what other kinds of legacies are important? As I thought about this question, I came to the conclusion that there are as many “Important Legacies” as there are individual human beings on Planet Earth! I came to this answer after becoming aware of the people whose personal legacies had impacted—and were impacting—my life this very week. Let me explain.

Nikola Tesla

As I was waiting for the participants to arrive for the workshop I taught earlier this week, I was reading a book I purchased on one of my heroes, Nikola Tesla. I have studied the life of this great inventor over the years and read a number of books about him. I never get tired of reading about his insatiable curiosity and the dreams he had for transforming this world.

As people started to arrive for class, I inserted my bookmark and put the book in my bag. I went to the wall panel to adjust the lights a bit, and a smile appeared in my mind—if not on my face—as I realized that, thanks to the genius of the immigrant from Yugoslavia, alternating current lights our modern world. Tesla’s legacy is a brighter world! Thank you, Nikola Tesla, for all you did for future generations.


Maya Angelou

I’m always reading and collecting inspirational thoughts to inspire my days. One evening this week, I was looking at quotes on the internet and came across some wonderful wisdom from the late Maya Angelou. Ms. Angelou was a prolific writer (seven autobiographies, some books of poetry and a number of plays). I have been inspired by her thoughts for years. Here are some of my favorites:

“If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die.”

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

“If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded.”

“All great achievements require time.”

Contrary to popular belief, Maya Angelou was never the official “Poet Laureate” of the United States. However, in my humble opinion, she was a Poet Laureate of the highest order. Thank you Maya Angelou for inspiring me through the years. That inspiration will continue with me for the rest of my life.


Thomas Kinkade

I remember hearing a speech by the late Jim Rohn, where he was talking about the quality of his home library. Jim remarked that even though he hadn’t read all the books in it, he still felt smarter just being around them.

Like Jim Rohn, I have collected and read hundreds of books over the years. In fact, when the Kindle was first released by Amazon, my wife promptly purchased one for me in hopes that I would start purchasing digital books and thus reduce the growing volume of paper books in our home. Unfortunately, that plan didn’t work so well. I now collect both paper and digital books…

At any rate, today, I was looking at one of my bookshelves and a particular book caught my attention, so I pulled it out. It is a book my wife gave me years ago to read on one of my long, domestic flights to deliver a workshop. The book was titled “Lightposts for Living—The Art of Choosing a Joyful Life” by the artist, Thomas Kinkade. I was inspired as I read that book all those years ago. As I thumbed through the pages, I enjoyed reading my notes in the margins and viewing all of the many beautiful pictures of Thomas’ paintings.

Many critics in the art world made fun of Thomas Kinkade’s art and his business approach, but thousands of people—the world over—purchased his art and it continues to bring joy to many. Other critics like to focus on his troubled personal life. However, Thomas Kinkade is remembered by those who enjoy his art—including me—as the “Painter of Light.” Thank you, Thomas Kinkade, for giving light to my imagination.


John Lennon

My close friends know what a “Beatles Fan” I am. I am also a musician. Earlier this week, I had been playing my keyboards, when I decided to surf YouTube for Beatles videos. I came across a documentary titled “The Day John Lennon Died.” I remembered that horrendous day in history, so out of curiosity, I started watching.

Not long into the video, it showed a shot of John at a piano, and his most famous song, “Imagine,” started playing in the background. I began to weep as I listened to those hopeful lyrics:

“…Imagine all the people living life in peace.
You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one.
I hope someday you’ll join us,
And the world will be as one…”

I’m a dreamer, too, John.

(My friend, and renowned artist, Paul Mann, drew this portrait of John Lennon in high school.)

After I finished watching the documentary, I sat in silence for quite some time thinking about how John Lennon’s legacy of music and his message of peace had impacted my life for good—and continues to do so to this very day.


Well there you have it—just four of the people whose legacies have touched me deeply this past week. There were more…

As all people eventually do, I contemplate my own mortality. I wonder what will be my legacy. It will certainly include my two daughters. Beyond that, I simply cannot tell. I can only hope that through my various contributions I will have made a positive impact on those whose paths I crossed. That would be my fondest desire.

So, I ask you, what do you hope will be your legacy?

“Were a star quenched on high,
For ages would its light,
Still travelling downward from the sky,
Shine on our mortal sight.
So when a great man dies,
For years beyond our ken,
The light he leaves behind him lies
Upon the paths of men.”
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


-Mark Swain