What determines your legacy? It’s not what you think.
Last week, I attended a memorial service for my friend Chris Crowley.
Today would have been Chris’ 40th birthday.
Chris died in his sleep last month, and news of his sudden passing hit me hard. It’s inexplicable. Unfair. It has left me spinning with questions and emotions and a seemingly fruitless search for answers.
As often happens with a sudden death of a friend, it has left me searching for a lesson. A part of me feels that if I can find some meaning or lesson in this, it will make the loss easier to bear.
“Tragedy” is the word that comes to mind when you hear about a sudden death of a young person. Sadly, Chris is not the first such death in my world this year, and I’ve heard the word “tragedy” too many times to count already. I know that the real tragedy from Chris’ unexpected death would be if I didn’t learn from it. There are lessons here, both in how Chris lived and in the seemingly randomness and untimeliness of his death. As I sit with the shock of his passing, I realize that there are global lessons, and then there are the lessons I learned from how Chris lived his life.
Lessons are great, of course, but putting them into practice is better. For each lesson I’ve shared some practice tips for how to incorporate this into your life.
The Global Lessons
We Don’t Control Our Legacy
Well, you control it in some ways, but not in the way many people think. I hear a lot of people offer advice about the things we “should” do to ensure our legacy: write a book, create things that will last forever, start a company, and so on.
These things are great, don’t get me wrong. But your legacy isn’t determined by how many books you wrote.
How people remember you, what they take from your life, is based on your interactions with them. Plenty of people have created masterpieces of writing or art, but they were assholes. And that’s how we remember them. And plenty of people never publish a word. They don’t create art. But they are kind and considerate and compassionate. And they leave a wonderful legacy.
Practice: Time with people – on the phone or, better, in person, will leave a stronger legacy than anything you might write or publish. People remember how you treated them. I can’t recall the specifics of every dish that Chris made for his elaborate dinners, but I remember the feeling of being in his company and in the company of his other friends.
We Don’t Control Time
This sounds obvious, but often the obvious things aren’t obvious in practice. So many people use this principle as a basis from which to preach about “time management.”
Here’s the thing: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. And you can’t measure time. You don’t know how much you are going to get. It is not true that we all get the same 24 hours in a day. Some people don’t get to finish their 24 hours.
Time is not ours to “manage.” It is a gift, to be used purposefully and intentionally.
We can’t allocate a resource that we don’t own. And we don’t own time. It’s a rental. Not everyone gets the warning of illness or old age. Sometimes, the hourglass runs out before we knew it was turned over. The best we can do is to be intentional with how we use our time, recognizing that we don’t know when it’s up.
Practice: Be intentional with your time, but not restrictive where it counts. And where it counts is with connections. Chris was one of many people in my life who always made time. We remember the people who make time for us.
Lessons I Learned From Chris
Focus on What Truly Matters
Chris’ wife is pregnant, due with their first child in a few weeks. At the memorial service, she spoke of how they sat by a fire on New Year’s Eve to share their intentions.
Chris’ only intention — his sole goal for the year — was to become a father and make Jacqueline a mother. To start a family.
Think about that. Think about the intentions that you set for this year.
Most people I know feel the pressure to set big goals. They are lured by the promise of more money or bigger deals or higher status. Or they are trapped in the belief that having these things — or at least the pursuit of them — is what will make them happy.
Chris focused on what was most important to him: his family and his friends. It’s not that he wasn’t ambitious. He was a big thinker and, by all standard cultural metrics, very successful in his career. But he knew that career isn’t everything, and certainly not the only thing.
What if your biggest intention was to be present to your family? What if your sole intention was to connect more deeply with others? How might that affect your life while you live it, and your legacy when you’re gone?
Practice: Re-evaluate your goals and intentions. Consider what really impacts your quality of life and your legacy.
Live Your Truth
Chris lived his truth, without apology. He made time for his passions. He was a brilliant chef. He experimented. He was a fire-eater. He went to clown college. And he also had a brilliant financial mind and an innovative spirit. He did not spend time wondering how to present different facets of himself in different situations. He just was who he was. All the time. He embraced his various parts.
He was one of the most congruent people I’ve ever known. I admire that in him tremendously, and will remind myself to emulate it.
This life we are given is precious, and to spend our precious moments on this earth trying to be what others expect us to be is a slap in the face to our creator.
We owe it to ourselves and others to live in the full expression of our talents and gifts, to speak our minds and share our voices, and to live our truth.
Practice: Embrace who you are. Stop worrying about whether people “get” you. If they don’t get you, that’s their problem, not yours.
Celebrate and Share Your Talents and Gifts
Chris may not have written books or a blog, but he shared his talents and gifts with his friends, and each of us who knew him is a better person for it. There is no experience like a shared experience. Chris used his talents and gifts to create shared experiences for his friends.
Practice: Use your talents and gifts to create experiences that you can share with friends and family. Stop holding back.
Embrace Experiments and Adventure
Both in and out of the kitchen, Chris embraced adventure. A rule commonly cited for home cooks is never to experiment with a new dish when you are hosting guests. Chris ignored that rule. He viewed a dinner party as the reason to experiment. I loved that about him, because it’s so aligned with my philosophy.
But whereas I can get caught up in perfectionism, Chris embraced the adventure created by imperfections. If something didn’t turn out the way he expected, he rolled with it. He embraced it. And he continued on. No apologies. No attempts to cover it up. He folded it into the dinner party. He served the dish the way it came out.
Practice: Embrace imperfections. Treat them as adventures and bring others along for the ride. It fuels connection and camaraderie.
Time has no value except what you make of it.
And Chris made the most of his time.
Chris’ life stands as a testament to the fact that time cannot be measured in minutes or hours or days or years, but rather in moments: the moments that you are present to the world and the people around you.
The true meaning of productivity is not found in how much more we can cram into an hour or a day, but rather in the quality of the moments we create with and for those we love.
Practice: Look for ways to create moments for others, and for yourself. Be intentional. Make every day count. But not just in that “be productive” way. Make it count in the way that matters to those around you: be kind, compassionate, considerate. Listen. Make people feel seen, heard and loved.
This feels like a formula for a well-lived life, rich in meaning and fulfillment.