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Forget Me Not

Jonathan Clements

WHAT WILL BE YOUR legacy? It’s a question many of us ponder as we get older. My conclusion: It’s the wrong question to ask.

The fact is, the whole notion of a legacy is a tad delusional, and very likely a trick played on us by our genes, which want us to care deeply about future generations. The reality: Most of us will leave scant mark on the world and we won’t be remembered for very long after we’re gone.

Age has a way of hammering home this point. For instance, after we leave a job, it’s sobering to discover how quickly we and our contribution are forgotten.

Similarly, it’s sobering to see folks, whom we recall as famous, all but disappear from the public consciousness. In the late 1980s, I visited George Goodman at his home near Princeton, New Jersey, to interview him for an article. Goodman, who was better known by the pseudonym Adam Smith, had written bestselling books and hosted a popular public television program. He died in 2014.

Today, the only time I see Goodman mentioned is when folks—talking about the stock market—quote from his 1968 book The Money Game: “If you don’t know who you are, this is an expensive place to find out.” A decade after his death, that seems to be the extent of Goodman’s legacy—a man whose face was once familiar to many Americans and whose first nonfiction book was a No. 1 bestseller for more than a year.

The all-too-obvious lesson: There’s no immortality on this earth. We will not be long remembered. If that’s our life’s motivation, we’re kidding ourselves.

I, of course, don’t want to discourage anybody from doing good deeds or striving for greatness. We’d all be worse off if folks gave up trying to better both themselves and the world, feeling it’s all pointless, and instead retreated to the couch to eat Cheez Doodles and binge-watch Netflix.

So, if we aren’t creating a legacy, what should motivate us? I’ve always liked the notion that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us—that our ideas and our work are built on the efforts of those who preceded us—and that those who follow will build on the work that we do. But that doesn’t mean we know whose shoulders we’re standing on. Their work may have been important, but there was no immortality.

If we won’t be remembered for what we do and, indeed, our good work may end up being discarded, what should motivate us? Once again, it seems the journey is more important than the destination—because the destination is a mirage, one we never reach.

That brings me to the three questions developed by George Kinder, a pioneer of the life-planning movement. The questions are designed to help folks figure out their life’s purpose. I especially like the second question: If you learned that you had five to 10 years to live, but you’d feel fine until the end, would you change your life and, if so, how?

I think it’s a great question because it gets us away from wrongheaded notions of legacy, and instead gets us to focus on who and what we care about. We shouldn’t ask, how will we be remembered? Instead, we should ask, what are the things I really want to get done before I die? It’s striving toward these important things that’ll make us feel like we’re leading a worthwhile life—and, if we do so, one happy byproduct is that perhaps a few folks will remember us fondly, if only for a short time after our death.

So, what should we do if the doctor informs us that we have five years to live? The answer will be different for all of us. My answer: To the extent possible, I’d want to make sure that Elaine and my children would be fine—financially and otherwise—after my death, and that my demise wouldn’t cause them undue hardship.

I’d also like to find somebody to take over HumbleDollar. I might even pen a few articles that would appear after my death. Yes, I’ll admit it, I find that sliver of immortality appealing, akin to winking at the world from the grave.

It reminds me of what Rick Connor’s dying mother did, writing notes that her nine grandchildren later received at milestone celebrations—such as high school or college graduation—along with a $100 savings bond. Rick’s mother may have been gone, and yet for a brief moment she was once again present in the lives of her grandchildren, bringing wistful smiles to their faces.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on X @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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