The second habit described by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says to “begin with the end in mind.” Thinking about what is important to us, what we want to be remembered for allows us to clarify our personal mission and direct our efforts to the areas that matter most. Taking this end-of-life perspective can help us understand how to focus our work, decisions, and relationships to leave the legacy we want to leave.
I have always been fascinated by the life of Thomas Jefferson. It is not only his diverse range of interests and scholarship that attracted me to him, but also his active participation in community building and well-known leadership and influence in the founding of our nation. Learning about his ideas, lifestyle, and leadership has captivated me since I was in high school. However, it wasn’t until I visited his home, Monticello, a few years ago that I discovered what he valued most.
His gravesite is on the property and is marked with a stately headstone. Before his death, Jefferson wrote strict instructions about what he wanted engraved on the marker – the things he wanted to be remembered for:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia
Although Jefferson had an impressive list of accomplishments, not the least of which was serving as the third president of the United States, the three items on his tombstone declare the achievements he was most proud of, and the achievements that most reflected his core values. I was surprised to notice that being president wasn’t one of them. He wanted to be remembered for authoring the Declaration of Independence, for furthering the cause of religious freedom in Virginia, and for founding the educational institution, the University of Virginia, in his hometown of Charlottesville. A strong advocate for freedom and education, Jefferson knew what mattered most to him and the type of legacy he wanted to leave. This legacy is not only inscribed in our nation’s history, it is inscribed in the minds and hearts of the people he impacted with his efforts.
What do you want inscribed on your headstone? What legacy do you hope to leave and what accomplishments will you be remembered by? As Jefferson shows us, the question is not only about what we want to remember but also what achievements we would leave off the epitaph. The fact that Jefferson did not include the accomplishment of being president on his epitaph does not diminish his role as the nation’s leader, but it does reveal his priorities for posterity.
As we reflect on our own values, it is important to recognize the ones that reveal who we are and what was most meaningful in our lives. For instance, I may achieve advanced degrees, but I want my children to remember me as a wise mother. I may attain a position of leadership, but I want my followers to remember me as a visionary who gave voice to their hopes and dreams. In short, I want to be remembered for more than what I do; I want to be remembered for who I am. I want my legacy to be one of inspiration not mere achievement.
Like Jefferson, I want to be remembered for my love of freedom, for my application of wisdom, and for my investment in the education and growth of others. By starting with the end in mind, we can shape the way we attend to the people and tasks around us. We can focus on what truly matters. And we can intentionally build a legacy that will inspire those who remember us.
What do you want to be remembered for? What kind of legacy are you building for those that follow?