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How Will Your Obituary Read?

No matter what your career or your business is, your true legacy will be measured one person at a time.
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I'm a little shell-shocked, so I hope you'll bear with me.

America lost a trio of accomplished artists this week: journalist Michael Hastings, writer Vince Flynn, and actor James Gandolfini. All three men had great careers, built great value--and were entrepreneurs in the truest sense.

Hastings was a war correspondent and reporter whose work brought down a four-star general. Flynn wrote the bestselling Mitch Rapp series of thriller novels. Gandolfini played Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. All three also died way too young, of everyday causes. A car crash. Cancer. A heart attack.

As I read their obituaries this week, I thought about something another author, Brad Meltzer, said in a 2011 TED talk: "Good or bad, you will have a legacy. The only question is what kind of legacy you want."

If you're reading Inc., you probably already realize that no matter what, you'll leave some kind of legacy. As you plan, launch, or grow a venture, you probably occasionally consider these kinds of questions: What will my legacy be? What will they say about me when I'm gone?

"He was a..."

A few years ago, Meltzer launched an unusual project. He wanted to save the house in which Mitchell Siegel and Jerry Shuster dreamed up Superman, back in 1933. A reporter who interviewed Meltzer about his efforts at the time remarked, "This will be in your obituary."

"My obituary?" Meltzer recalled. "It haunted me. It haunted me so much that I called back the reporter a year later." He hired the reporter to actually write a draft of his obituary--a sort of scorecard on what he'd be remembered for, hopefully while he still had many decades to live.

The reporter took the freelance gig, but in the final version accidentally left an extra line at the end. Thus, Meltzer's "draft obituary" ended with an unfinished sentence: "He was a..."

That inadvertent ellipsis led Meltzer on an existential journey: "What was I? Was I good? Was I bad? Did I matter? Did I achieve greatness?"

It also led him to realize that each of us, every single day, provides the answer to that question. What you do becomes who you are.

How do you want to be remembered?

Hastings, Flynn, and Gandolfini. A journalist, an author, and an actor. Do those  descriptions do them justice? Can a few lines truly reflect a life, or a legacy?

Entrepreneurs do what we do because we want to change the world. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of that in the day-to-day, but it's what motivates many of us at core. Some of us will succeed. Others will come close, and will find that our work inspires others to pick up the baton and move the world forward.

I think Meltzer went a long way toward figuring it out. He came up with four categories of interactions impact. It starts with the personal category, in which people likely have impact--without even realizing it--on one other person's life. (Meltzer talks about his 9th grade English teacher, Ms. Spicer, the first person who told him he had writing talent.)

From there, he talks about impact on family and community, and on strangers--the encouragement, the good examples, and the leadership we provide, often without even thinking about it deeply. The kicker is that in most cases, we never fully realize the impact we have, and the legacies we leave, even as we're acting.

"Your words put you on the mountaintop. 'Good job. I like what you did here. You have a real talent for that,'" Meltzer said, even when you have no idea at all of the impact that they have on other people. "Those things you do for other people? That's your legacy."

(Like this post? Check out Bill's weekly email.)

IMAGE: NS Newsflash/Flickr
Last updated: Jun 20, 2013

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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