In each of our lives, there are a few personal legends -- those people who are so much larger than life and have made such an impact on our existence that it's hard to put into words.
One person who played that role for me was Ken Foster, my first true mentor and the first true entrepreneur I ever knew. Ken was a senior executive with AT&T, which of course was perhaps the least entrepreneurial company back in those days, but he was different. Ken was the definition of a visionary for whom traditional rules and rigid structures were things to avoid. It's why he took a chance on me, who as a dorky, shy, and underachieveing college graduate should have never had been given the chance I was to work at what was then the largest corporation on earth.
I was devastated to learn recently of Ken's passing. His impact on my life and career started when he took a chance on me, but I also realized I was not alone. Ken made a similar impact on dozens of other people I know and countless others I don't. Ken left a legacy of human impact that will carry on well beyond his own life.
This made me think deeply about the concept of legacy and, specifically, what mark I wish to leave in my professional life. As I contemplate for myself what mark I will have left on this world once my career is over, I thought I'd share what this self-discovery process has led me to consider through exercises in legacy planning.
1. Write your own professional epitaph.
This may seem like a morbid thought, but so is estate planning and shopping for life insurance. The reality is that it's hard to really execute a plan you are unwilling to contemplate.
Thinking through your own departure through the lens of a simple, one to three sentence summation of your existence forces you to make important choices about what you really brought to the world and how you impacted those around you. Keep it simple, focus on only the biggest items, and consider how the random passerby would see you from that description alone. Consider this your own private mission statement.
2. Evaluate your life.
Look back at the past few weeks and identify specific ways you've contributed to the aspirations in that epitaph. Assume that those who know you best would be the ones writing the actual version of it once you are gone. Do they see you in the way you described yourself? If not, what's holding them back?
3. Create a plan and look forward.
Life is complicated. Sometimes we live up to who we wish to be and other times we fall short. Sometimes this is a result of circumstance, but often it's because we go through life without having really considered what legacy we wish to leave until we have already left one.
Think through how you can better live your legacy every day, while you are still here to do so. What are those things you would change about the past few weeks, and how do the actions you take every day get closer to the epitaph you hope to inspire?
It's not always fun and it's definitely not easy to be honest with ourselves, but if what you leave behind professionally matters, this self-reflection is a critical way of ensuring that you live life with a plan and hold yourself accountable to it. Going through this self-exploration has helped me refocus on my own core values and renewed a sense of purpose for me that goes further than deadlines and deals.
The legacy I wish to leave is clear and focused around those people whom I have helped achieve their own dreams along the way. I need to do a better job of stepping back from the craziness of business to ensure I am teaching, coaching, and mentoring every day.
Finally, I was fortunate enough to see Ken a year ago and was able to share with him just how much of an impact he had made in my life. The most important advice I can give you is to reach out to your own personal legends, likely people you have not spoken to in ages. Let them know. Thank them for just how much they changed your life. I certainly have a few others who will be hearing from me.