Reality Check: Legacy and Contribution

What comes to your mind when you hear the words, “leaving a legacy”? Legacy is often interpreted as a monetary gift, but for Stephen Covey, the concept of legacy is broader than money.
Covey, famous for “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” later wrote “The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness.” Here, he discusses four universal human needs: living, loving, learning and leaving a legacy.
It’s not hard to spot similarities between Covey’s list and four of the basic needs suggested in Dr. Glasser’s Choice Theory. For example, Glasser defines a need for security/survival, what one might call “living.” There’s also the love/belonging need, in other words, “loving.” Glasser refers to a basic need for fun as our genetic reward for “learning.” Finally, Glasser identified a need for power/recognition; one way of satisfying that need could be through “leaving a legacy.”
I was reminded of legacy and forms of contribution recently when my friend, George McNeary, passed away after much too short a life. While George played different, valued roles for the many people in his life, I’ll focus on the role in which I knew him, as the local Marine Diesel instructor.
In “The 8th Habit,” Covey talks about “finding your voice.” George’s voice was a deep, gravelly one, often accompanied by a smile. But George’s “voice” wasn’t limited to his words; it was perhaps best expressed in his deeds. He demonstrated the belief that anyone who wanted to learn mechanics could learn mechanics.
Some people take longer to learn than others. Some might need to be shown a different way. Some need to do their tasks over and over before they get the gist of how things work.
Different people are different; some learn differently than others. George understood that and he worked with it. His innate kindness, combined with his unflappable nature, meant that you weren’t left behind simply because what you read in a textbook didn’t make sense to you. When George handed you the long-handled wrench and the short-handled wrench and said, “Try it and see the difference,” then you understood.
Why does this legacy matter? It matters a lot for the individuals who studied and embarked on a career as a result of George’s teaching. They are working, producing, earning money. Among them are people raising families, buying houses and cars, volunteering in their communities, and quite likely also fixing their friends’ and family’s obstinate mechanical contraptions.
You may be familiar with the “starfish story.” There are variations in how it’s told, but essentially, a beach-walker notices a child tossing starfish back into the ocean. He points out the futility of this effort; there are so many beached starfish; throwing one back won’t make much difference. But as each starfish gets returned to the ocean, he hears, “It made a difference to that one.”
George was humble, so he’d likely be embarrassed by this column. But he would also appreciate the purpose; to remind us that what we do matters. Life can feel overwhelming; so much can seem so hopeless. But each of us has an opportunity to do something, even a small thing. Throw one starfish, teach one person, contribute one moment of joy.
Different people have different voices; they create different legacies. We don’t always know what other people see, what they admire, what they respect. Even if the positive actions we take don’t seem to be noticed, they still have value. They are our legacy.
What does legacy mean to you?

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