After you die, what will your legacy be?


As part of my job as an anesthesiologist, I get called to truly horrific airway events.  Sometimes they are down in the emergency department after a bad car accident, drowning, or burn.  Others are in ICU’s.  Sometimes they are even in hallways or bathrooms where people have stopped breathing or collapsed from cardiac arrest.  It’s part of the job.

Recently, I was called to an airway in an ICU in what became a surreal experience.  Upon arrival, I was informed that the patient who needed to be intubated had a non-survivable injury, but that they were completely alert, awake, and “with it.”  Oh, and there were about 20 to 25 friends and family present.

After watching some of their interactions, it became clear that something spectacular was happening.  The patient was attending their own funeral.  They were cognizant enough to have conversations with these people that clearly loved this patient. They shared memories and times together.  And so much more.

They all recognized their loved one was going to die and wanted to spend the last few moments sharing what mattered most to them.

While driving home from work that same day a person didn’t see me coming and turned left in front of me. I almost T-boned her.  Honestly, it probably would have killed us both if I wasn’t driving a sports sedan.  Thank God for my lack-of-frugality Brembo brakes.

All of this really got me thinking about one question: What legacy will I leave behind?

This question can, of course, be answered in so many different ways.  Listening to the family members and friends from the story above share with this man on his deathbed made me think a lot about this.  So did almost dying in a car accident 30 minutes later.

What exactly would my friends and family say about me?

Would they say that I served others and loved people unconditionally regardless of their station in life?  Would they say that I put others first?  Was I a good husband, father, and friend?

So many questions ran through my head.  What are my priorities? Am I achieving my goals? Will I have any regrets if I left this life today?  And what would my kids think about me?

Questions I didn’t ask

There were just as many questions that I later realized never came to mind when the above situations occurred.

Given the depth and breadth of the topics covered on this website mainly focused on helping high-income earners build wealth and wellness, it might surprise you that none of the questions that entered my mind had anything to do with money.

How much money will I have or need?

If you or I die, how much money do we need?  The answer, of course, is none.  My family will need plenty of money, but I have protection there with life my term life insurance policy.

This one was as far from my mind as the east is from the west.  Money was not on my mind as I watched those family members mourn the loss of a loved one before they died.  I was in awe of how much they loved this person and the memories that they cherished and shared.

Did I invest my money the right way?

My investment philosophy and investment techniques were not on my mind either.  I wasn’t even concerned about my savings rate.  Surely, I’ve spent ample time taking care of my family’s finances in the unlikely event of my premature death.

The fact is that money is not the end all be all.  It is a means to an end, but we rarely live our life in a way that reflects this truth.  Money will rule everything around us if we let it.

Did I work enough?

Particularly in shift work specialties, many doctors consider a missed shift money lost.  This prevents us from taking vacations, spending weekends with our kids, and causes eventual burnout.

I’ve never seen anyone on their deathbed – including the person mentioned above – that talked about work.  They never mention the unfinished project, the money they missed out on, or the aims that they never achieved.

It’s about faith, family, and friends.  Every. Single. Time.  We should learn from this.

You only live once (YOLO)

We have all heard the above phrase.  YOLO.  There are few things more true than this. It is a fact that you only live and die once.  That said, a YOLO perspective often produces hedonism.  Buy what you want.  Eat what you want.  Do what you want.

YOLO tells us that we aren’t promised tomorrow: only today.

This kind of thinking is worthless, of course, if you end up living substantially longer and didn’t prepare for the much more likely event that you live a long life instead of an early demise. In fact, the more common problem is that people don’t have enough saved for retirement.

It also doesn’t take into account many religious views, which teach quite the opposite of YOLO.

People only live once (POLO)

The YOLO perspective is inherently selfish, which I think lacks a lot of perspective.  Regardless of your religious convictions, we clearly weren’t born to be alone.  Since the beginning of human existence, we have always created and cultivated communities.

For this reason, we should think more in terms of “people only live once” or POLO.  This places the emphasis not on ourselves, but on other people.  If we start living our life thinking of others first, we might have a different set of answers to what we want to accomplish in this life.

Given the above experience, it made me wonder – if I were to die tomorrow – what I would wish I had done more of in this life.  Here’s the first five things that popped into my head:

  1. Empower and love my wife
  2. Spend time with my kids
  3. Invest in my family
  4. Help others avoid pitfalls that they should know exist
  5. Give abundantly to those in need

The items in the above list are honestly the first five things that popped into my head.  It says a lot about who I am and what I hold close to my heart, even if I don’t always do the best at showing that every day.

Take home

All of us only live once, which means we only have one life to show the people around us how much they mean to us, how much we cherish them, and to love them the way that they deserve.

Take some time to inventory what is most important to you and if that is where you are spending your time.  If it’s not, then make some changes.  Tomorrow is never promised and regrets are hard to process after the fact.

In the end, just remember that money is an important means to an end, but it is not the end itself.  It is a tool.  Time is the real end and we all have a limited number of seconds, minutes, hours, and days.  Use that time to do what matters most to you.

“The Physician Philosopher” is an anesthesiologist who blogs at his self-titled site, The Physician Philosopher.

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