Legacy. While its formal definition is that of “a gift by will, especially of money or other personal property,” we know it to hold much greater depth of meaning.

Our legacy is the intangible part of us we leave behind when we take our last breath on this earth. It is the words spoken at a memorial. It is the memories that draw tears from those who loved us.

Men speak often about legacy. Sports stars, business icons, millionaire philanthropists — these are the pictures invoked when we conjure up images of people with legacies.

But I’ve known countless women, especially those with children, who — when speaking about their legacies — refer first to motherhood. When asked their greatest accomplishment, it is unequivocally: “my children.”

Where does that leave those of us who have no choice but to stand outside, watching motherhood from afar through the windowpanes of life? How can we best construe what our legacy might be?

For me, being childless forced me to redefine who I was as a person and what I wanted to leave behind on this earth. I believe whether we have children or not, it’s a helpful exercise to be intentional about our legacy.

Here are a few tips from my 3E Method of Change© for those looking for inspiration to do just that.


Excavate Your Attic

We all have dusty boxes hidden in the corner of our minds. From painful memories to joys we gave up on, they are all pieces of who we are and how we see the world.

To build my legacy, I started by unpacking all those boxes and really thinking intentionally about what I wanted to keep and what I was ready to discard.

What pain can you heal, forgive, and release from your attic? What joy can you revisit and bring back into your life? We must get clear on our own personal values. What are we carrying that never truly felt right? Who are we outside of long-held familial and societal expectations?

Answering these questions is the first step to truly knowing the pieces of the legacy that already exist and what you still need to build.


Eliminate Your Obligations

Second, to make space for change, we must eliminate obligations that no longer serve us.

When I prepared to move across the country, I realized just how many commitments I was holding, sitting on eight nonprofit boards, teaching two college classes, and working a full-time job.

I never realized how many times I kept saying yes without ever trading one obligation for another. They just slowly mounted, and I was exhausted. And this was not just a detriment to me, but also to my legacy.

We all have a threshold of effort where we can give our whole selves authentically. After that point, our efforts start to diminish, leaving less of our best selves for the organizations and people we serve.

If we want to live the most robust life of our choosing, we must make the space to be our best selves at every turn. For many of us, that means gracefully declining invitations when rest is needed, stepping out of commitments that do not properly align with our ultimate goals, and finding ways to remove challenges that unnecessarily steal our time.


Embolden Your Resolve

Finally, once you decide what you believe is your legacy, you must be steadfast to stay on and protect that path. That means making every decision about your time and talents through the lens of “this gets me closer” or “this detracts from my plan.”

Over time, I have become resolute that my legacy is built on service to others and experiencing the world in its entirety. This is how I want to prove to myself and the world that I can make an impact without being a parent.

Travel has proven to be a priceless commodity in developing who I am as a human, teaching me culture and traditions, vulnerability and open-heartedness, creativity and solitude. I have been privileged to witness the best of humanity and the evil remnants of the worst.

And it has allowed me to give my time and human capital for the benefit of others around the world. This is the legacy I choose to leave.

From those of us who cannot claim motherhood on our life scorecards, there is only us. Whatever we want to give to this world has to come from us. Every choice we make defines the legacy we leave behind. So, make it grand. Make it bold. Make it yours.


Education, nonprofit, and workplace expert Melanie Sue Hicks, author of Incongruent: Travel, Trauma, Transformation, is an adventure-seeking social-impact advocate who has led or participated in more than 50 service projects in 20 cities and four international locations. Hicks has been published in and interviewed for more than two dozen magazines and websites. melaniehicks.org

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