Leaving a powerful legacy is a dream and aspiration for many of us. But dreaming is no longer enough, we’re constantly losing time. We do, however, have the capacity to immortalize our efforts through the right daily efforts. This article shows you how the institutions you help build, the incremental knowledge you share and your children are three things that can outlast your career (and your life!).
My reflections on this subject started when I was about 9 years old. I saw a hadith hanging on a door in our home. But it has only now- over 25 years later- taken on a deeper meaning in my life. The hadith says:
“When a man dies, his deeds come to an end, except for three: A continuous charity, knowledge by which people derive benefit, pious son who prays for him.” [Muslim]
I didn’t realize the impact of these words until more recently as I reflected on what I found myself chasing in life. I kept thinking: was I chasing achievements? Was I chasing recognition and fame? Was I chasing acceptance and acknowledgment of success from society?
It then occurred to me that none of these will be remembered or benefit me when I pass away.
As I had repeated conversations about legacy with those around me, the hadith came up on more and more occasions – with others, and internally in my own head – perhaps as I find it the most succinct way to think about legacy.
So I thought it’s time to share my reflections on this issue in case they may be of benefit to you.
What’s the purpose of our daily pursuits?
We all strive for some form of success – most of us believe that has to do with climbing the career ladder, becoming a blue-chip CEO one day, owning a business, paying off your house, becoming a millionaire or for many of us – just having enough to live a comfortable life.
We work and spend more than a half of our working lives (at least 8-9 hours each day) building towards these ephemeral goals. Yet when we achieve those goals, we find ourselves devoid of purpose and disappointed with a life spent in the pursuit of superfluous goals.
None of it will be taken with us when we pass away or retire – no one will wholeheartedly thank you for being a CEO or owning a great business – most likely we will be forgotten just a few months after leaving our offices, and replaced by the next ambitious executive. If indeed we are remembered it will not really be for our achievements but more so for our acts of humanity and kindness that touched someone who had a deep reliance on us.
So the seemingly uncomfortable questions remain: to what end did we spend most of our lives? What was the worth of it all?
I have asked myself this questions repeatedly, and it made me remember the hadith I first mentioned.
What remains of our daily efforts?
The hadith I shared says that three ways you can have a prolonged legacy are if you’ve left upright, loving children behind, or if you’ve shared benefit in the form of knowledge that has helped people, or if you’ve left something that people can derive continuous benefit from.
We intuitively understand the reference to children. Many of us have children or will go on to have children. Children will remember you, pray for you, do good projects in your name, and go on to have more children for whom you will be a lasting memory in their ancestral lineage.
However, some of us may not have children and even those individuals can leave behind a strong legacy.
So what is a legacy?
I find that the hadith I shared before effectively articulate legacy in a very simple manner and also provides two key gifts (other than children) that we can leave behind – that is knowledge or a utility that benefits people.
Let me break this down.
1. Sharing beneficial knowledge
Contributing knowledge that continues to be implemented after the individual’s passing might seem like a tall order, but it isn’t.
It could be any beneficial knowledge that one shares with the right intention. It could be a principle someone lived by and taught others to follow, it could be understanding then implementing beneficial teachings from the Qur’an and Sunnah thus reviving the tradition and encouraging others to do the same. It could be day-to-day mannerism that those around us learn and follow and pass on to others. All kinds of beneficial knowledge- big or small- with the right intention count towards this.
Perhaps, it could be a book you author, delivering fresh insights or new takeaways in a field of interest that is relevant to your specialization.
If you want to work towards a greater impact, you can consider contributing to academic research in your field. Some scholars dedicate their lives to pave the way for people to find answers to their challenges.
So think about this: how many of us really contribute knowledge of valuable and perpetual relevance to others?
Tip: before you consume or share knowledge haphazardly, think of why you do that? Think of how what you share with those around you daily-whether on a small or big scale, contribute to leaving behind an honorable legacy for you?
2. Creating ongoing benefit
This leaves us with the idea of an ongoing benefit. What could that be? The words in the original Arabic hadith are ‘Sadaqah Jaariyah’, which essentially means a ceaseless/ongoing charity.
There are many accessible and impactful activities that one can do that will continue to circulate benefit beyond our existence.
For example, there are institutions or platforms that provide a social function utility in society but continue to operate sustainably (and profitably). These, nowadays, are commonly referred to as social impact enterprises – they are companies that serve a social purpose but are structured to be profitable and sustainable.
These could be some form of technology or medicine that will impact a great number of lives or simply a school that operates profitably but also serves the underprivileged.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a not-for-profit organization or a school. It could be a highly successful start-up but one that continues to benefit humanity long after they are gone.
3. Building social impact-oriented institutions
Institutions, if properly established and administered should outlast our existence.
If I am a specialized doctor, could I think about establishing an institution – a clinic that provides these services beyond my retirement?
If I have a conducted deep research in a field, could I think of a start-up that could be established that could commercialize this research and make it widely available to the populations that need it the most?
If I am a lawyer, could I think about establishing a practice that benefits the underprivileged and those without access to legal advice, while operating sustainably?
If I am a business leader who’s identified an unmet need, could I think about how I could establish a company that serves that need on an ongoing basis?
When this scope is clear in our minds – to build institutions instead of personally focused contributions, it’s easy to start looking for opportunities to make an impact that lasts long beyond our lifetimes.
I made a conscious decision to shift my focus to start building institutions back in 2014. It’s one thing working for global institutions that can make an impact, but when you are not in control, that impact evaporates. I came to the realization that the only way to sustain such an impact is to ensure that I help build institutions that undertake such an impact. At that time, my focus area was encouraging the growth of responsible practices in finance.
That led me to support the establishment of the Responsible Finance and Investment Foundation (RFI Foundation), an institution that is sustainably funded through members to encourage the convergence of the various forms of responsible finance, ethical investing and Islamic finance, through events, partnerships and consulting.
More recently, I realized that the most exponential impact I can have is to help other social impact startups grow and scale their companies – that’s why a group of like-hearted colleagues and myself founded Goodforce Labs – a Sustainable Development Goals Plus focused social impact startup incubator. I hope this institution goes on to be sustainable and profitable in the long term, and we are moving in the right direction. The beauty of this is that you get a double effect – if Goodforce Labs is sustainable, you have built an institution. If the companies we support are sustainable and profitable, the ‘ongoing benefit’ then has a multiplier effect.
Tip: think of your own specialty, capacity, and resources and figure out how you can use that to create institutions that outlast you. It is not about how big or small projects are, but about the Barakah (Divine blessing) attached to the work that makes it live longer, and about how your work is genuine, sincere, humble and accepted by Allah Almighty so you can win in this life and the eternal next.
What if I don’t have the capacity to build my own sustainable impact start-up?
That’s not to say that the only way you can contribute and create ongoing benefit beyond yourself is by founding such initiatives. Not all of us have the opportunities, networks, and resources to do so. Sometimes, supporting other institutions that have a lasting impact is one way to sustain a legacy. However, having a sustained material impact for the institution’s trajectory is probably needed for it to considered as an ongoing benefit.
For instance, helping a struggling social impact start-up to grow its revenue base and become profitable might be a good way to create a sustained impact. It could also be that a not for profit needs restructuring or development to make it more sustainable and you can help it grow.
One of the things I did recently, for example, is supporting a wonderful lady I met who set up a free school for underprivileged children in Bangladesh called “Choice to Change” which is currently funded through donations. I said to myself “I have access to professional expertise, knowledge, skills, and networks that she could benefit from” and therefore I offered to help with whatever I could. The first thing I did is place a mental target of helping her raise and sponsor 80 children’s funding for a full year from sustainable sponsors who will continue to support the kids. I hope to do more and help further the School’s operation and impact. Eventually, I’d like for all these children to undertake university studies and go on to make a noticeable impact on their communities they have left behind in the slums.
Tip: You don’t always have to lead projects to achieve a legacy. As long as you are contributing to something that will be sustainable, it doesn’t matter who is leading or whose initiative it is. Never belittle any good work you do, even if it isn’t leading or conceiving or funding the good work. That’s the beauty of thinking about the hereafter in everything we do – the accounting is not based on material measures, but on substantive contribution, however small or big it is.
Can I create a lasting legacy?
All of us have wide open opportunities to create legacies that matter. But it helps to first change our mindset from doing something for immediate impact to focusing on building institutions that outlast us. Secondly, we have to keep our eyes and ears open for those opportunities, and the best way to do that is to make it known to all those in your networks that we are seeking those opportunities. The rest is all action, and I’m sure all of us can do this part with our individual strengths and competencies.
So what legacy are you working now on leaving behind?