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Creating a lasting legacy: how a crisis can help us focus on what really matters


Creating a lasting legacy: how a crisis can help us focus on what really matters

Dec 15, 2020

During the coronavirus crisis, we’ve had something unexpected – time – to take stock and reflect on whether we should start doing things a little differently.

Among many profound challenges facing the world, the coronavirus pandemic stands out as unique because it has affected nearly everyone in ways both universal and personal. Daily life has been upended, entire industries and economies have been shaken, and the ways we work together, meet together, learn together and celebrate together look nothing like they did in 2019.

We know we are supposed to look for the opportunity in every crisis, but why… and what kind of opportunity should we be looking for? 

As the world adapts to life with coronavirus, we are finding ourselves with time to think outside the day-to-day and instead consider the bigger picture. What do we want the future to look like for ourselves and for our family?

How we think during ‘life as usual’

When life goes as expected, we bank on consistency and predictability. We figure out the rules and patterns that shape life around us, and pursue our priorities using that knowledge. During life as usual, we put plans into place, set targets to gauge our progress and look for other opportunities to expand our good fortune and extend our successes. 

Often, though, we lose sight of why we have all these plans in the first place. Why we are working so hard? Why does it feel so important to keep setting new goals and finding new opportunities? Why have we put aside other important matters for the sake of these plans and goals? When will it be enough? 

For people of means and substance, playing to your strengths is a winning habit, perhaps even a way of life. Success breeds success. It attracts resources, partners, opportunities and plentiful tools for achieving and accumulating even more. When things are going well, success becomes its own justification. The reason to set more goals is because you surpassed the last ones. 

When we are immersed in cycles of success, it is tempting to focus on important ‘functional questions’. These include, for example, how effective can we be at executing plans, evaluating options, forming the right relationships, assembling talent, managing resources? Functional questions steer us towards incremental gains in familiar landscapes. New products are improved variations of the old. New markets are cracked open to offer familiar services. New technology is deployed to streamline existing processes. There is a powerful logic to working in this way, centred around maximising success and reducing risk.

How we think during times of crisis

Yet, when the sailing is so smooth, we can neglect vital ‘spiritual questions’. 

When I say spiritual questions, these are not the same as religious questions. Spiritual questions guide us to a sense of purpose and meaningful impact. They lead us to explore our personal journeys through life. They help us consider how we have led our lives, how we have learned from our past experiences, how we have lived up to our values and our responsibilities, how we have served as an example to others, how we have nurtured those we love, and how we have shaped a beneficial presence in the world that will continue to matter long after we are gone.

In times of crisis, we can put spiritual questions front and centre. In fact, we might find such questions already are begging for our attention. A crisis as profound as the COVID-19 global pandemic practically forces us to look at the world in new ways, and steers our thoughts to three core human needs:

  • Need #1: How can I best make sense of what is happening?
  • Need #2: How can I determine where to go next and the steps to take to get there?
  • Need #3: How can I be certain that I am doing something significant and worthy?

A crisis is practically defined by the way things stop making sense. We are suddenly confounded and hunt for new knowledge and new rules for how things work. A crisis also tends to block our old goals or complicate the steps we normally would take towards them. And a crisis can make us question whether we have dedicated ourselves to the right things, or whether we could do more with our lives and opportunities. 

How we can revisit and renew our vision 

Use this time of disruption and uncertainty to ask yourself a few key questions that can help to define your, your business’s and your family’s priorities – now and for the future. Here are some you could start with, based on each need.

Need #1: Making sense of what is happening

  • What new perspectives has the crisis revealed about the world? Where are there new chances to reconnect with things you valued or were passionate about earlier in your life?
  • How does this crisis reveal ways in which you could grow further as a person?

Need #2: Determining where to go next 

  • What new opportunities have opened up for you to live more closely to your values?
  • What vision of the future truly inspires you, if you set aside near-term, day-to-day concerns?
  • What changes could you make now that would help your future self say that you’d found – and lived – your purpose?

Need #3: Being certain that I am doing something significant and meaningful

  • What has your overall impact on the world been so far, and how have you positively affected others?
  • How can you teach your family to live a happy and meaningful life through the choices you make in this crisis?
  • What example will your decisions provide to future generations to inspire them?

There is a difference between leaving a legacy because of influence and leaving a legacy because of how you used your influence. A crisis is a fitting time to revisit and renew your vision of a life rich in meaning and purpose. It is a time to breathe new life into how you use your influence to grow what is important to you and to the wider world – whether that is through philanthropy, investment choices or business activities. It is a time to explore ways to help and avenues for putting your wealth to work for the benefit of others and society. 

Most of all, a crisis is a unique moment in which you can plant your future in a sense of higher purpose, so that each achieved goal and executed plan makes a meaningful impact and a profound life worth living. 

Michael F. Steger is the Founder and Director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose, and Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University. He also serves as an Extraordinary Professor by North-West University in South Africa. 

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