Daniel Burrus, New York Times bestseller and one of the world’s leading futurists on global trends and innovation, shares his thoughts about how to create a legacy of impact. To Daniel, a great legacy revolves around collecting and sharing a portfolio of unforgettable memories. He offers sound advice only gained through years of experience and deep introspection.
Laura Roser’s Q&A with Futurist Daniel Burrus
LR: We do a lot of work helping individuals create a legacy and pass on non-financial assets, such as wisdom, beliefs, values and so on. What is your take on how one goes about creating a great legacy—either in his or her family or in the community?
DB: The first thing that comes to mind when you’re describing that is, what I want in my old age is a widely diversified portfolio of unforgettable memories. Now, if you think about that statement for just a minute, memories are usually not a solo thing, they’re usually shared with someone, because, in my mind, the best experience is a shared experience. You have to have that context. If I have great memories and they’re unforgettable, most likely other people that were with me have those unforgettable memories, and really amazing, unforgettable memories you share with people, and they share with people, and it inspires people to create more unforgettable memories. It’s amazing and I’ve had people that have shared unforgettable memories with me that I can see posting those unforgettable memories on their social media sites, to others and it creates a web. Of course, when it comes to unforgettable memories, you need to be making deposits often. That’s one level.
Secondly, it plays into the second part that you talked about which is values and beliefs. One of the things that I started doing when I was working on my first book back in the 1980s was, I was thinking of putting in some quotes of other famous people, because in my mind, a good quote usually was one sentence and it was of a piece of wisdom, meaning it was a guiding principal. Because I couldn’t find a good definition of wisdom in the dictionary so I came up with my own, a guiding principal that can be stated in one sentence. I started asking, as I was starting to look at others by Einstein, and Bob Dylan and so on, I started realizing, “Hey I’ve got some guiding principals that have really helped me.”
I started coming up with my guiding principals. Once you write them down it’s easier to share them with family, friends and others because for some reason, the act of writing them down indelibly etches them in your mind’s eye. Even though when I come up with one, I write it down, frankly, I’ve never had to re-look at my old list because it’s in my mind’s eye, I can recall them any time I want.
My suggestion for people is, number one, you have amazing guiding principals that have helped you live a wonderful life, that you would love to pass on, but if you can’t write them, if you can’t state them in a memorable way, they won’t be passed on as well. I would suggest spending a little bit of time thinking, what are the things that have, if you have fantastic kids that have done amazing things, what are the guiding principals that helped you to do that? It would be good to share those with your kids so that their kids could be doing that.
Or if you’ve been very successful in business, what are the guiding principals that have helped you overcome obstacles and do those amazing things? Again, convert them into a one sentence guiding principal. You can look at quotes of others to give you some ideas of how that might work. So, it’s a way of capturing something that then can be shared and spread, because if you can’t capture it, then you’re relying on hope that others will have those values. Now, of course with that said, I’ll also suggest that how you lived you life and you how you act on a daily basis is in reality, teaching those values and principles because there’s an old saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do,” that people notice. That’s there of course, but what I’m doing is increasing the odds by suggesting you log them, get them written down so that, again they can actually be shared for generations to come.
LR: Speaking of that, even writing them down makes a change on your behaviors as well.
DB: Well, of course because we get busy and we’ve got to keep those important self-discovered lessons in the top of our mind rather than buried in our deep subconscious where they may not be acting and working, so it keeps them more top of mind, so that you can access them and use them.
One other little tip that I can give people on that. When you’re talking to people, this may be a work, this may be family and friends, every now and then, one of those guiding principals will come out. You’ll notice it when you say it because it really is powerful. In your subconscious mind you kind of say to yourself, you know that little voice that talks to you in your head? It may say, “Wow, that was good,” but the trouble is, you keep talking and because you keep talking, it is not parked in a permanent memory spot in your brain. You won’t remember it, and therefore you can’t bring it back up whenever you want, because it’s in a part of the brain that’s so temporary that it’s gone. All you will remember is that you really said something great and you wish you could have remembered it.
Here’s a technique that I would like your readers to try, and that is, when one of those great, little one sentence guiding principles, wisdom lines comes out of your mouth when you’re talking to someone, and I don’t care how important a meeting it might be, stop and say, “Wow, hey, that was good. Let me say that again,” and say it again. Now there’s two things that are happening. Number one, it was good, you should say it again, not only for you but for the people you were talking to, “Hey that was a good one.” Secondly now by stopping and saying it again, you put it in a different part of your brain where it’s now not in the discard pile along with all the other words that you say in everyday conversation, it’s now in a holding tank. Think of it that way, where you can access it for probably another, four, five, six hours before it gets discarded. In other words, now you’ve got time to write it down after you’re done with the conversation.
LR: Wow. I love that. What are your thoughts about how to create a legacy that impacts many people or a community?
DB: If you look at the definitions of legacy. Of course a lot of them involve giving property or money to people after you die. It could be a gift but it also, of course, talks about something that comes from someone in the past, but it’s vague. My take on this, my definition might be, leaving a lasting impact that goes beyond time and place. In other words, none of us know how long we’re going to be on planet earth before we move on to whatever is next, depending on your views and your beliefs, but is there a way that you can reach out from the grave and still have an impact? To me, that’s what legacy is—being able to reach out from the grave and continue to have a positive impact on others.
We all do this in different ways, in my case I’ve written six books that have been translated in multiple languages. For the last 33 years, I’ve been getting a little over a 100 articles a year published, so I’m pretty prolific. I’ve got a newsletter that’s been in publication for 30 years that has a large global reader base. I’ve given 3,000 keynote speeches around the world. This last year one of my audiences was 15,000. Obviously I’m putting a lot out there and so I’m trying to share wisdom and guiding principles that can help people.
The reality is with all of that, they aren’t going to know anything that helped them would come from me necessarily. You know what? I don’t care. It doesn’t have to be tied to me at all to leave an impact and a legacy. It just has to be something that helped others and they’ve passed it on and it was used. It doesn’t have to be tied back to me to be important. I think there’s a selflessness that is part of a ‘leaving a legacy’ because usually when you leave money it’s very self-focused, uncle somebody or grandma somebody gave us, you know, whatever name you want to put on the end, gave us this money.
Often the gift of money doesn’t do what the person leaving the money would have liked. Sometimes it becomes a curse, just like winning the lottery, so many people go broke in a short amount of time. The legacy to me, is always more than money and property because those things can be squandered. It’s something deeper than that.
Again, I’m perhaps unusual in having been prolific in writing and speaking and all the work that I’ve done, but it doesn’t mean we cant do that at work and at home, and with the people that we influence, even if it’s with Cub Scouts, or with Girl Scouts or if it’s with coaching a basketball team, all of that is where you can pass on that wisdom, that then is part of your legacy.
Then there’s one other element on a personal level I’ll share, and that is, again I’ve been doing this for quite a long time, and you know one of the hard trend certainties is that we don’t get younger, we continue to get older, and so for the last several years I’ve been taking all of the principles that I’ve been teaching, and all of the things, and all of the books and all the articles, and everything, and putting them into what I call a ‘Legacy Project’ meaning something that can help people beyond my time and place. In this case, for me, it was creating what I call the ‘Anticipatory Model’ and the ‘Anticipatory Learning System’. I created it to be what’s called ‘evergreen’ which means the principals are timeless, so they aren’t tied to news of the moment.
It’s small, in this case it’s got four components to it that have seven lessons in each. They are very short, three to four minute single concept videos of me. Then a rapid application tool of how you can apply each principal to whatever you do, your life, or your work. I won’t go into more detail on it. That kind of a program can go on without me having to be there, giving speeches, and doing all these things. Again, it’s kind of corralling, think of it as, in my mind, my greatest hit concepts, the ones that have made the biggest difference, and putting it into a system that doesn’t need me and can be translated into multiple languages, which of course, we’re doing. I actually, intentionally created a legacy system. Again, I might be unique, not all of us are authors and so on, but I’m just giving you an example of what I tried to do to keep that going.
One other last thing that I’ll just mention regarding myself and legacy, because I’m using myself as an example just to stimulate, just to give people ideas. That is, when I started my company over 30 years ago, and I was speaking and consulting and taking my methodologies to all of these companies all around the world, I wanted to make sure that, again they were being spread not just to the adults, but also to the kids. I trained a number of presenters that go into elementary and junior high schools and teach the principals in the form of school assemblies. They really don’t know it’s connected to me. Probably none of them even heard my name doing it. Nobody knows I do it. If you look on my website you won’t see anything about it, because again, it’s about selfless giving, it’s not about, “Gee am I cool? Look what I’ve done,” but rather, “I need to know what I’m doing.” Basically I’m using a Johnny Apple Seed approach, which means, you just plant a lot of seeds, some will grow.
I’ve one presenter, for example, that has been doing this for decades, and has been in, I think something like, 8,000 schools. If you take an average of about a 1,000 kids per school times 8,000 schools, just from that presenter alone, you have quite a few seeds that were planted. Been doing that for 32 years now. That is a way of building legacy as well. Obviously I thought about that when I was 30 something years younger than I am now. Legacy doesn’t have to be done by a gray-haired, older person, I’m actually suggesting that those Millennials and younger people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s start thinking about, “How do you start building your legacy even when you’re young?” because one of the predictable things about the future is, you’re going to get older.
LR: Unfortunately, right? But I guess there are some pros.
DB: The good thing about getting older is, we’ve never been smarter than we are at that point in time. You’ve got collective knowledge, collective wisdom. A young person can’t go out and take a seminar or take a class on wisdom and get much out of it. I mean, a lot of it has to be earned over time. We have strengths as we get older, of course, we have weaknesses too. We don’t know all the new technology, we don’t know all the new stuff, but what you want to do is take your strengths and do the mentoring and the sharing, and the coaching, and those kind of things to help young people with what they don’t have, because they have a lot of things we don’t have.
LR: Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting in my work, it’s actually pretty refreshing to see how many young people are really interested in building a legacy.
DB: Absolutely, absolutely. Frankly I think the things that have been written about, for example, Millennials and we have younger generations than that of course, too. A lot of that is very generalized, and some of it is really not all as true as we would think. We’re all humans on this planet and I think there are human wants, needs, desires, ambitions. If you get right down to the core of it, one thing about all of us, again as we get older, so if you say, Millennials are this, well this is what they are in this point in their life, but what happens when they’re 10 years older or 20 years older and 30 years older? They’re not doing what they were doing 10 or 20 or 30 years before. They have evolved. They have grown. They’ve got different needs, different wants, different desires because they go through the different stages of life. I think, again we put labels on things but we should always be careful of that.
LR: Oh yeah, I completely agree. I like it though. It seems as though a lot of Millennial types have a service, giving back mentality at a pretty young age, anyway, I like that.
DB: Yeah, yeah and you know, I’ve got to say, I am definitely a baby boomer. Yet I know when I was in upper elementary school, I was volunteering to fix toys for kids that couldn’t afford them for Christmas, and giving back. I’ve been doing that all along. I think that really it’s not about a generation that either gives back or doesn’t give back, there’s always a percent of people in every generation that just have that and maybe it came from part of a values legacy from a grandma or grandpa or something or from a mom or dad, or maybe it just came from their own heart, or they’re like that. The thing that I think is important is for that behavior to inspire others that maybe didn’t have that in their life and they say, “Well you know what? I could do that too.” That’s where things get interesting and fun.
LR: Could you expand a little bit about documenting your legacy for the average person who may not be a writer or have a proclivity for writing or producing content?
DB: Absolutely. First of all, I’ve been very fortunate, for example, my last book was a New York Times, Wall Street Journal bestseller and so on. The reason is, it’s filled with stories. Another part of legacy we’ve already talked about is, getting the values and the beliefs and the principles and sharing those. Story is one of the best ways to bring those to life. I think sharing those stories that have a ‘aha’ moment or a incite in it, are really important. We can do that, of course with our kids and with relatives, and with friends. You don’t have to be what would be considered, a professional storyteller, because let’s face it, some people are maybe better at stories than others, but story is a great way to share.
Let me tell you something that I did. I don’t know if it’s appropriate for this or not, but it’s part of sharing the story. That is, like I would say she was, and I’m talking about my mother now, she was maybe 79 or 80. I took the old super 8mm films that were taken way back when we were kids and converted them to something that could be shown on a television set, but none of them had any sound, and I put them all together. What I did without her knowing is, I had a little tape recorder set up, and I just said, “Hey let’s watch these because you haven’t seen these in decades yourself,” because you know, who watches all their old stuff, right? I sat with her and I asked her questions as it was on. There was some video of my mother and father, I was the oldest, before I was born, and I said, “Hey tell me again how did you meet dad?” and “Tell me again about this.” So here she is with all these memories out in front of her, telling me all these great stories. Some of them, by the way, I’ve never heard.
What was I doing? I was capturing her voice. Now, neither she nor I knew that two years later cancer would end up becoming fatal for her. That was way back in the year 2000 and she’s no longer around, but I have her voice on record. You might ask yourself, if you’ve got an aging relative, have you captured their voice? Because once they’re gone, their voice is gone. My father passed away when I was much younger, many, many, many decades ago, and hey there’s no recordings of him, so his voice is forever gone. Thinking ahead of time, doing something like that, especially if you’ve got somebody that’s important to you that’s aging, it’s a way of not only capturing the story, but also capturing the voice.
LR: How do you avoid getting overwhelmed by information? It seems that everyone has their social media accounts, and they post various things. How do you pick out the memories or the stories or things that are most important to pass on? Do you have any thoughts on that?
DB: Yeah. I think one of the things is, within your social network you might say, “Hey why don’t we share a little more of the story rather just a moment?” Because sometimes it’s a picture and, “Hey I’m on vacation,” wherever they are you know? Hawaii. Well instead of just a picture and I’m on vacation in Hawaii, tell me a little something about what you’re doing or what you did? Make it a little bit more interesting. You actually are telling within your social media network, what you would like to get, and think, and by the way, they probably would like to get that too. One way to do it is, just like in life, be the example. Instead of just putting out things that frankly, take your time and have little value, you’ve got a little story. So, if you’re putting a picture, put a story with it rather than something that has little value, so that’s number one.
Secondly, technology is benign you know? It isn’t good or bad, it’s how we decide to use it, so we need to be a little bit more laser like as to how we us social media so we don’t get overwhelmed by it. Maybe there are people you’re following that are really not giving you what you want, they’re just taking up space. Well, maybe you should unfollow them. Maybe there are people that are not only showing you a picture of the new baby, but telling you a little bit about that new baby, and that new baby and that person is important to you, well you know that’s somebody you want to see. I think, it’s kind of like separating the wheat from the chaff a little bit so you’re not overwhelmed.
LR: Yeah. Let’s say you want to pass on a legacy to your kids or just build certain principles or stories, in your opinion, is there a way to determine what’s important? Let’s say, I don’t know, you went on five Hawaii vacations and they were all great. How do you determine experiences with impact to pass on versus ‘this was a fun vacation involving a fantastic pina colada’?
DB: That’s a good question. Remember I said, I’d like a portfolio of unforgettable memories? Out of those five vacations, what were the unforgettable memories? Those are the ones that you want to share, because there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t because it could be easily forgotten. What are the unforgettable parts? Well, that narrows it down quite a bit. What’s the thing that you will always remember about Hawaii? I’m giving you an example of, ask better questions, you get better answers. Ask a better question of yourself, you know? “I spent two weeks in Hawaii, what was the thing that surprised me the most? What was the thing that touched my heart the most? What was the thing that I learned the most?” Well now, all of a sudden, you’re going to get some ideas, rather than, “I don’t know what to talk about. How do I know, it was just Hawaii?” Well no, it wasn’t just Hawaii, there were things that happened there. Again, ask better questions, you’ll start getting better answers.
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