You Are Worth More Than Your Stuff
How a life insurance salesman inspired me to seek greater meaning and explore the true meaning of the word "legacy."
Estate planning traditionally focuses on your financial assets. But there’s more to you than your physical wealth, Laura Roser reveals the following excerpt* from her book, Your Meaning Legacy. What about your wisdom, beliefs, values, important family traditions and stories? What about passing on crucial knowledge about your business, money management or other skills?
Oftentimes, people don’t think about the intangibles they should pass on to their heirs. Because estate planning is so wrapped up in transferring financial assets, figuring out how to pass on your real estate, investments and collectibles becomes the goal. Once your financial team hands you your estate plan, you think you’ve got all your bases covered: You’ve got life insurance, a trust to avoid probate, an appointed executor and so on.
Financial structuring, however, is only a piece of the puzzle. Your legacy extends far beyond the material possessions you have managed to accumulate.
I first started thinking about my legacy several years ago after a meeting with a financial adviser who initially hooked me with the sentence, “We have a process to help you pass on wisdom and principles to your kids.” He then placed a sheet of paper in front of me that instructed me to list my values.
“Is there more?” I asked, holding up the paper. “I thought you said you had a process to pass on wisdom.”
Instead of delving deeper into what I’d hoped would be a discussion about passing on meaningful knowledge to my loved ones, he began to pitch a whole life insurance policy that could be set up to align with my values.
This is not what I wanted to hear. Although I didn’t act immediately, this experience planted a seed. At the time, I was running a marketing company and a real estate investment firm and hadn’t prioritized my legacy. But things evolved. I experienced the highs and lows of the real estate market, the ups and downs of marriage, financial successes and colossal personal and financial disaster.
By the time I reached the age of 31, I had gone from nothing to making millions, been in intense legal battles, lost all my financial assets, and discovered some significant blind spots in my marriage. I was left with debt, a group of wonderfully supportive friends and family, and a bed with a 600-threadcount duvet cover from my previous life. Everything else was gone: no more big house on the hill, no more sleek BMW, no more 5-star vacations, no more Amex card, no more husband.
At this point, I began thinking deeply about what my life represented, along with the thought of writing a memoir. I’d experienced extreme success and extreme failure. But what was all my striving for?
This existential crisis prompted me to delve into a comprehensive examination of legacy. After years of focusing on building up financial assets that had all disappeared in a period of two years — along with my marriage and the dreams my husband and I had shared — I began to consider what was truly important to me. Then, a stifling realization hit me: If my plans hadn’t been derailed, I very well may have spent my whole life focusing on acquiring more stuff, living to please others, using work as an excuse to avoid introspection — all with little fulfillment for myself.
Thankfully, life had other plans. I rediscovered what I intrinsically knew all those years ago when I sat in front of that whole life insurance salesman. Focusing only on financial assets and pretending that a simple sheet of numbers somehow can give life meaning is silly. That’s not a legacy I’d be proud to pass on. Even though I knew I was missing something, I wasn’t sure how to articulate what I wanted to pass on or how to do it. So I set out to determine what makes a meaningful legacy.
In the spirit of Napoleon Hill — the man who studied over 500 self-made millionaires to learn the secrets of their success — I went on a quest to interview the best and brightest in legacy development. Since then, I’ve talked with many estate-planning attorneys, financial planners, personal historians, anthropologists, religious leaders, family counselors and life coaches. I’ve studied everything I could get my hands on about character development, legacy planning, storytelling, spirituality, philosophy, happiness, effectively giving through charitable contributions, and successful family systems. My team and I have interviewed some of the most accomplished people in the world — business executives, millionaires, celebrities, best-selling authors, philanthropic leaders, artists and scientists — and we discovered that accomplishing great things doesn’t mean you’ll have a great legacy. Without the proper system and focus, your legacy will be accidental.
Throughout this process, I concluded that no company had exactly what I was after all those years ago. There were bits and pieces of advice, ideas about writing ethical wills, fun tips about collecting family memories, and trust structures to ensure an heir’s compliance, but no fully realized system of creating the kind of personal legacy I wanted to leave behind.
Before my focus on legacy, I spent over a decade running an integrated marketing services firm that packaged up companies to attract investment capital, launch an IPO or introduce new concepts to potential customers. I learned that managing your legacy is a similar process. Businesses don’t attract interest based on fundamentals alone; there must be a story, an educational process, and an emotional hook that reveals the vision and connects with a universal desire for a better future. Your legacy is made great for the same reason: It emotionally and competently connects with the people you care about to inspire them.
There are several motivations behind creating a meaningful legacy. Some of the most-mentioned benefits are:
- More fulfillment and purpose in your life.
- A closer family who enjoys improved communication and joint goals.
- Children exhibiting higher levels of self-esteem, loyalty to the family, independence and a solid foundation of morals and principles to live by.
- No regrets — you will not reach the end of your life and wonder why you didn’t express your love before it was too late.
- Greater peace of mind knowing that your children and loved ones have an “instruction manual” from you outlining lessons you’ve learned, what you believe in, and how you have done practical things (such as manage money or grow your business).
- Building a legacy to be remembered for, providing hope, a sense of pride and inspiration for future generations.
- Creating a tangible record of your life that will be treasured and not fade over time, as memories tend to do.
- Leveraging your impact on the community in supporting a cause you care about.
Financial legacy planning covers a variety of topics, from financial structuring to business succession planning to tax implications. There are many great books to read and experts to follow in these areas. At my company, we work with these experts according to our clients’ needs.
But my book isn’t about giving you the best ways to set up your family foundation or avoid probate; it’s about the “soul” of legacy planning. It’s what branding is to business. It is the heart of your legacy plan — the often-overlooked but most important aspect of truly capturing your essence as a person and furthering your vision for the future. This type of focus is what we call a Meaning Legacy™.
To read more, download the first chapter of Your Meaning Legacy for free at www.yourmeaninglegacy.com.
See Also: How to Be Rich (Hint: A 401(k) Alone Won't Get You There)
*Edited for style and length.