Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

High Octane Women

Why We Should Live Like We Were Dying

Bucket lists are great, but how are you coming on your legacy list?

Posted Nov 09, 2013

This past summer, three generations of my family went on an amazing 14-day trip to the Mediterranean. Standing next to the Parthenon, one of the most awe-inspiring creations I have ever seen, with my father and my children at my side made me start to think about legacies—what we leave behind for others when we're gone. Interestingly, it appears that Pericles, the legendary Athenian leader who spear-headed the rebuilding of the Acropolis (and its centerpiece, the Parthenon), thought about the same thing over 2000 years ago: What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others—Pericles. It gave me pause.

When we hear the phase, "Live like you were dying," we often think about bucklet lists, doing the things we've always dreamed about before we die. Building a bucket list became extemely popular after the premiere of the 2007 movie, The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. However, I don't hear many people talk about building a legacy list.

Why is building a legacy list important? In today's hectic world, we so often are consumed with just getting through all of the things on our to-do list that we forget to think about the bigger picture. This is especially true for high-achievers who become so focused on work-related targets and goals that everything else tends to take a back seat. However, it's important to consider why we are working so hard in the first place. For most people, it's not just about the money or just to give themselves a better life; it's about making the lives of those we care about better, not just now, but also in the future long after we're gone. To achieve that, many high-achievers work 60, sometimes 80 or more hours a week. But by working so much, what exactly are we leaving our loved ones?

Money? Nice, but unless you're a billionaire, it's not going to last.

A strong work ethic? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe they see you working so much that they think there is no way they want their lives to mirror yours.

The memory of you talking on your cell phone while typing an email during family time? Or seeing you valiently struggling to keep 20 balls in the air at one time? I think you can give them something much more valuable than that.

Give them a legacy.

A legacy has value, meaning, and importance to your loved ones. It's something that will live well beyond your years and and hopefully will carry through to future generations. Building a legacy is the most powerful thing you can do for the special people in your life.

How does someone build a legacy? To build a legacy, you have to build strong connections, continue family traditions (or start new ones), and share special memories with the people who are special to you. There's really only one way to do this: quality time. We live in a very scheduled world. Just about everything we do these days is scheduled: work, appointments, practice. So when you're making up your schedule for the week, what could possibly be more important than scheduling in a little legacy time?

How do I create a legacy list? In order to create a legacy list, you first should ask yourself some important questions.

  • What am I doing to lead a life that has the greatest meaning?
  • What stories do I want to leave for others?
  • What do I do (or have I done) in my life that has been impactful?
  • What do I want to say and do with the special people in my life?
  • What wisdom and experience do I have that is important to share with my loved ones?
  • What kind of legacy did my parents leave for me? What are the best things about their legacy and how can I replicate them? 

If you have trouble recognizing what makes you special, ask a few of your most trusted friends what they think you do best or what impact you have had on them. If you let them know why you're asking, it won't be as uncomfortable asking these kinds of questions and you're likely to get honest answers.

If you have trouble coming up with specific ideas for your legacy list, here are a few ideas from social work bloggers, April Greene and Wendy Griffith, that will help create special memories and foster traditions:


  • Make a photo album/scrapbook of the year's events or look at old albums
  • Serve food together at a homeless shelter
  • Put up holiday decorations together, or create special holiday memories such as going caroling together or singing special songs together
  • Put wishes for the upcoming year in a box and open them next year
  • Volunteer for a special cause that will bring everyone together once a year (or more)


  • Make recipes that were passed down to you and continue the tradition
  • Prepare and enjoy meals together as often as possible
  • Decorate cookies or a gingerbread house every year for the holidays
  • Create a cookbook with favorite family recipes


  • Make handmade gifts or find a craft that everyone enjoys and do it together whenever possible
  • Make or keep special decorations that will become family heirlooms
  • Give yearly gifts like holiday pajamas or ornaments, or items that can be given every year to build a meaningful collection such as dolls, baseball cards or charms
  • Pass down heirlooms
  • Make annual donations to a charity that has a special meaning to you and your loved ones


  • For the religious, acknowledge important religious events and honor their meaning together
  • For the nonreligious, focus on the positive aspects of the holiday season

Quality time

  • Have meaningful conversations with loved ones
  • Tell stories about your family history and favorite memories
  • Spend time doing things you and your loved ones enjoy, such as watching a favorite movie or playing a board game or sport as a family

The key is to think about how you would like to be remembered. What stories would you like your loved ones to tell their loved ones about you? What examples would you like to set for future generations? But most importantly, make it fun. This is not about death and dying; this is about purposeful, positive, and meaningful life and living.

What do I do with the list once I make it? Once you have created a legacy list, make it happen. We make excuses all the time for not doing what we should be doing—I don't have time; I'm too old; I'm too young; It's not going to matter. Push past all of that nonsense. You do have time. There is no bad time to begin creating a legacy. And it definitely matters. So carve out a little time each week to make important connections with those who are important to you. Before you know it, you will have built a powerful legacy that will not only enhance the quality of your life, but also the lives of generations to come.

Feel free to share your ideas or post your legacy list in the comments.

© 2013 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

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