People Will Summarize Your Life in One Sentence

UPDATED: May 20, 2009
PUBLISHED: May 20, 2009

What do want your legacy to be? What would you
do if you knew you only had a short amount of time
left to make an impact? Eventually our lives will be
summarized in a single sentence. What do you want
yours to be?

Clare Boothe Luce cleverly called this your “life sentence.” It’s
the one sentence that you would like people to say about you
when your life is over. If you are intentional about creating your
legacy, people at your funeral won’t have to wonder what your
life sentence was.

What Do You Want to Be Known For?
I encourage you to begin the process of writing your life
sentence. Yes, this will take some time and thought on your
part, and it will cause you to ask yourself what do I really want
my life to be known for? What do I want my legacy to be?

Sociologist Anthony Campolo
tells about a study in which 50
people over the age of 95 were
asked one question: “If you could
live your life over again, what
would you do differently?” Three
things consistently emerged:

If I had it to do over again, I would…
reflect more.
risk more.
do more things that would live on after I am dead.

If you want to create an intentional legacy, you need to
rethink your priorities.

Start Living Today
I know a lot of people who are alive and well, but they’re not
really living. They are waiting for their lives to be perfect before
they even start the clock.
They need to make living
today their first priority.

I heard Barbara Bush
read this about the future,
comparing it to a train ride:
We get onboard that train at
birth, and we want to cross
the continent because we have
in mind that somewhere out
there is a station… We pass
by cities and factories, but we
don’t look at any of it because
we want to get to the station…
This station changes for us
during life. To begin with,
for most of us it’s turning 18,
getting out of high school.
Then the station is that first
promotion, and then the station becomes getting the kids out of college,
and then the station becomes retirement, and then… all too late we
recognize this truth… there really isn’t a station. The joy is in the journey,
and the journey is the joy.

What she is saying is so true. Focusing on the destination is not a
good idea. Tomorrow may come; it may not. The only place we really
have any power is in the present. The simple truth is we are not to
assume that we will live a long time. Life is brief. We need to take
advantage of the time we are given today and enjoy the journey!

Live Life Fully
Too many people make their life an intermission. Instead, you
need to make it a mission. John Wooden, the legendary UCLA
basketball coach, has been a close friend and mentor to me for some
time, and he shared with me a lesson about living life to the
fullest that has stuck with me for years.

Coach Wooden knew his players, and he could
tell when they weren’t giving 100 percent at practice.
Instead of calling them out where everyone could
hear, he would go over and put his arms around them
and say, “I know you’re probably tired or you were
up late studying for exams, and I know what you’re
thinking. You think tomorrow you’ll come back and
you’ll give a little extra, and you’ll try to make up for
what you didn’t do today. I just want you to understand
you can never give more than 100 percent. So if you give me 60
percent today, you can’t give me 140 percent tomorrow. If you give
60 percent today, you leave 40 percent on the table. And you’ll never
get it back.”

When you come to the end of your life, I hope you have no regrets
that you will have lived life to the fullest and done everything you
can each day to make the most of your time on earth.

Live Life Thankfully
I like the statement that says life isn’t tied with a bow, but it is
still a gift. Be grateful for what you have and where you are in your
journey of life.

On Dec. 18, 1998, I had a serious heart attack. That night, as I lay
on the floor waiting for the ambulance, I remember thinking two
things: First, I was too young to die. Second, I had not completed
some of the things I wanted to accomplish. Thanks to the medical
care I received that night, my life was spared and with it came a new
outlook for which I will be forever grateful.

To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of this life-changing
event, last December my wife, Margaret, and I went to Atlanta to
have a dinner with the two doctors and their spouses, and during
the dinner, I stood up and read them a one-page thank-you letter.
I wanted to let them know the things I had done in those 10 years,
thanks to their efforts to save my life.

Here’s the point I want to get across to you: When was the last time
you wrote a note to somebody and said thanks? When was the last
time you picked up the phone and told your family and friends how
much they mean to you? Not only must you live life fully, but you
must live it thankfully.

Live Life Faithfully
About a year ago my wife and I, along with eight of
our good friends, spent four fun-filled days in the British
Virgin Islands. The highlights of the trip were the long
dinner discussions we had each night. Each person would ask a
different question of the group that would spur the discussion.

When it was my turn, I asked, “If you knew it was your last day
to live, what would you do?” For two hours, everyone gave their
responses, and what amazed me the most was the similarity of each
answer. The consensus was if they really had 24 hours to live, they
would pretty much do what they normally do. In other words, live
life faithfully, consistently.

Live Life Thoughtfully
When you’re 80 years old, sitting on the porch rocking and
looking back on your life, how will you feel? You won’t have to
answer to anybody but yourself, not your parents, not your spouse
nor your business associates. What will you have done with this gift
of living? It will be an important question to you then, so you should
make it an important question now.

Choose your legacy. Be intentional about it. That way you have the
possibility of making a greater impact on a future generation. You
can begin doing that today by defi ning your “life sentence.”

Think about what kind of bridge you are building for those who
follow you. Are you making the most of your leadership—not just for
yourself, not just for those who follow you today, but also for those
who will follow you tomorrow? Knowing that someday people will
summarize your life in one sentence is sobering. Picking it now is
a way of saying thank you to God, life, family and others you will
never meet.

John C. Maxwell is founder of the INJOY Group, a speaker and New York
Times best-selling author of Leadership Gold: Lessons I’ve Learned from a
Lifetime of Leading.

For additional resources and information on John C. Maxwell visit