My grandfather passed away last month.
He was 89 years old and he had been unwell for a number of years. For the last week of his life, he was surrounded by his family—his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as we said our goodbyes to a man who had left a lasting impression on all of us.
At his funeral service the next week, I was asked to speak about some of my fondest memories of him. A short reflection on who he was to me in only a few minutes was a daunting task. Preparing for and delivering a eulogy like this was one of the toughest experiences I’ve had in my life.
When I sat down to write the eulogy, there were a number of moments that surfaced in my mind about the type of person he was, but it was one moment, in particular, I felt encapsulated him best:
I was around 12 years old. I had just finished playing rugby near my grandparents’ house and my grandfather had come out to watch me play. It was a horrible, stormy day, pouring rain for most of the morning and leaving me saturated by the end of the game.
Afterward, we went back to my grandparents’ house where I went inside to dry myself off, leaving my muddy boots by the front door.
Later that afternoon, I returned to find my boots weren’t where I had left them. I searched around the doorstep and the front yard, and then I found them. My boots were now completely clean, polished and sitting out in the afternoon sun drying off.
My grandfather had done this for me without saying a word.
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Putting his eulogy together, I realized that it was moments like these—genuine acts of service—that had left the biggest mark on me. Standing at his funeral, I found out I wasn’t the only one. Many others from the small town where he had spent the majority of his life remembered acts like these, too.
It was his legacy.
My grandfather’s legacy wasn’t about how much money or wealth he amassed, or how many awards or accomplishments he received. In the end, it came down to the impact he had on the hearts of the people he interacted with every single day.
It’s those small acts of kindness done well, and without expectation of reward or recognition, that find a special place in people’s hearts and that are the most important. That’s a legacy.
As I prepared myself on the morning of my grandfather’s funeral, I spent some time polishing and shining my own shoes, thinking of him and of the traits he passed on to the people he had impacted most in his life. And I realized you don’t have to impact millions of people or even thousands of people with your work or your life; what matters most if you want to leave a positive legacy is that you just help people.
I once read a story about a very wealthy businessman who was shocked one morning to see his obituary had been printed prematurely in the local newspaper.
The man was famous for developing explosives that were then utilized in war. He had been handsomely rewarded for these designs and had amassed a great fortune over the course of his life. His obituary on that morning had condemned him for his work, though, reading, “The merchant of death is dead.”
In response to these unflattering words, the man revised his will so that the great majority of his fortune would be devoted to the establishment of a series of prizes “for the greatest benefit on mankind.”
That man’s name was Alfred Nobel—the inventor of dynamite, and the creator of the Nobel Prize.
Leaving a great legacy isn’t about what you’ve amassed in physical assets, wealth or accomplishments. These are just yardsticks. Rather, it’s how you can use what you have to improve what you see happening around you, and then help those people who will carry that work on into the future.
What can you do to improve the world around you?
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