Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

What will you leave? Lessons on building your legacy

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Kalyna Miletic

Events occur unexpectedly to all of us at random points throughout our lives. Some of them can spark sudden and drastic changes; others make themselves felt slowly and over time. What about you? Are you hearing the slow, dull murmur of dissatisfaction in some parts of your career or life trajectory?

In 2019, I was in a serious car accident and sustained a traumatic brain injury. My life was put on hold as I lay in my bed recuperating, followed by seven months of daily rehabilitation — all of which gave me some time to question how I’d been living my life. Those months led to some permanent changes: I changed how I work by taking frequent breaks from screen time; I committed to stop drinking alcohol for my healing and gave up coffee — a big one for me. I made these changes because I wanted to recover as quickly and completely as possible. I had a purpose.

A client recently came into a session and said to me, “I can’t take it anymore. My boss isn’t listening to a word I say about what we need to do for our sales team. I’m completely fed up.” Sure, in that scenario, we can all imagine needing to make a change. But what about a scenario where you have a dull, nagging thought in your head that says, “Maybe I can do better; but maybe I can’t? To be safe, I better stay where I am.”

It doesn’t have to take a near-death experience for you to decide you deserve better. You can decide, right now, to take matters into your own hands and make a change. In doing so, you open yourself up to pursue a purpose larger than yourself and make a meaningful impact.

We’re all here to pursue various roles as we impact the world. Who and what we involve ourselves with during our time on Earth becomes the legacy we leave behind. Your sense of purpose is derived from feelings of being valued and making an impact. Know that it will inevitably twist and turn as you walk your unique path. As a result, it’s best not to attach your entire sense of purpose to a single role, whether at work or personally.

Your "calling" changes as you move through the seasons of your life. So, be present about where you’re being called now to make the most of your current season. If the call feels unclear, one way to hone in on it is to explore your unique set of gifts. The way you use them will evolve and change, but they will always be core parts of who you are. Consider the following gifts of character and skill as you contemplate moving toward your purpose in life:

LEADERSHIP: You love to have a vision to tackle. You’re drawn to motivating others to work together toward common goals.

ADMINISTRATION: You enjoy bringing order to chaos. You are detail-oriented and can help bring visions to life.

TEACHING: You enjoy supporting others to learn and grow. You thrive when sharing information, one-on-one or in groups.

KNOWLEDGE: You’re an avid learner. You derive joy from studying and exploring information.

PROPHECY: You are willing to share uncomfortable truths. You help people by being direct and speaking up boldly.

DISCERNMENT: You recognize the true intentions of others. You can assess if someone is genuine by closely observing their words and actions.

ENCOURAGEMENT: You inspire others to be enthusiastic. You are a good counselor and motivate others to act and serve.

SHEPHERDING: You find that people regularly confide in you. You enjoy walking alongside and looking out for others along their path.

FAITH: You act with the belief that everything will work out. You remind others to be bold and unwavering in difficult times.

STARTER: You love to start things and delegate the details. You often see the gaps in a situation and how to fill them.

SERVICE: You are willing to step in and tangibly meet needs. You enjoy hands-on work and practically helping others, even if it’s behind the scenes.

MERCY: You empathize strongly with people who are hurting and meet them where they are. You cheerfully give compassion and don’t judge others for past mistakes or struggles.

GIVING: You give freely, liberally and joyfully. You love to share with others and fulfill their needs, even if you get nothing in return.

HOSPITALITY: You make visitors, guests and strangers feel at ease. You enjoy using your home to entertain guests.

Which of the above gifts resonate with who you are? Which come more easily to you than others? Have you noticed yourself using some of them regularly in your life? Which ones would you like to strengthen?

Simon Sinek, British-American author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, believes inspiration and purpose are what motivate us. The word “purpose” has become a bit clichéd. “Find your purpose,” experts say. Well, rather than finding it, Sinek says that you can define it yourself. Take the lead here and define your legacy yourself. Why are you spending your time the way you currently are? Why are you doing the job you’re doing? Why are you still doing things the way you did five or ten years ago?

The more you ask yourself why, the closer you will get to your real purpose, the reason you embarked on your career path in the first place. And if you think you’ve had a series of jobs rather than a defined career, I’d offer up the idea that perhaps there are similarities and benefits from those jobs that are crafting themselves into a meaningful career across multiple roles and industries. Money is not a deep enough answer. There’s always something more to why you’re doing things the way you are right now.

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. The main premise behind his argument is that you change your habits by deciding to change who you believe yourself to be. Your perceived identity directs your actions. If you believe you’re an author, you start doing author-y things, like writing and publishing work. If you decide you’re a runner, you will run each day. Decide you’re a singer and you’ll sing and perform whenever you can. If you believe you possess the capabilities to be a certain type of person, then you’ll practice them and continue improving.

Start believing you’re successful at what you do, and you’ll start thinking of and doing things that you believe a successful person in your position would do. Clear’s is a simple model:

1. Answer this question: What type of person do you want to be (e.g. adventurous, successful, a CEO, a writer, a kind parent, a good friend, etc.)?

2. Prove it to yourself (and others) with small wins on a regular basis.

I’d take this a step further and add that everything in your career and beyond has to do with your perception. Your perception of your purpose is based on your self-imposed limitations, fears, strengths and experiences. Only you can define it based on what you perceive to be the best fit. Check in with yourself about what you’ve perceived as your purpose so far in your head, then cross reference that with your actions to bring Clear’s point to light. If you think you’re meant to work with animals but your actions don’t line up with anything related to them, that’s your moment of reckoning. Be honest with yourself and decide if it’s truly your purpose or if it’s what you think you ‘should’ be doing. Have you been running up a corporate ladder only to discover in your thirties or forties that you think being a stay-at-home parent is truly what you want? We often think the grass is greener on the other side. So, always test out your assumptions before jumping ship.

Developing your purpose is not a linear exercise. Instead, it entails a series of different projects, roles, tasks and skills. Perhaps you don’t need an outward-focused purpose at all, but a guiding star to identify what type of person you want to be at the identity level, as Clear suggests. If you’re being the type of person you want to be — kind, resilient and adaptable, for example — then the actions you take as a result will define what you go on to create.

The truth about your greater purpose is this: it will slowly be revealed to you over the course of your life. Your job is to be open to aligned opportunities as they come your way, so you can use your experiences to become the best version of yourself. Because in the end, life isn’t about obligations or completing tasks. It’s about contribution and meaning.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Subscribe today.

Kalyna Miletic (BCom ’14) is founder and CEO of Chiefly and Kickstart Your Work, and the author of Memorable: Lessons to Leave a Legacy.