How to Leave a Lasting Legacy for Your Children (Part 2)

You’re working so hard to give your child a future beyond you.  Is money the best thing? Is there something better you can leave them?

My hair reacts unpleasantly to water when I style it. Water and product make it spiky and crispy, as if you dipped me upside down in frying oil. I don’t blow dry my hair either. If the leaves are going to fall off anyway, why invite a tornado?

So on a special morning last week, I woke up at 6am to shower, iron my shirt, and read. An hour later–and hair dried–I put on my crisp, white, slim-fit shirt (still somewhat warm) with a medium spread collar; silk tie with subtle blue and green fabric interwoven, single knot; and smart, navy, made-to-measure suit with white pocket square. This is my “I don’t mess around” ensemble (yes, I have “I don’t mess around” boxers as well).

I exited the hotel lobby, turned left and walked for two miles. I was going to see the richest man who ever lived.

(This is Part 2 of the Building Wealth that Lasts series. In Part 1, I discuss how to make make your money last beyond 2 or 3 generations. Today I’m proposing a better way to think about wealth.)

An arched, stone awning frames the entrance. Dangling from the awning is a black lamp, antique-ish perhaps to recall kerosene lamps of centuries ago. On the roof, in plain sight, is a security camera. I stood in the shade of the awning, my back moist from sweat, then I walked the grounds to see it in full. Its grey stones stacked lower than I was expecting–it was only 2 stories tall in most areas. Rather than set back from a great lawn, it abuts the sidewalk. A groundskeeper walked by and spit into the bush.

He Wasn’t There.

John D. Rockefeller has been dead for decades. That building on E. 40th and Euclid is not his house anymore–it’s a church. Cleveland some while ago converted millionaire’s row into unsightly commercial buildings and that church where I was standing. 

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Forbes estimates that Rockefeller would be worth upwards of $340 billion in today’s money (more than 4 times that of Bill Gates, the current world’s richest person). For perspective, imagine someone owning all or a large part of the following companies:

Company Market Cap ($ in B)
ExxonMobil $363.3
Chevron $192.3
BP $99.0
Marathon Petro $21.9
Sunoco $3.3

The richest person in all of history. You have to turn your iPhone calculator into landscape mode to fit all the zeros needed to input his net worth. If you had his money and retired using the 4% draw-down rule (meaning, the amount considered “safe” to withdraw per year in retirement), that would mean you draw down $13.6 billion a year. This $13.6 billion alone would make you the 30th richest person in America, just ahead of Abigail Johnson of the Fidelity fortune.

Now, since the average individual income in the U.S. is $28,031, your draw-down would equal 485,177 people’s income a year, basically your very own Atlanta, Sacramento, Kansas City, or Long Beach. And in most cases, at a 4% withdrawal rate, you would actually have more in the bank than when you started.

Yeah, that kind of money. Anything in the world available to you kind of money, even a zoo full of ligers kind of money. Except one thing: immortality. Sure, Rockefeller built great companies, churches, and universities, but he can’t see how it has turned out because he’s not there. But his absence taught me a lot:  A living dog is better than a dead lion.

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”

-Woody Allen

Here’s why you’re working so hard: Permanence.

We long for it. In fact, we were made to seek eternal things. And this mismatch between an eternal desire but a finite body are why we create derivative products to replicate immortality. But our products are counterfeit.

For many, this longing creates the impulse to have children to carry on your name. Then once you have children, you over-save to pass on money as a legacy for your children. If you work hard and are fortunate in your career, you pay a heap to buy a mountain of a house in hopes of it being as everlasting as a real mountain. Go even further and you get to put your name on a fancy building.

But after you are gone, your children and grandchildren will have spent all the money you worked hard to give them. Your buildings will be eventually replaced by a boring commercial building bearing someone else’s name. Paraphrasing Woody: all of your accomplishments are nice, but nothing beats being alive.

Disappointed that you landed your dream job and still dread Mondays? Dumbfounded that you make more money than you ever imagined but still feel like it’s not enough? Disheartened that you pour everything into your kids but they’re still ungrateful (cute! but ungrateful) rascals?

You’re supposed to feel that way. You thirst daily but draw from a well that runs dry.

(Pssst…I’ve got great news for you. There’s a way to achieve the permanence you really want. But it’s not through money–in fact it’s been paid for. It’s not through hard work–in fact it’s been earned for you. Read on to find out how.)

3 Steps to Get the Permanence You Want

  1. Seek the expert. If you want to get M&A advice, you go to Goldman Sachs. Need strategic advice? Go to McKinsey & Co. Blogging? Neil Patel and Michelle Schroeder-Gardner. Ecommerce? Steve Chou. Podcasting? Andrew Warner, Pat Flynn, and John Lee Dumas. Eternity? This guy.
  2. Know that you already have it. The permanence you seek is already yours. So the question is, how do you live from now on? Basically, it’s like finding out a rich uncle set up a trust fund for you that you can never outspend. Now what do you do with the rest of the time? Do you still work hard? I hope so. But this work is redeemed now. It won’t define you anymore. It won’t own you and doesn’t have to be about just fulfilling your needs anymore.
  3. Pass on values. In the prior post, we emphasized passing on skills. Skills are important if you want to arm your children with the ability to make and manage their own money. Passing on values gives them a worldview and purpose.

Pass on values of faith. My hope is that if I model what a joyful, redeemed life looks like, my children will drink from the same fountain rather than drink from empty wells.

Pass on values of making, then giving. If they too have found the permanence they seek, then a life oriented toward lessening someone else’s burden is, to me, the highest calling. They can give of their time because time is no longer scarce when you have true permanence. They can give of their resources because resources are abundant when you have true permanence.

“Daddy Bear, Daddy Bear, What Do You See?”*

I see my own hair flopping at me.

My legacy so far is to pass on my hair and my struggle with perfectionism. I want different for them (except for the hair–that’s already a given. Apologies to my children).

My 3 children will be inheriting much less than what I’ve made (again–sorry to my children). I abide by Warren Buffett’s rule:

“A very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever be considered “very rich,” but I do hope to pass on a true permanence that empowers them to do anything, and that their “anything” is to improve lives for others, not just themselves. This is the legacy I want to leave. And I can’t wait to see the fruits of their work 10,000 years from now.


*With apologies to Eric Carle


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