What Will You Leave Behind?

what will you leave behind?

My home country of India has had more than it’s fair share of truly crappy politicians. Corruption is rampant at both the state and national levels. Every politician seems hell bent on outdoing the next in reaching new venal heights. As an example of what I am talking about, I present to you Jayalalitha, three time Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu (a Chief Minister is similar to a Governor). “A raid in her Poes garden residence in 1997 recovered 800 kg (1,800 lb) silver, 28 kg (62 lb) gold, 750 pairs of shoes, 10,500 sarees, 91 watches and other valuables”.

So when Dr. Abdul Kalam became the 11th President of India, he was a breath of fresh air.


Our President


Dr. Kalam served as the President of India from 2002 – 2007. In a former life he was an aerospace engineer. Dr. Kalam was one of the architects of the Indian Space Program. He trained at NASA for about a year and then returned to India. He served as the director of the project to develop the country’s first satellite launch vehicle and in 1980, his efforts were met with success with the launch of SLV3. In addition to his long career working on India’s space and nuclear programs, he is also credited with co-inventing a low cost coronary stent and developing a tablet meant to be used by healthcare workers in rural areas. In 1997 he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.

A scientist as President! Unprecedented.


Even more unprecedented though was the fact that he made integrity one of the hallmarks of his Presidency. Dr. Kalam refused “gifts” and was known to keep detailed accounts of every personal expense he incurred while staying at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. e.g. when his extended family visited him while he was President, he kept detailed accounts of the expenses they incurred and repaid that amount from his personal account.

Dr. Kalam died in 2015 at the age of 83.


What He Left Behind


I admired Dr. Kalam during his Presidency, and I wish that he had stayed at the helm longer than he did. What I did not learn until recently though, is what he left behind when he died. I found the list fascinating.

Here is a list of the things that a one-time President of a country of 1.3 billion people with a GDP of over 2 trillion owned at the time of his death:

  • 6 pairs of pants
  • 4 shirts
  • 3 suits
  • A pair of shoes
  • A wristwatch and
  • My favourite item on the list: 2500 books

He never owned a television, a car or an air conditioner. He left behind no property – he did own some at one point, but he donated it before his death.


We aren’t talking about a man stricken by poverty in the twilight of his life, forced by circumstance or poor judgement into penury. He was paid a comfortable pension by the Government of India (INR 1,50,000 which is about $2324 a month) and he received royalties from the four books that he authored. This then, was a man who willingly eschewed material goods and consumption and favoured instead a life of minimalism, contribution and learning.


What Will You Leave Behind?


The next time you are overcome by the temptation to buy just one more thing, it might be worth your while to pause and ask yourself: what will I leave behind?

Our choices are:

  • The things we have created.
  • Memories in the minds of those who knew and loved us.
  • An enormous pile of stuff, most of which was manufactured in China by folks working in pretty abysmal conditions, for our disgruntled descendents to pick through and add to the landfills.

The act of creation, and the task of making a positive difference in the lives of those around you, both take time. Time that you are likely to have significantly less of if you are busy running on the hedonic treadmill. Earn more. Spend more. Rinse and repeat ad nauseum. They also take effort, and how much energy do you have left when you step off the treadmill at the end of every day?


Perhaps we should not ask ourselves what we are sacrificing when we choose not to consume. We should instead ask ourselves what we gain when we abstain from consumption. What we gain is the time and freedom to work on our legacies.


Your legacy is the work of a lifetime. You can’t wake up at 75 and suddenly decide that you need to get to work on a worthwhile legacy. I mean, you can, but your odds of success will be somewhat depressing. You need to get to work on that legacy now.


In the final reckoning, when Death is at your door, it isn’t going to be your junk that brings you solace. In the twilight of your life the only things that will matter are:

Was your time well spent?
Did you love well?

I think Dr. Kalam probably had satisfactory answers to these questions.


The next time you’re about to 1-click-order something, ask yourself: what will your answer be?


23 thoughts on “What Will You Leave Behind?”

  1. Fascinating!! Very few people understand that minimilism has nothing to do with wealth or the lack therof. It is a choice to focus on more important things than tangible items. The wealth of knowledge your former President had is far greater and more fulfilling than the possessions most people collect without purpose. I am always amazed how people react when they see the small bag I pack to travel. Their response is usually “I could never carry a bag that small. Where is all your stuff?” I hear it ALL THE TIME. I just respond with a shrug but what I want to say is “I don’t need stuff” or “have you ever tried to carry less? Have you ever needed half the shit in your bag?” And “have you ever had to live on less??” It’s remarkable how we build our comfort zones of crap! No one click for me, thank you very much. And after your BAS post I’m thinking no for you too. 😉

    1. I have plenty of room for improvement w.r.t. my baggage when I travel. I am one of those people who think the “where is all your stuff” thought when I see people like you. I’m going to have hide my baggage in the lobby or something at Fincon so that you don’t mock me endlessly and show off your bag the size of a thimble.

  2. Yes, this is indeed is what minimalism is really about. The wealth “inside” versus the wealth “outside”. We spend a lot of time measuring what we have and what we accumulate. I am completely guilty of looking at my net worth courtesy of Personal Capital WAAAAAY too often because of my personal choice of eschewing the treadmill as early as possible. This post reminds me of what is really important and quite difficult to measure – the many benefits of wanting and needing less. Once again, thanks for an excellent and necessary reminder.

    1. I am also afflicted by FUCS (Frequent and Unnecessary Checker Syndrome). The good news? I still check at least once a day, but that is a significant improvement from where I was 6 months ago.

      My “outside” wealth is doing just fine – my “inside” wealth could benefit from more attention and work.

  3. A beautiful post. He sounds like he was a wonderful man of integrity. Imagine, integrity in a politician!

    I hope to leave a powerful and positive legacy when I’m gone. This is no simple task, but I agree that generally avoiding accumulation of unnecessary possessions is a good place to start. Focusing on the people in our lives rather than anything else is also a great way to build a legacy. Thanks for the thoughtful post and have a happy Mother’s Day!

    1. I know! Crazy, isn’t it.

      Even the desire to leave a legacy is a good place to start. Whether we succeed or not, we are likely to live better lives with this goal in mind. I hope your Mother’s Day was happy too.

  4. This is wonderful. Just yesterday I was “treating myself” to a Mother’s Day gift. I settled on a set of Italian red wine glasses….for $9.99. I stood in line and truly confronted myself with if this was a “want” or a “need.” I’ll admit it. It was a want. But I’m such a minimalist that I justified the purchase. For me, my legacy will be my child and my words. I’m pretty damn proud of both! Thanks for the reminder! Happy Mother’s Day from The Lady at theladyintheblack.com

    1. A child and words could make for an excellent legacy indeed. The power that words have cannot be underestimated. A Happy Mother’s Day to you too!

  5. I can’t think of a single physical thing that would be the ‘essense of me’ if I’m gone tomorrow. For my sons, I hope I leave a legacy somewhat close to what my mother has instilled into me (I thankfully still have her in my life). Hard work and perserverance can have fantastic rewards, you should carve out time to enjoy the fruits of your labor when you can, and that you should treat everyone with respect and dignity, no matter what they do for a living or where they come from. I think my sons have asborbed these lessons and they mean so much more than any material thing I may leave behind me when I go flaming from the earth. Very nice reminder of what is important! I believe I have loved well (so far), but I hope I’m not done yet!

    1. Your sons are lucky to have you. Those are solid lessons, and will stand them in good stead long after you are no longer physically around to guide them (which hopefully will not be for a very long time to come). May we be blessed with many more years of most excellent loving.

  6. If I’m lucky and I do it right, my legacy will be the people I’ve invested time and care in: JuggerBaby, PiC, dear friends, and select family. I can’t take anything with me, and nothing really lasts beyond your lifetime and the lifetime of your children/the next generation, unless you managed something world-altering. That isn’t terribly likely in the grand scheme of things, so I focus on leaving the world around me a little bit better than how I found it.

    I will, during my time here, enjoy an inordinate amount of pastries and other foods, I don’t abstain in that respect, but legacies are rarely about the *things* we leave behind. The one thing I have left from my long-deceased grandmother, respected matriarch and family legend, is a small wooden fan. I think of her fondly when I come across it in a drawer. But I think of her constantly when I see that my little JuggerBaby has inherited her, and my, obsession with little containers. When I see JuggerBaby toiling away stubbornly at some silly task because ZE has to do it zirself, no help needed or wanted. When I myself won’t let something go until I’ve done it right, and saved the world. That’s Grandma’s legacy, and it’ll live on until none of us are left to remember her.

    1. Totems like your grandmother’s fan can be powerful reminders of a person’s legacy. They are but symbols though, and their power comes from their associations. In your grandmother’s case, she lives on in your head in the form of iron determination, and by the sound of it, a small part of her will live on in JuggerBaby and for who knows how many more generations down the road.

      I’m glad you’re giving pastries the respect they deserve though. Never underestimate the importance of pastries.

  7. I know other readers took this as an inventory of some spiritual comparison, but as the person who has had to clean up a few of my family and friend’s lives after they’ve departed, there is a more real aspect to this accumulation. There is so much emotional value applied to our departed people’s stuff, and my question to any person is “If your friend were to pick up this item, would they understand it’s true value to you?” Like, maybe it has no value, maybe you just can’t throw things away, but I’m standing there with a $12 H & M dress or $2 thrift store painting in my hands trying to gift it to the proper person, or treat it with the proper reverence – when my time might be worth way more than your actual attachment to the thing. Be clear with your things, be clear with your family and friends about your attachment to your things.

    Things that are important, treat well, make it obvious they are important, keep them clean and cared for. Only keep the things that have value or are useful, so that the next person can clearly see that use and value. It has stopped me from a lot of unnecessary accumulation to imagine my nearest and dearest trying to deal with the things after I cannot.

    1. An excellent and practical point. My mother-in-law had to clean out her mother’s house after her mother died. It took her months. She is not retired. For nearly six months she spent an hour or two every evening and part of every weekend going through boxes and closets, evaluating and, for the most part, discarding. I would hate for that to be the last memory someone had of me.

  8. I really like the idea of what you can leave behind, not only after I’m gone, but also now already while still alive and kicking. I’ve gotten into minimalism recently and do believe it’s not about the amount of items you own, but to why you own it. It has to fulfill a certain purpose or value. Basically about what it means to you and why. Don’t need it anymore? Then pass it on.

    This post reminded me of something The Minimalists always say at the end of their podcast: “love people and use stuff, because the other way around never works.”

    1. That is such an excellent saying – I’ve never listened to that podcast, so thanks for sharing that nugget. While my rate of acquisition of material goods had dropped significantly over the past few months, I still have way too much stuff from many years past that I have to get rid off.

  9. Awesome and beautiful post. Was your time spent well and did you love well? Those are questions I should write down and put in front of me as a reminder.
    Also, I love reading about a politician with integrity. Reminds me of the former president of Uruguay who shunned the presidential residence for his old house, drove his old VW Beetle, and donated 90% of his salary to charity.

    1. Thank you Andrew! Politicians with integrity are almost on par with unicorns – it is hard to believe that anything as magical as that could ever be real.

  10. Wow I loved this read!!! I was waiting for the punchline that he had stolen all these goods and was really corrupt. So to hear that he died with so few possessions is truly remarkable. Definitely an inspirational story!!! Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. Thanks MSM! He really was a breath of fresh air – I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop with him, and it never did.

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