"What Do You Want to be Remembered for?"

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Editor's Note

In this article we provide several Peter F. Drucker excerpts that focuses on one of the most important questions you'll ever ask yourself is: "What do I want to be remembered for?"

Just asking yourself this question in a thoughtful and thorough way can provide direction and purpose to life's never-ending challenges.


Peter F. Drucker told a great story of the first time someone asked him the question “What do you want to be remembered for?”

When I was thirteen, I had an inspiring teacher of religion, who one day went right through the class of boys asking each one, "What do you want to be remembered for?”

None of us, of course, could give an answer. So he chuckled and said, “I didn't expect you to be able to answer it. But if you still can't answer it by the time you're 50, you'll have wasted your life.”

At the 60th reunion of that high school class . . . one of the fellows asked: “Do you remember Father Pflieger and that question?” We all remembered it. And each one said it had made all the difference to him.

Excerpted from Managing The Nonprofit Organization by Peter F. Drucker

Your Answer Will Change

Joseph A. Schumpeter, one of the great economic thinkers of the 20th century, is widely credited with popularizing the term “creative destruction.” Schumpeter posited that innovation is key to economic dynamism.

A column in The Economist continues to be titled with his name. This Drucker story explains how Schumpeter’s answer changed over the course of his life:  

Christmas 1949, when I had just begun to teach management at New York University, my father, then 73 years old, came to visit us from California…

Right after New Year's, on January 3, 1950, he and I went to visit an old friend of his, the famous economist Joseph Schumpeter…

My father had already retired, but Schumpeter, then 66 and world famous, was still teaching at Harvard and was very active as the president of the American Economic Association…

In 1902 my father was a very young civil servant in the Austrian Ministry of Finance, but he also did some teaching in economics at the university. Thus he had come to know Schumpeter, who was then, at age 19, the most brilliant of the young students…

Two more different people are hard to imagine: Schumpeter was flamboyant, arrogant, abrasive, and vain; my father was quiet, the soul of courtesy, and modest to the point of being self-effacing. Still, the two became fast friends and remained fast friends…

By 1949 Schumpeter had become a very different person. In his last year of teaching at Harvard, he was at the peak of his fame. The two old men had a wonderful time together, reminiscing about the old days…

Suddenly, my father asked with a chuckle, “Joseph, do you still talk about what you want to be remembered for?” Schumpeter broke out in loud laughter…

Schumpeter was notorious for having said, when he was 30 or so and had published the first two of his great economics books, that what he really wanted to be remembered for was having been “Europe's greatest lover of beautiful women and Europe's greatest horseman—and perhaps also the world's greatest economist.”

Schumpeter said, “Yes, this question is still important to me, but I now answer it differently. I want to be remembered as having been the teacher who converted half a dozen brilliant students into first-rate economists.”

He must have seen an amazed look on my father's face because he continued, “You know, Adolph, I have now reached the age where I know that being remembered for books and theories is not enough. One does not make a difference unless it is a difference in the lives of people.”

One reason my father had gone to see Schumpeter was that it was known that the economist was very sick and would not live long. Schumpeter died five days after we visited him….

I have never forgotten that conversation. I learned from it three things: First, one has to ask oneself what one wants to be remembered for.

Second, that should change. It should change both with one's own maturity and with changes in the world….

Finally, one thing worth being remembered for is the difference one makes in the lives of people.

Summary and Conclusions

What was Drucker's personal answer to this all-important question? "Having enabled the few people to do the things they want to do, that's really what I want to be remembered for."

Drucker's astonishing body of work has most definitely enabled more than just a few people to do what they really want to do.

Leaders of every societal institution (nations, business firms, social service organizations, and the like) would be well advised to internalize the principles and practices of Peter F. Drucker.

His teachings provide the conditions for humankind's survival and elevate what each of us can deliver.

In short, Drucker accomplished his goal with respect to the question "What do I want to be remembered for?" We hope others will soon grow from Drucker's best-kept secrets of total success.