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How to have a great life: 'We rarely give thought to the legacy we’re creating'

It’s purpose, more than pounds in your pocket, that brings the greatest life satisfaction, writes Paul McGee.

Paul McGee Author

ALFRED NOBEL WAS a man of many talents: a chemist, an engineer, an inventor, and a businessman. Busy bloke, eh?

However, of all the roles he played in life, he was probably best known for inventing dynamite. And I guess that’s what he would have always been remembered for – until something rather strange happened.

In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died. Now what’s strange about that you ask? Nothing. But here’s the interesting bit: The next day, several newspapers published obituaries not of Ludvig but of Alfred instead. Think about that for a moment.

That must have been a pretty weird experience: to open the newspapers and not only read of your own death, but also other people’s memories of your life. And despite Alfred’s many achievements, guess what? It was his invention of dynamite that stole the headlines.


One headline summed up his life in six words: ‘The merchant of death is dead.’ The obituary went on to say, ‘Dr Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.’

Some legacy to leave, hey? Alfred Nobel, a man who never married or had any children, would always be remembered as ‘the merchant of death’.

Except, of course, Alfred was still very much alive, and a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol he’d been given an insight most of us will never have – what people really think of you once you’re dead.

Having read the obituary, Alfred wanted to leave a better legacy. He wanted to be remembered for something positive, and that’s what inspired him to bequeath most of his rather large estate when he died eight years later to establishing the Nobel prizes. Yes, he was still the inventor of dynamite, but now he was leaving a different legacy.

So, what’s all this got to do with you and me?

Quite a lot, actually. I’m pretty sure as most of us plough on in our day-to-day lives we rarely, if ever, give thought to the legacy we’re creating, or the memories people will have of us once we’re gone. I guess that’s fairly understandable – but doing so could actually prove invaluable.

You see, as I move into my mid-fifties I do think about my legacy more – my wife and I even talk about our funerals. Now you might accuse us of being morbid, but I like to think it’s a gentle reminder that, however long we have on this planet, we’re not invincible, and each of us does have a sell-by date. And, sadly, for some that sell-by date arrives sooner than planned.

So how does that relate to success, fulfilment, and happiness? Why should thinking about your death help you lead a great life? Good question.

Here’s my answer: People who have a strong sense of purpose and have found meaning to their lives are usually the most fulfilled. Interestingly, that’s not dependent on people’s life circumstances. I’ve known charity workers give up all the trappings of a comfortable Western lifestyle to work with some of the poorest, most deprived people on the planet, and who are incredibly happy.

The reason?

They have a strong sense of purpose – they believe they’re making a difference and that what they’re doing matters.

And you don’t have to do anything extreme to find such fulfilment. I also know elderly people who now have grandchildren and have discovered a fresh meaning and purpose to their lives. My friend Matt bought a dog recently – and although he never lost his mojo, it’s fair to say he’s got a new spring in his step since becoming a dog owner.

Equally, I’ve met some incredibly wealthy people who have no sense of meaning and purpose. They pursue pleasure but ultimately still feel empty inside. What I’ve come to realise is: It’s purpose, more than pounds in your pocket, that brings the greatest life satisfaction.

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Paul McGee is a conference speaker, seminar presenter, communication coach, and bestselling author.This is an edited extract from How to Have a Great Life: 35 Surprisingly Simple Ways to Success, Fulfilment and Happiness, by Paul McGee (Capstone, June 2018).

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About the author:



His academic background is in behavioural and social psychology, and his early career was spent in Human Resources and People Development before he lost his job due to ill health when he was diagnosed with M.E.  Now fully recovered he’s become one of the UK’s leading speakers on change, inspiring leadership, and communicating with confidence. His thought-provoking, humorous, and practical approach to life has seen him speak in 40 countries and he’s sold over 200,000 books worldwide. He also works on a consultancy and coaching basis with an English Premier League football team.

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