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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Gerety & Clemence Scouten

Using a Design Thinking Mindset to Inspire your Next Legacy

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

I think we’ve all been there. Wondering what to do with that box of old family photos and momentos collecting dust or taking up space in our attics. Or trying to work up the courage to write down our memoirs. It can be paralyzing and overwhelming to tackle family history projects. You fear you will do it wrong, and difficult questions inevitably start to bubble up, like “where do I start?” or even more terrifying, “what is worth remembering about me and my family anyway?” Yikes! It’s no wonder we set aside those projects for another day.

Let me recommend using some design thinking strategies to help get you unstuck in your next family history project.

Design thinking is largely associated with the technology space. It’s a human-centric, iterative, problem-solving process where you ideate, prototype and test your product over and over until you get to a solution. It’s a hot concept right now and has been expanding into other contexts, including career counseling (Designing Your Life, by two professors from Stanford, is worth a read). Design thinking is fundamentally a hands-on, non-judgmental process, and I believe a really productive way to reframe your approach to legacy projects.

Design thinking and legacy projects

Creating your legacy should be inclusive and iterative.

Design thinking is based on the tenant that there is no one, correct way to solve a problem. In the career context, that means shedding the notion that there is a perfect career for you (with less ideal back-ups you may need to settle for). You are a complex human with myriad skills and interests, which means you may very well excel and find rewarding careers in any number of industries and contexts. If you take this mindset into your next legacy project, you’ll probably feel a little less overwhelmed by the task ahead of you. You are a multi-faceted and dynamic person with a rich and colorful history, so the legacy you leave behind, the narrative you pass down, should be equally dynamic.

So let yourself dive into your projects understanding that you’re not trying to put together a perfectly coherent, linear narrative. Start with a small item - say a photo book of letters between yourself and your children over a number of years. Add a few pictures and don’t worry if they are the perfect ones or if the letters are a complete set. As you take on new projects, you’ll see themes and different versions of your legacy emerging. You will find yourself returning to past projects to incorporate them into new or larger ones, or revising them with new aspects of the legacy you are beginning to uncover, deepening the meaning they hold to you and your loved ones.

Legacy projects are all about inner-exploration.

Good design thinking starts with collecting data and experiences and trying them on for size. I think most people approach their legacy as a documentation of the past. It can feel static, two-dimensional, and at times a bit of a slog. It doesn’t help that a typical estate planning experience involves a lot of legalese and technicalities (have you ever heard someone say that putting together their will was fun?). But creating legacy projects is truly enriching. As you pull your and your families’ histories together, and pour over beloved heirlooms, you will learn new things about yourself and your family that will teach you about the very legacy you are trying to create.

The very process of creating legacy projects generates meaning.

For design thinking, and legacy projects, it is the process that can unlock the true meaning. It’s not just about the final book or momento you pass down, but about what you learn along the way about yourself and your family. By giving yourself the freedom to explore, to iterate, to uncover different aspects of yourself and your family history, and create new and different ways to pass those discoveries down, you are engaging in meaningful legacy work. So lean into the process! Leave the self-doubt and paralyzing questions behind, understanding that the process will uncover more than you can even imagine. Let’s see what emerges as your legacy!

Margaret Gerety is a former lawyer and law school counselor and lives in Washington D.C. with her three children and husband. Margaret is currently working on changing the way estate and legacy planning is done. Check out her blog and website at

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