By Sheri Kohlmann

If your house was on fire and you had five minutes to grab the items you value most, what would you save? This hypothetical question became a reality for me and thousands of others this October as California wildfires swept through our neighborhoods, giving us little or no time to react.

As the hot orange sky swirled with ash and soot, overhead a helicopter circled, declaring, “This is a mandatory evacuation. All residents must leave now!” A lifetime of accumulating possessions, and a few moments to decide what is worth saving, and what is not.

I always said that if my house was on fire, the first thing I would grab would be my mother’s family history book published in 1929 in Arkansas. This little book, which is now worn and tattered, is one of my most treasured possessions. In this book, I learned about those that came before me: the people, the faith, the values that made me who I am and determined my place in history. They didn’t leave me any money or possessions but something worth much more–a rich family heritage and legacy.

So, I grabbed my family history book, my dog, and my computer. The rest could burn.

When It Really Matters 

When faced with a split-second decision of “What is truly important?” our thoughts turn from stuff to significance. Our hearts turn to values, not valuables. 

For years, I worked as a paralegal at a Southern California estate planning law firm. I worked closely with families to help them create a financial legacy. No matter the size of their estate, they all wanted to ensure that their hard work and legacy would continue after their time on this earth.

Our clients expressed relief when their estate plan was signed and in place.

However, they also expressed a certain emptiness, a sadness and sometimes fear that future generations might not understand how that wealth was attained and may not have the wisdom to handle an inheritance. Folks often shared with me their desire to pass along their personal and family stories and some of the wisdom they had gained from their life’s journey.

I witnessed the ugly greed that surfaced when one of our clients passed away. Potential heirs began to show up with their hands out. I saw people blow through their inheritances with remarkable speed, exercising little restraint or wisdom. It turns out, most inheritances are spent within 18 months.

I began to look for ways to help people connect their stories to their financial legacies. I wanted to help our clients give the same kind of gift I had been given by my mother’s family – an inheritance more valuable than gold.

Guided Autobiography 

I found Guided Autobiography (GAB). This incredible process developed by Dr. James Birren was just the ticket! Not only could I help people leave lasting personal and family stories, but the process itself gave folks great insight into their lives. It proved to be healing and life-changing for those recalling and writing their stories.

What is Guided Autobiography? A trained facilitator guides you through the process of writing your life stories using a series of major life themes. This deeply personal and meaningful process enables the writer to reflect upon the most significant moments of their life, recall important memories, and organize them so that they can be shared and treasured for generations.

I went through the Guided Autobiography process myself and found it to be one of the most authentic, richest experiences of my life. I tell folks that GAB is not therapy, but it is very therapeutic. I became a GAB facilitator and have never looked back.

Most of us know we have stories and life lessons that need to be shared, but we lack the structure to get it done. The motivation, accountability, and process that GAB provides is the perfect catalyst.

Through GAB, I have seen estranged families reunited by hearing simple and honest stories. I have witnessed old hurts, grudges, and relationships repaired. I have experienced tears running down the faces of family members as they read stories they had never heard before that helped them understand their loved one for the first time. Mostly, I see people who have lived through successes and failures and have a lot of wisdom, history and love to share – people who want to make a real difference in this world and leave a legacy of significance. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to meet these amazing people and learn from their life experiences.

After the Wildfires 

My family and I returned to our home a couple of days after we were evacuated. Our home was not touched by the fire, but some around us lost everything.

These fires are a profound reminder that our possessions can be gone in the blink of an eye. What truly lasts and matters is the legacy of love and connection we create with those whose lives intersect with ours. So, instead of buying another piece of jewelry that will sit in a safe and someone will sell the moment you pass from this earth, why not invest some time and resources into reflecting upon your life and sharing your wisdom, values and stories? Generations from now, you will be the family hero for having the wisdom to review your past and look to the future to give those who come after you a profound legacy.


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Sheri Kohlmann was inspired by her own family’s legacy, and by the clients she met while working as a paralegal at a Southern California estate planning law firm. Meeting with hundreds of clients, Sheri had the opportunity to hear incredible stories about money, wealth, family and faith. She quickly learned that there was more to excellent estate planning than legal documents and financial investments. She discovered that inheriting wealth without learning the history and values that created it can often be more of a curse than a blessing. As the founder of More Than Words, Inc., Sheri assists individuals, families, communities, churches and nonprofits in getting to the heart of the matter. Her classes and individual coaching encourage people of all ages and from all walks of life to define and share the things that matter most. In addition to her previous work in estate planning, Sheri served as the USA Administrative Director for an international nonprofit organization and as an Account Executive in the litigation support field. She has also strategized and consulted with churches encouraging generosity and legacy planning. Sheri and her husband, Gene, live in Southern California. They have four sons, one daughter, five perfect grandchildren, and Chief, the world’s best Golden Retriever. Contact Sheri at and The Birren Institute at