What will your legacy be? That’s a question we often ask of ourselves and, especially, of the famous when they depart the public stage or die.
We’ve written about legacy a couple of times on this blog in the context of leadership — how will your work with and for people be remembered and continued after you’re gone? Those posts are thoughtful and worth your time.
But I also want you to consider not worrying about legacy, or at least to worry about it less. You cannot dictate your legacy, after all, and when you are preoccupied with the future, you cannot be in the present.
When you’re consumed by thoughts of legacy, you’re likely to in a reactive manner, worried about how the world will view you. That’s if you act at all — many of us prefer the ease of “virtue signaling” over taking action and risk.
Now, legacy does matter and can be motivational. A life’s work, with its goals and challenges and achievements, can be anchored in the idea of “I am doing this for a reason, for a greater good.” Most of us care at least somewhat what people think of us, and so this peer pressure can, at its best, push us to be better than we might be otherwise (thus improving our legacy).
But worrying about legacy is counterproductive, futile and an act of hubris. Let’s take each problem with worrying about legacy separately.
Counterproductive. First, every moment of this worry means you’re not doing what you need to do. This anxiety can lead you to act differently than you normally would. Maybe this shift in behavior will aid your legacy, but it could also derail your progress and lead you to be reactive and fearful.
Futile. Second, you will never be able to secure your legacy. We continue to debate the Founding Fathers, as “Hamilton” has demonstrated. Albert Einstein’s legacy might seem written, but every time scientists test one of his theories, it’s reopened for editing. Margaret Thatcher’s impact will probably be contentious 50 or 75 years from now. For goodness’ sake, we are still deciding the Neanderthals’ legacy!
An act of hubris. How dare you assume you’ll be remembered? The blog Wait But Why? explored a timeline of famous people across fields through the past few millennia. There are a lot of names there. Now consider the billions of people who have lived over that span (and the billions now). Most are forgotten. You probably will be. So will I. (And so what?)
Legacies are also fleeting. We can see this in major historical figures. Chester A. Arthur was probably a big deal back when he was president and a longtime powerful political figure; he’s not forgotten now, but how many people know who he is and what his enduring legacies might be?
Think of someone like Louis Agassiz, one of the most famous and wide-ranging scientists of the mid-18th century in America. He certainly has a legacy in terms of his explorations, discoveries, observations about ice ages and his influence on those who came after him. But scientists have not aligned with him on his opposition to evolution and other philosophies underpinning his work, and you’ll probably not encounter him in your reading unless you dig deep.
And, of course, think of any retirement party, or of your great-great-grandparents. Those people certainly had legacies. The specifics of those legacies are probably lost.
None of this is a bad thing, and these people’s lives and accomplishments are not diminished. I would merely argue that, with only so much time and so much life to explore, that we not spend that time thinking about an unknowable and uncontrollable thing that doesn’t really matter.
Our modern world is obsessed with legacy
I mentioned virtue signaling up top. That’s a term that probably has mutated into something beyond its original meaning, but it’s original meaning central to my idea that we stop worrying about our legacy. As James Bartholomew wrote in 2015:
“One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.”
Social media, for those of us who use it (too much), is disgustingly effective at eliciting this from us. Live by the tweet, die by the tweet. You aren’t posting about the right things on Facebook. Your Instagram has too much food photography (that one might just be a complaint I dislike).
But it’s not like we didn’t showcase our purity before social media. We’re just able to reach a wider audience, are enabled by technology and the possibly addictive ease of modern phones to share and pontificate — and point out everyone who’s doing things the wrong way. And then argue over whether we are focusing on the wrong things when we’re pointing out the wrong things someone else is focusing on.
Meanwhile, there are actually a few people who aren’t posting, who aren’t shouting how amazing and right and prescient they are. All these leaders are doing is doing things.
What you can do
First of all, try to avoid becoming fatalistic or blase just because you’ll never know for sure what your legacy will be. I like to think of William James, who turned such uncertainty into an opportunity for wonderment:
“If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it FEELS like a real fight — as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem.”
So, how can one be active and engaged without giving into to the narcissism of legacy? I am still figuring this out myself, but, ironically enough, I’d suggest starting this journey by focusing on yourself. (Don’t go right to correcting others — I can’t imagine how insufferable virtue signaling about virtue signaling might be.)
The next time you feel you want to show how smart or moral you are, how about seeking out a conversation with someone? An actual conversation, with give and take. Maybe do some primary research — why do you think what you think? Are your underlying reasons based on information and the right information?
Try giving to a charity, or helping a stranger, or volunteering, or picking up litter — and don’t tell anyone. Just go about your day.
At the workplace, being anonymous is a bit trickier. You need your bosses to understand the good work you are doing. But there is a way to build influence without constantly saying, “Look how influential I am.” Find a role model, either at your work or elsewhere, and observe what they do. Ask them about it, if that’s possible. Learn to lead without a title.
If nothing else, stop worrying about your legacy. Wake up each day and resolve to do better for yourself and others. The legacy, if meant to be, will follow.
James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and original content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, HR executives and various other industries. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.