Leaving a Legacy

Humans are afraid of death. That’s why we believe in stories about heaven and hell and look forward to an eternal afterlife. For some people, it isn’t enough to live forever in a spiritual realm: they want to live forever on earth. They want to be chronicled in the annals of history. They want a legacy, a reason to be remembered.

But all legacies fade. All memories will eventually die along with those who hold them. One day, the last human will release his final breath, and all our records of Gengis Khan, Plato, Abe Lincoln, and Kim Kardashian will disappear.

An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
— John Edward Williams, “Stoner”

Even if you do write your name into a history book, you won’t have control over it once you’re gone. Other people will reinterpret and retell your story for you, and you may not like the way they do it. But you’ll never know and won’t be around to complain, because you’ll be dead.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
— Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792 - 1822

The tale of Ozymandias warns us about the futility of trying to be remembered. Think of all the buildings, streets, and schools you encounter who are named after someone. Do you know who they all were? Do you care? Think of all the business icons you can recall. How far back does your memory go?

Some would say that the desire to be remembered for good and great works brings out the best in humanity.  It makes us set more audacious goals, work harder on our startups, and sacrifice more of our lives for others. When we set out to impress the world, we achieve bigger, harder things.

But if you are destined to forgotten, then everything you do to impress the world will also be forgotten. So what’s the point of trying?

Several years ago, I worked as Promotions Director at WVUA 90.7 FM The Capstone, the University of Alabama’s campus radio station. When I was first hired there, the station played the kind of wacky student-run shows and bizarre indie music that college radio is known for.  But after our leadership team left – turnover at campus stations tends to be high because students graduate and schedules change – the station changed dramatically. It started playing the same music you could find on any alt-rock iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel) station in the U.S. Everything our team and I had worked for that year – all the time spent branding the station, promoting our shows, and building up our audience – had been undone.

One day, frustrated almost to tears, I called my dad to complain about it, and he accidentally gave me one of the most important life lessons I’ve ever learned.

“I spent so. Much. Time at this station,” I said, punctuating my words with angry finger stabs at my notebook. “We all did. And they’ve gone and undone it all in one fell swoop. We worked nights and weekends, poured our hearts and souls into making this place a success.”

“Well, where you made your mistake is thinking that anything you do for an organization will ever last,” my dad replied evenly.

I stopped assaulting my notebook and crossed my arms, trying to calm my anger by processing what he’d just said. It didn’t make sense to me.

“What do you mean?” I pouted.

“MJ, I’ve been involved with lots of groups and organizations,” dad said. “There will always be changes in leadership. The things you do will always be undone. The programs you put in place will probably have the plug pulled. People change, rules change, goals change, organizations change. Nothing you do for an organization lasts.”

“So,” I snarled, “what’s the point of doing it?”

“When you do work for an organization, the only lasting impact you have is on individual people – not on the organization. It’s all about who you helped, the friendships you built, and the lives you changed. It’s about what you learned and how much fun you had. That’s the stuff that lasts. That stuff goes on long after you and everyone else leaves the organization.”

His words rang true, and stung. What would I have done differently if I had been focused more on building up the people at the station, instead of the station itself? What would have happened if I had poured more of my heart and soul into building relationships with my fellow workers? What if I had spent a few more nights and weekends working on learning instead of working on The Capstone?

Now, how would we live our lives if we knew that the only lasting impact we have – the only legacy we leave – is our immediate impact the individual people we encounter in life?

Because that truly is the only thing of any value that goes on after you and everyone else we know dies, and even that will fade.

One day, your business will fold. Your monument will crumble. Your name, and your childrens’ names, and the names of their childrens, will be forgotten.

Maybe our lives would be happier and more meaningful if we accept this. Maybe we shouldn't try to be remembered. Maybe we should try to be content, help the people around us, and do what feels right to ourselves and the ones we love. Embrace the transience and impermanence of life. The cruelties and kindnesses we show to friends, family, coworkers, strangers pets, and even the environment, will ripple through the world for just a little while after we go. But your opportunity to make the biggest impact is now. It is right now that you can do the most good to the people around you.

photo credit: P7180525 via photopin (license)