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Is It Important to Leave a Legacy?

Our future selves are much less important than our present selves.

Key points

  • Many people believe leaving some kind of legacy is important.
  • We have short memories of the past, and even once-famous people are often forgotten.
  • Our actions while alive matter the most.

I used to be a big believer in legacy. In fact, the primary reason I began writing books some 25 years ago was to create a body of work that would survive my physical body. I liked the idea of people in the future discovering my work and, hopefully, finding something interesting or valuable in something I wrote decades earlier. My goal was to create a literal paper trail in the belief that this would document my existence on the planet. In some way, then, I would live forever, achieving a kind of immortality.

Now I’m not so sure. For one thing, my literary ambitions began well before I had a child; now, as a father, I see my most important legacy as co-creating another human being who will hopefully co-create future generations with some of my DNA. I still like writing books, but I no longer see them as a means of proving that I was alive in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

The other reason I’ve deprioritized legacy in my own life is the growing realization of how little of history stands the test of time. The truth is that very few of us will be remembered for doing anything of real significance, as we have very short memories of the past. Quick: how many people born before the year 1900 can you name? Ten? Twenty? Maybe thirty? Roughly 107 billion people have lived on Earth over the past millennia, according to the Population Reference Bureau, but most of us can name a minuscule percentage of them and, to an even lesser degree, describe in any detail what they achieved.

Even very notable people of the past century are often eventually forgotten, virtually erasing their once assured legacy. Many singers, writers, politicians, and business people who were very well known in their day are now languishing in obscurity, basically unknown except to a small group of people with a special interest in their careers. Many Hollywood actors of yesterday who were household names are now fodder for trivia contests. Biggest movie star in 1923? Thomas Meighan. 1924? Norma Talmadge. 1932 and 1933? Marie Dressler. These stars were the Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson of their day, but like all but a handful of once-famous people, they’ve been relegated to the dustbin of history.

What we really leave behind

I have no problem with anyone who sees great value in the pursuit of making and leaving their mark in some way. Doing so can create a ripple effect for decades or even centuries, influencing the lives of many over the course of time. Philanthropic deeds are especially important, as they can make a positive impact on society for generations and generations, ultimately improving the human experience in some way. Say what you will about how some of the robber barons of the 19th century made their fortunes, but the ways in which people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller gave much of it away still resonate today.

I’ve come to the belief, however, that our future selves are much less important than our present selves. The short time we are alive matters a lot more than the long time we’re dead, in other words, meaning that what we do on a daily basis in real-time far outweighs what we leave behind. Our actions in life live on in the lives of others, of course, and this is how we can make a lasting impact on society, perhaps for generations to come. Being generous, kind, and, if possible, enabling the happiness of others offers the greatest opportunity to achieve a kind of immortality, making this the legacy I now want to create.

But I still want to write another book or two just for fun.

References

Samuel, Lawrence R. (2017). Boomers 3.0: Marketing to Baby Boomers in Their Third Act of Life. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

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