Your Legacy is Now Life is Not a Search for Meaning from Others -- It's the Creation of Meaning for Yourself
For over 30 years Alan Weiss has consulted, coached, and advised everyone from Fortune 500 executives, state governors, non-profit directors, and entrepreneurs to athletes, entertainers, and beauty pageant contestants. That’s quite an assortment of people, and they run into the thousands. Most of them have had what we euphemistically call "means," and some of them have had a lot more than that. Others have been aspiring and with more ends in sight than means on hand.
Alan Weiss states:
I’ve dealt with esteem (low), narcissism (high), family problems, leadership dysfunctions, insecurities, addictions, and ethical quandaries. And I’ve talked with them through the coronavirus crisis. But don’t get the wrong idea. About 95% of these people have been well-meaning, honest (to the best of their knowledge), and interested in becoming a better person and better professional. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be talking to me.
I found the equivalent of the "runner’s wall" in their journeys, where they must break through the pain and the obstacles and then can keep going with renewed energy and spirit. But runners know how far they must go after the breakthrough, be it another half lap or another five miles. There is a finish line.
I’ve found that people in all positions, even after the "breakthrough," don’t know where they are in the race, let alone where the finish line is.
They do not know what meaning is for them. They may have money in the bank, good relationships, the admiration of others, and the love of their dogs. But they have no metrics for "What now?" They believe that at the end of life there is a tallying, some metaphysical accountant who totals up their contributions, deducts their bad acts, and creates the (hopefully positive) difference.
That difference, they believe, is their "legacy."
But the thought that legacy arrives at the end of life is as ridiculous as someone who decides to sell a business and tries to increase its valuation the day prior. Legacy is now. Legacy is daily. Every day we create the next page in our lives, but the question becomes who is writing it and what’s being written. Is someone else creating our legacy? Or are we, ourselves, simply writing the same page repeatedly?
Or do we leave it blank?
Our organic, living legacy is marred and squeezed by huge normative pressures. There is a "threshold" point, at which one’s beliefs and values are overridden by immense peer pressure. Our metrics are forced to change.
In an age of social media, biased press, and bullying, we’ve come to a point where our legacy, ironically, is almost out of our hands.
Yet our "meaning" — our creation of meaning and not a search for some illusive alchemy — creates worth and impact for us and all those with whom we interact.
Table of Contents
About the Author
Other works by Alan Weiss
- Don’t Search for Meaning, Create Meaning
- Fairy tales
- What do you mean, "What do you mean?"
- Meaning within
- Meaning without
- The Ritual of Competition
- Why we’re so damn competitive
- Overt and covert competing
- Societal benefits and the healing of the high jump
- The point of no return
- The Superficiality of Size
- Why is bigger or faster or cheaper better?
- Festivus and feats of strength
- Drowning in noise and outrageousness
- "One size fits all!"
- Smarts, As We Say in New York
- The over/under on David and Goliath
- There is no such breed as an "underdog"
- Why Voltaire had it right
- How Luther changed the world
- The Over-magnification of Media
- Why is a sub-two-hour marathon an accomplishment?
- A hundredth of a second is ridiculous
- The official’s foot
- The "first" nonsense: gender, ethnicity, and novelty
- The Challenge and Necessity of Vulnerability
- We can’t connect if we’re not vulnerable
- Why we learn from losing
- Invention is the mother of necessity
- It takes courage to connect
- The Futility of Ignoring and Avoiding Intimacy
- Of divorce rates, lousy jobs, and alienation
- The caste system in a new light
- The McMansion syndrome
- Luxury tends to mask intimacy
- Extremism Is Mindless Competition’s Illegitimate Spawn
- From Armstrong to McGuire and back
- Maybe Rosie Ruiz was right
- The Boys in the Boat
- The desert isle for the exiled
- So What If Someone’s Gaining on You?
- The early worm gets eaten
- Rushing through the open gate
- Managing your time
- True spirituality
- How Green Can Grass Get?
- The reciprocity of happiness
- The psychic investment has a poor ROI
- Being green
- Creating meaning and legacy
Summary: We don’t seem to know what we mean by "meaning," let alone "legacy." We focus on what we do, not who we are. We are easy "prey" for normative pressures to mold us or even distort us. We need to escape the "ruts" that often unseen others create for us. To do so, we need to examine our beliefs and values as well as our vision for ourselves. Yet most people have trouble answering the question, "Who do you want to be next year?"
Summary: There are origins of competitiveness that are no longer valid but which continue to influence us. What difference does it make standing up to retrieve baggage in a plane parked at the gate after landing? We compete about inconsequential things, often unaware of our own actions. Yet there are times when appropriate competition is a great reconciler and consensus builder. But what are the boundaries? Our legacy is too often tied to others’ (often dysfunctional) behaviors.
Summary: Size is often a disadvantage (try to parallel park an SUV) and strength today is not totally reliant on human muscle. The "super fit" and the careful dieters are often those who drop from heart attacks in the streets. Our advertising and corporate promotion are often unconsciously directed to the wrong appeal. Our legacy shouldn’t be "nth" or "est." Why do we praise miniaturization and agility in some aspects (microchips, sports cars) but thing we need a 20-room mansion to be comfortable or food hanging off our plates to enjoy a good meal?
Legacy is amazingly pragmatic and "in the trenches." Street smarts aren’t taught, they’re learned, but not all over, and they provide proportion. David would win every time, and Voltaire observed that "God is on the side of the heaviest battalions." The amount and size of your prayers don’t make you more likely to reach heaven. Luther simply wanted a hearing but the Pope wanted to make an example of him and he inadvertently changed the world. Once you’re an "underdog" in people’s perceptions, you’re no longer an underdog in reality.
Bigger, faster, better: They carefully measure with chains for a first down in football after the ball is arbitrarily placed where an official’s foot marks the forward progress. Does a hundredth second victory in a swim or footrace really indicate superiority? Just whose legacy are we talking about? The mediocre thrive on arbitrary assessments of merit and we succumb to it, from Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest to "America’s Got Talent" (apparently, not all the time).
Counterintuitively, perhaps, legacy is about humility As humans, we need to connect and interact. This requires vulnerability and reciprocity. It also requires honesty. We talk about "sportsmanship" and "how you play the game" amidst doping scandals and cheating. Even the lofty Olympics plays the national anthem only of the winner, who stands on a podium above others, and maintains a medal count during the games. Our competition and the caste system it creates are the antithesis of connecting and communicating.
We compete for mates. Why is there such a disproportionate number of beautiful women on the arms of professional make athletes? Why is the divorce rate so high among celebrities? Why does the Wall Street Journal have a weekly section on "Mansions"? The competition at the top of society fosters similar behavior down the ladder and is accepted as normal, with "lifestyle" replacing intimacy, the gross revenues of a performance replacing artistic merit, and the manifestation of luxury overwhelming intimacy? (There is also always a bigger house.)
If we weren’t so competitive we wouldn’t cheat so much, and we wouldn’t find so many ingenious ways to cheat. The Nazis tried to rig the 1936 Olympics, Rosie Ruiz took the subway to try to win the New York Marathon, and drug testing is now a standard accompaniment of all major sports. We cheat because "winning" has become mindlessly addictive, even in cutting a line to board a plane or sneaking into the members-only airline club. A Harvard rowing coach who was asked about his team finish last in the Olympics commented, "Since when is there anything to be ashamed about by being eighth best in the world?"
We become paranoid about "being caught from behind," and adhere to mindless admonitions about discipline and focus lest we’re surprised by someone highly unlikely passing us by. In law firms it’s "up or out," in universities "publish or perish," on New Hampshire license plates, "live free or die." Isn’t there some comfortable middle ground here? Legacy is daily, you don’t have to worry about someone beating you to the finish line or even beating to the punch.
The grass may be greener, but so the hell what? How green can green be. That’s in the eye of the beholder. Happiness has to be on our own terms, not from some celebrity, or glossy magazine, or braggart neighbor. You have to be comfortable sailing through life in the manner that pleases you. It’s not about the size of the craft, because there is always going to be a bigger boat. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.