“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken;
for dust you are and to dust you will return.”Genesis 3:19
As I opened the email attachment, I didn’t anticipate it being dramatically different from the hundreds of other attachments I had opened in the previous month. Yet, as the PDF loaded, I found something strangely familiar staring back at me through the screen. It was like looking into to the face of a long lost cousin. What I had just received in my inbox was a later version of some work that I had pioneered a number of years ago.
My first reaction was one of joy. A piece of work that I had labored on for more than a year was moving forward into a more robust state. This work has the potential to provide real help to real people, addressing social determinants of health and building bridges across the healthcare and social services sectors. I was thrilled to see that this effort, from which I had become disconnected, still had life.
Then another emotion fired across my synapses. I realized that neither the document, nor the person who sent it to me or those who were executing the plan had any idea that I had played a fundamental role in making that possible. The history of how this idea began and the hard, pioneering work to advance an innovative concept had been lost. I would be lying if I were to say that didn’t sting a little.
I was left with these two fundamental emotions: joy about the product of my work and its ability to achieve the mission for which it was intended and sadness that my role in it had been erased from all evident memory.
When we say that we want to leave a legacy, do we mean that we want the sweat and toil that we exert to produce value in the world? Or do we mean that we want a monument — or at least a nice plaque — that recognizes us? Certainly these two ends are correlated and not mutually exclusive, but if we had to choose between them, which would we choose? Would you rather make a big difference and get no credit? Or get numerous accolades for things that don’t really matter? One preference is grounded in purpose, the other in ego.
In his book, ‘Ego is the Enemy’, Ryan Holiday described the challenge of ego in this way:
“When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.”Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy
I was writing a historical piece recently about a person who was well known “during his time”. All but a few names are obscured from history, and those that remain are always caricatures of reality transformed into legend. We are all in the midst of this dust cycle after all. Our best hope, therefore, is to leave behind remnants of progress — the impact made from a successful venture, the community built through loving relationships, the choices made to advance powerful ideas.
So, I’m left with two revelations. First, I need to work today with the expectation that I will never get credit for it. Someday, I will fade, and perhaps even these words will end up somewhere else — in their current form or remixed into inspiring new forms from others — without my name in the byline. If I am writing this to benefit others, then I have to be okay with that. If we can approach our writing, work, and relationships in this way, it may change the decisions we make and the way we choose to pursue our goals.
The second revelation is one of hope. When you put your heart into something — when you bring your sweat and energy into the world — and when that is based on the good intentions of building a better world — it has an impact. Unfortunately, most of this impact you will never get to see. Your efforts will a amalgamate with those that have come before, during and after. You’ll move on — from that job, community, or this earth — before the progress is realized.
Occasionally, you’ll strike a great victory, and they’ll throw you a parade. We must treat these moments as precious, but not be seduced by them. Most often, you’ll just get a glimpse of the remnants of your work — recognizable, but different — and you can secretly smile at the subtle evidence that you did leave a legacy — even if no one else knows it.