The Parthenon, Athens (source: Wikipedia). Many aspects of Western thought and civilization are a legacy from ancient Greece.

As many of you know, my 'day job' is in the corporate world. This past week, I was completing a relatively long corporate leadership capability program, and one of the topics addressed was the professional legacy the participants wanted to leave behind. Of course, I immediately started thinking about legacy in general, not only executive legacy. The appeal of the idea is that legacy is something that survives us: Through our legacy, many of us imagine to achieve an aspect of immortality; our legacy stays behind after we check out from space-time. Under a purely materialistic metaphysics, which dominates Western culture today, legacy is the human being's best shot at transcending death. But then, to my own surprise, I didn't seem to have a ready answer to the question posed by the course leader: What legacy do I want to leave behind?

You see, I have always been very achievement-oriented. From early life, I saw great meaning in building devices, winning school tournaments, etc. As a young adult, I realized how futile all those ephemeral things were; mere toys. The real meaning lay, I concluded, in helping advance human understanding through science, and improve the human condition through technology. That set up the first phase of my adult life, up until very recently: Life was meaningful because of my contributions to the LHC, the technologies I developed, the companies I started, the corporate changes I helped make a reality, etc. Even more recently, there was great meaning in the books I wrote. Do you see the pattern here? All these achievements were very palpable, concrete things one could point at. The meaning of my legacy, I thought, was in the concreteness of these things.

But is that really so? You see, the meaning of a legacy lies in how much of ourselves it captures and preserves, so our presence in space-time endures in a way. As such, a valid legacy is inextricably tied to who we truly are. Indeed, a legacy that does not reflect our true selves, regardless of how important and significant it may be, is meaningless in that it preserves nothing of us. Think about it for a moment: A legacy that does not reflect your true self, even if it helps change the world, is not your legacy; it gives no meaning to your ephemeral presence in space-time. At best, it gives meaning to somebody else's presence here. And now consider this: What captures best an aspect of the person you truly are? The concrete things you leave behind, like books or companies, or the people who actually knew you?

No legacy is more meaningful than the direct effects on people of my mere presence in the world. Achievements are secondary. I am building my legacy every hour of every day merely by interacting with people; merely by being alive. The lives of a few people are changed slightly, every day, because of their interactions with me: My family, my friends, colleagues at work, the baker, the security guard, the neighbors, the people who read anything I wrote, including you right now. The world will inevitably be ever so slightly different tomorrow because I have lived one more day today, regardless of any 'concrete' achievement. As such, the world of tomorrow will incorporate in its very essence the person I was today, even if I am no longer alive tomorrow. And according to the equations of chaos theory, the value of these ever so slight differences that arise through my presence should not be underestimated: Like the proverbial butterfly wings causing a hurricane, they can potentially lead to major transitions in the far distant future.

Now the really important point: For this legacy to give any meaning to my life, I must live life in as authentic a manner as possible. For the world of tomorrow to incorporate a part of me, I must be myself today. Otherwise, the world of tomorrow will incorporate an aspect of someone else; a fictional character that lends no meaning to my ephemeral presence in space-time. To wear a mask and behave as someone you want to be, but are not, creates a legacy that is not yours. There is still some meaning in that, insofar as living a lie reflects an interior need that is itself part of who you are. But I, personally, have now come to prefer unreserved authenticity. I have come to prefer my actions to reflect what I really think, who I really am, with all my defects and shortcomings, for good or otherwise, even if what I really think changes every month. At least I will have been, every month, authentic to who I was in that month. Better I cannot hope to do.

The hardest thing is to be true to oneself. The ego weaves invisible and sticky webs of self-deception: Often, when you think you are finally being honest to yourself, that is when you are getting trapped in one of those webs. But practice makes perfect, and a few errors down the road one slowly begins to 'get it.' The award for perseverance is, in this case, the highest one can ever hope for; the elixir of life; the philosopher's stone itself: Immortality.


  1. Interesting. I see where you are coming from. Authenticity is of great importance for me, also.

    I feel that beneath our shallow "small self", there is something buried that is always authentic, no matter how self-deceptive we are. That which IS. To really "know" (meaning experience) yourself as that beingness - beyond your personality - may be what is called "enlightenment" or more simply freedom. It seems so liberating to realize you don't have to strive to be authentic, since it is natural to us if we don't confuse our minds with ideals (which may actually include ideals of authenticity, also).
    In in this light even our legacy doesn't seem so important. After all, what is the "immortality" of your legacy compared with the actual immortality of existence that you are?
    Our ego tends to think this is too big for us, or it doesn't believe in it. But this can't be believed - still, deep inside we can't help but SEE it.

  2. But, according to your own theory, your TRUE self, is nothing quite like your "normal self" (or ego) at all! How does one square the circle of authenticity when they are asked to "be themselves" but at the same time become convinced that the self is an "illusion."

    Also, I would guess that some people ARE best captured by what they leave behind; is not the truer Michelangelo found in the exquisite detail and passion of the pieta than in how he interacted with his barber? Or even what kind of love affairs he had?

    1. > But, according to your own theory, your TRUE self, is
      > nothing quite like your "normal self" (or ego) at all!
      > How does one square the circle of authenticity when
      > they are asked to "be themselves" but at the same time
      > become convinced that the self is an "illusion."

      I don't quite think the individuated Self is an illusion... the ego is. So the challenge is to let the Self express itself without the ego getting in the way ;-)

      > Also, I would guess that some people ARE best captured
      > by what they leave behind; is not the truer
      > Michelangelo found in the exquisite detail and passion
      > of the pieta than in how he interacted with his
      > barber? Or even what kind of love affairs he had?

      Do you really think you have more of Michelangelo in you because you've seen the Pieta' or the David than his Barber had in him from interacting with Michelangelo personally? Or his lovers? :-) But don't get me wrong... I didn't mean to put down concrete achievements. The Pieta certainly is a formidable legacy, as Plato's Republic, or van Gogh's Starry Night. But isn't van Gogh's concrete legacy enriched by his moving personality and life story?

      Cheers, B.

    2. I think that "Anonymous" has a good point there, how does expressing oneself through the use of words to the surrounding is any different than expressing through drawings or you hammer and chisel?

    3. I don't really disagree here. To me, the most important thing is that, however you express yourself, you invest yourself in it; you put yourself unreservedly into what you do. If this is through words, great; through touch, wonderful; through a facial expression, deep; through a book, fantastic; through a hammer and chisel, just as fantastic. My point is, no skill with the hammer and chisel can replace your true self expression.
      Well, anyway, my intent was to put "concrete achievements" in perspective, not to put them down. I still feel fulfilled for having written my books! :-)

  3. This post and your thoughts greatly reflect mine when I first read "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy many, many, many years ago. They were greatly amplified shortly thereafter when I took up reading Kierkegaard and lo, my desire to live a comfortable, rich life as some tycoon somewhere went out the window. Now, I am a has-been former leftie minister, but am I happy? Very much, and a lot more than if I had kept that monetary carrot hanging in front of my nose. Not to mention I think I am doing much more for the world blogging about the paranormal and exposing the flaws in skeptical reasoning now than if I had pursued my original goals.

    1. I was reading your comment and recognizing the feeling... I still derive meaning from my "day job", though my priorities are now much different than they were, say, 5 years ago. Then, ambition and status spoke loudly still. Now, what's important to me in my job is that I do something helpful to the world and which, at the same time, fulfills me in the sense of being an activity that motivates me to wake up in the morning. The rest, like promotion and what not, is secondary.

  4. What about tying your life's purpose to the universal telos?

    From an idealist perspective, there are two potential "reasons" for creation and existence in itself:

    1) The enjoyment and bliss of existence itself, without no other telos. And from this perspective, legacy is meaningless, since the purpose of life in itself is enjoyment and happiness.
    2) Knowledge - the idea that the Universal Consciousness seeks to know itself, to become whole again via the reintegration of knowledge in some sort of "akashic archive". Under this universal telos, the most noteworthy individual life purpose would be to pursue knowledge. Any knowledge and thus any type of life seems to do well for this purpose, but spreading understanding about the true nature of reality seems one of the most meaningful acts one can do during his life.