First, I will point out an irony. That is, if you are overly worried about your legacy, chances are you will be challenged to leave a positive one. The best people do not always seem to generate the broadest influence, but their impact on those they do influence is deep.
If you want to know how you'll be remembered, it helps to understand how people think. A certain percent of the population will tell you that people are defined by their exceptional moments. It is your best accomplishments in a long line of mundane events that people will remember.
Similarly, no matter how impressive your overall record, these are the same people who will tell you that a person is also defined by their worst moments. An off-color joke, an offensive tweet, a politically incorrect view. Any of these can be taken as evidence of your flawed nature, outweighing an otherwise unblemished life and character.
It is true that many people notice just the headlines, good or bad. Nowadays we can think of these fleeting headlines scrolling across our screens as social media moments. But only shallow people think what they read in the headlines defines a person, or even gives you a semi-realistic idea of what they stand for. That is one theme you can take away from this week's Moral Letter 033 On Instagram-Worthy Quotes.
Would you want your life judged by strangers who know only a single Tweet or social media post you made? Or worse, that they judge you by what other people are saying about you? I can't imagine many people would rush to sign up to such a standard. And yet it is a standard that people apply routinely without a second's thought.
It really takes only a brief reflection to arrive at a more well-founded conclusion. Deeper thinkers know that people are far more than the sum of their worst (or best) moments. People are complex. And by the way, we're capable of change. If that weren't so, there would be no need for school, no need for training, no need for a great deal of what humans do. Strangers don't know a fraction of what makes you special and important. Thus, what strangers think of you based on misleading headlines designed to garner attention is far less meaningful than what people closest to you think of you.
When it comes to the people who do know you, the question becomes what impact did you make on them? Were you kind and patient? Did you listen to them when they were hurting and needed help? Did you celebrate their successes, and commiserate in the failures? In short, did you act in ways to make their lives better?
If you had a positive impact on people close to you, rest assured your legacy is secured. Perhaps not among the masses, who are easily distracted by superficial things. But people you genuinely care about and help are the ones that count.
I touch on some of these topics in Moral Letter 034 On A Successor's Success. Here the theme is understanding that a student's success is a testament to both the student and the teacher. What person believing this would ever do anything less than support their successor in every way possible?
I remember coming across a quote years ago from the Athenian statesman Solon, who was commenting on how to evaluate the lives of successful individuals. Solon's observation was this:
Count no man happy, until he is dead [or until the end is known].
Solon's point was that life is full of reversals of fortune. A person who is riding high now may later have a fall from grace. They may lose their wealth, they may fall ill, they may be caught up in a power struggle with the losing side, and so on. According to Aristotle, to truly evaluate the success of a person's life and decide whether they achieved their highest good or eudaimonia, you should even extend your evaluation to look at their children's and relatives' lives.
Of late I am thinking more on these questions of life's meaning, amidst our own changes and turnings. The looming topic for my wife and I is of course our impending move back to the U.S. To say we have mixed feelings is an understatement. I provide a short update for you on the status and our thinking in Paradise Found - Interim Update.
For today, I think we can draw this lesson: you don't know what a person's life means until they have lived it out. You can tell very little from an isolated incident or a snapshot in time. If you would not be judged by your worst moment, do not be quick to judge others for theirs.
PS - After I first wrote this, I came across an interesting article (Rest In Peace For A Nobel Prize) suggesting that the Nobel Peace prize should only be awarded after a person's death. Past recipients have gone on to do terrible things, calling into question the wisdom of their having received the prize in the first place.
While I think reasonable people can conclude the Peace prize should still be awarded for actions a person has already taken, it is an interesting discussion. Are we rewarding people for past actions or to drive future behavior? No doubt some awards seem to have a forward-looking element (such as Mr. Obama before he started his term as President). In that case, would it not be better waiting to grant the prize? If not until death, until the person leaves office and we can judge their entire record in office?
In other words, just as a single bad act may not undo a life of good, perhaps one good act does not make a person a saint worthy of recognition.