How to Leave A Legacy

Admit it. You want to be remembered.

John Gorman
Jun 3, 2018 · 8 min read

My death is my most common recurring dream. I imagine it’s also yours? I’m not sure what else people dream about. I also once dreamed I was on a roller coaster with a friendly dragon, who lightly toasted my marshmallows with his breath so I could make s’mores. That’s when I resolved, “no more micro-dosing before bedtime.”

In all weightiness, though, death weighs on me. How could it not? It’s the only condition, truth or state in recorded existence that’s both universal and permanent: everything dies, and once it does, it’s dead forever. I know I’ll meet my end — same as the rest of you. We’re here, and then we’re gone — every human, animal, plant, organism, cell — up and vanished like waves that dared to rise above the shoreline.

So of course death dominates my mind: how to delay it, how to defeat it, how to defy it. That’s what led me, initially, to write this:

At its apex, I conclude:

… the only way to live forever is to densely pack your life with creations, experiences, people and memories, so it would be impossible for someone to know the entirety of you. What matters is what you do, how you live, how much joy and meaning you smash into the sides of every waking second.

And that is a satisfactory answer to an altogether foolhardy question: Actually living forever is impossible, but if we learn, make, experience and share enough of ourselves, we can at least present the illusion of immortality. We can approach the asymptotic, even as we’ll never touch it.

Maximizing our cosmically infinitesimal plot of space-time is a fine way to supercede the prison of the life into which we were born, and yet it is not the complete picture. It is the merely half of the brokenhearted locket. The other half must be gifted to you, ascribed to you, bestowed upon you by the outside world — your family, friends, community and humanity itself. That half is shattered into millions of shards, and can only be reassembled and rejoined with you by how you contribute to those who hold the pieces. That half is your legacy. Let’s talk about how to leave one, or — more appropriately — piece one together.

David Brooks is someone I hate-read a lot. His highfalutin posturing wrapped in gentile prodding is an indictment of our Paper of Record’s op-ed section, an obtusely privileged perspective that’s the writing equivalent of brushing someone else’s teeth with a weed-trimmer.

That said, he did once write one whole thing that’s managed to nestle itself into my ethos. So enraptured was I by the simplicity, humility and warmth of its prose that I’d foregone reading the byline entirely, and only upon returning to the top as a, “to whom have I to thank for this loveliness?” was I roundly stupefied and crestfallen. “Oh. This fucker.” Anyway, I suppose I’ll drop a link here for you, but below, I’ll cull from it the sparkle that makes it shine.

“ It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

Everything you do, everything you are, is either a bullet-point on your resume, or a talking point at your eulogy. (An obituary, interestingly enough, is a holistic mish-mash of both — at least, if your estate can afford one of any considerable length besides “Services will be held on Saturday.”) And, of course, he rightly concludes it is far more noble and virtuous to value the eulogy over the resume. Yet, eulogies are immediate, intimate and impenetrable to those outside our sphere of influence.

Our resume is, ironically, more enduring. Accomplishments can be undone, written over, or in vain, yet they can never be un-accomplished. You cannot un-run a marathon. You cannot un-start a company. You cannot un-ring the bell. Those virtues are of public record, and those sand castles existed no matter how long ago they’ve been swallowed by the sea. Once bread becomes toast, it can never be bread again. (One of my favorite sayings that I googled for attribution purposes, and I’m disheartened to report it’s been swallowed by references to Orange Is The New Black. I can assure you, the phrase has been in the lexicon for far longer.) But am I to be so reductive as to conclude our resume is our true legacy? Come on … you’re not new here.*

*(Unless you are, in which case, welcome!)

So what, precisely, is a legacy, anyway? And why is it so important that we leave the right one? Perhaps its best to frame it in 2018 parlance: It’s “going viral,” but rather than the ripples extending outward across the Internet, they extend forward across time. To illustrate this, War’s The World Is A Ghetto is denoted by Billboard as the top-selling album of 1973. I own it — it’s an engaging listen. Yet I dare you to tell me with a straight face it’s left a greater legacy than Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, also released in 1973, despite the latter record only holding the №1 spot on Billboard’s U.S. Top 200 for one brief, shining week, before remaining on the weekly chart for 740 more weeks in a fucking row — an incalculable achievement unlikely to be equaled in our lifetime or anyone else’s. It is for this reason we wish to leave a legacy: To make Floyd, not War. (All due respect to War.)

We earn our legacies when we cultivate things that hold up over time, remaining beautiful, meaningful and relevant long after we’ve dotted our final i or written our last word. We do it by leaving a reverberating impact in all that we do, and in all that we touch. We earn a reputation by doing things well, but we can only leave a legacy by doing things well that matter. Things people can still fucking feel long after you’ve stopped touching them.

Yes, your kids are your legacy. Yes, your relationships are your legacy. And, yes, the way they impact the world will echo across years, centuries, cities and countries. But merely spawning offspring and knowing people does not make a true legacy — it just means you had unprotected sex and weren’t a hermit, and the people you birthed or knew ended up doing some things, or birthing and knowing people for themselves. I’m talking about that Capital-L, sing-it-from-the-mountains Legacy. So, how can you be sure to leave it? I’ve identified a few instructive barometers to snack upon, in lieu of dragon-roasted s’mores.

Be Early

As the old axiom goes, “no one remembers second place.” People who are early to things — movements, ideas, art forms — demonstrate an ability to see farther out into the future than the next quarter or legislative session. The people who today are fighting for the rights of robots once artificial intelligence can reliably demonstrate empathy will be remembered long after the people who decided “sure, they can have ‘em” once it was deemed economically imperative for them to make that decision. (See also: Rainbow Capitalism. As opposed to Stonewall.) We’ll remember Nikola Tesla long after we’ve forgotten about, ummm, Tesla.

Be Perfect

This is the maximal truncation of “be so good they can’t ignore you.” Malcolm Gladwell — for all the methodological flaws in his research, chiefly his insistence that the plural of anecdote is data — once wrote in Blink about how Coca-Cola is essentially the perfect beverage: It hits every flavor and textural profile just right, and in perfect balance, in a way that viscerally appeals to the broadest number of palates. He’s not wrong: Coca-Cola is perfect, and the only reason I don’t drink it is because of how perfect I know it is, and how if you can use it to take acidic corrosion off car battery terminals, imagine what it does to the inside of your body.

Be Singular

I’m going to paint this analogy with a brush as broad as the building itself: James Brown was early. Michael Jackson was perfect. Prince was singular. Being suis generis in anything will earn you a legacy. This is not just about being the “only” person to do something, but can also include being the “only” person to do something in that way. (However you define that.) For Prince, it was being a genre-hopping, gender-bending multi-instrumental powerhouse who could write, sing and perform on levels impossible for moral humans to process. (See also: TLC — Early, Beyonce — Perfect, Janelle Monae — Singular.)

Now, of course I don’t expect you to close this tab and become Nikola Tesla, Coca-Cola or Prince. There’s a reason they’re so widely revered in human circles. They’re exceptional, and part of being exceptional is being an exception. But there’s ways to be earlier, more perfect and more singular in who you are and what you do. People who are early have a grand, widescreen, farsighted vision. People who are perfect have a relentless, militant dedication to their lives and craft. People who are singular have a Technicolor authenticity that manifests itself as defiant aversion to being so easily boxed or labeled. Vision. Dedication. Authenticity. These are workable guide-stars. They’re also intriguing, because they don’t sit comfortably within either the “eulogy” or “resume” virtue buckets, nor do they roll up to my earlier recommendation to “densely pack your life with creations, experiences, people and memories.”

Vision, dedication and authenticity are, instead, the magnets which draw the shards from that other half of the locket together to complete the heart: They’re the qualities that earn you a rolling burble of respect, acclaim and devotees. They’re the virtues that may not necessarily get people to like you, but they are the virtues that will get people to remember you. Because — like it or not — if you’re the first, best or only of something, in the infinite age where anything that could be forgotten no longer can be, you’re going to be remembered. You don’t get much of a say.

And that’s, I suppose, how you leave a legacy. Be ahead of your time, be excellent in the time you’re allowed, or be out of time. In any case, you’ll become something all worthwhile legacies should be: Timeless. Stick that on the end of your stick and roast it, death.

*** Did you like this? Feel free to bang that clap button. Do you want more? Follow me, or read more here. ***

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John Gorman

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Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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