2023 Goal Setting Advice: Remember Your Forgotten Career Legacy
By Kevin Anselmo
What are my 2023 goals? What does success look like?What should I be doing differently in the year ahead?
As we get set to embark on 2023, these are questions I am contemplating. Perhaps you are too. In the process, you might also be thinking about your idea of a career legacy. What will you be remembered for? How will our work impact future generations? I have heard such questions in career development discourse. I believe they are quite short-sighted as career success is fleeting. Here is the reality: nobody will remember your career success or failures. That is actually good news.
First let me explain why career legacy will be forgotten and then I will highlight why that is actually a positive that can impact how you approach work in the new year.
Your Work Will be Forgotten
Imagine that it is 150 years from now. It is the decade of the 2170s. Let’s keep in mind that 150 years, in comparison to the history of the world, is actually a very short amount of time. Here is an educated guess about the realities of our career legacies.
Your colleagues and those you influence on a regular basis today will all be dead. Can you name your great, great grandparents? What about their best career achievements? If you struggle with these questions, how can you expect your great, great grandchildren to remember your name and career achievements?
Let’s look at today’s stars. In 2022, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are the top two richest people in the world. Who was the richest man in the world some 150 years ago? Wikipedia tells me it was Cornelius Vanderbilt. How much does his legacy impact you today? My guess is not at all. (If you are associated with Vanderbilt University, you might answer this question differently.)
Carlos Alcaraz is the current men's world number one. Who was the top tennis champion from 150 years ago? Most of the sports we watch today weren’t even in existence at a professional level back then.
Let’s go to the world of entertainment. Over the last few years, many have religiously followed the plight of Britney Spears’ conservatorship battle and the everyday actions of the Kardashians. Who were the top entertainers from the 1870s?
If the people at the very top of their professions are forgotten, then the harsh reality is that nobody will remember you, let alone your professional successes (and failures). There is also a good chance that the organizations where we work weren’t around 150 years ago and they could very well likely be extinct 150 years into the future. Our jobs could be upended as technology continues to disrupt our world.
It bears repeating: 150 years, in comparison to the history of the world, is actually a very short amount of time. Go back 1000, 2000 and 3000 years ago, and you will find that the above points are not very different.
Peace and Motivation
I actually think this reality about forgotten career legacies can be freeing when we look at our work from a faith perspective. For me, my worldview is centered on Christianity. One of the core tenets of the faith is the message of grace through belief in Jesus Christ. For Christians, connecting the spiritual as part of our career legacy enables us to work with a greater eternal perspective.
When we take the pressure off ourselves, we can think about how our individual contributions can potentially impact our families and communities long after we have died and our names are forgotten. While nobody will remember your individual successes and failures, your career performances are able to influence generations. If my great grandparents hadn’t emigrated from Italy to the US in the early 1900s, I would have been raised in Sicily. (Not a bad proposition, mind you). The hard work of my forefathers and foremothers helped make it possible for me to be the first in my family to graduate from college. I don’t know anything really about these distant relatives, but their contributions paved the way for me and many others after them.
Then there is the focus on community. While our individual glories (and failures) will be forgotten, the contributions can leave a legacy in the community. Take the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 in the United States that led to the formation of the current highway system. We probably can’t name one person who actually constructed those highways in the late 1950s. But most of us in our communities benefit from those efforts today.
Let’s imagine that a construction worker named Joe wanted his legacy to be known for painting the yellow dividing lines on highways during the 1950s. Well, Joe would be disappointed to know that his individual efforts were forgotten. If his motivation had been to enable his and future generations to travel more efficiently, then he would have been able to take satisfaction in the results of the project. (Joe is probably dead today, but you get the point!).
Using the highway example, we can assume that, decades into the future, the highways we currently use will not be around. Maybe there will be a new highway system, or roads won’t be necessary as we will all be flying around in electric planes or using robots. If we think about our work as a contribution at one specific point in time as part of a higher being’s master plan, we can take satisfaction in our work. If we are so obsessed with our individual contributions, then it can be depressing to think about how our contributions are not only forgotten but also useless in the future. This applies to all professions.
It impacts how we treat one another too. If we are only after our individual glory as part of our legacy, then we will make whatever ruthless decisions to advance that agenda. If we have a realistic approach to our career legacies—that our individual successes and failures will be forgotten—we can then treat people differently. We can realize that how we treat our fellow human beings, who happen to be on the earth at the same time we are in this particular moment in time, should take a much higher precedence over advancing our individual agendas. When we realize that loving and caring for our neighbors in need has more eternal value than working 120 hours a week to earn a promotion, we can refocus our priorities on how we treat each other.
One possible misinterpretation of our forgotten career legacies is that our work doesn’t matter. As a Christian, I would say that is quite the contrary. The Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:23–24, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Humans will die, and individuals will be forgotten, so working solely to please our fellow man will result inevitably in letdowns. But working for an eternal God comes with an even greater responsibility.
Bosses on earth—whether a direct supervisor, a board, our customers or clients—primarily evaluate our work deliverables. Sure, there are many bosses who care about our well-being too. But most of us have come to realize that, when we transition from one organization to another, everything moves on. These bosses’ priorities shift to the next person.
For the “eternal boss,” work is just one aspect of our callings on earth. Christians need to be faithful in their personal relationship with God, how we care for our families and how we engage with our communities. It becomes very easy to sacrifice these other responsibilities for the sake of our career fulfillment. In addition, the more we experience temporary satisfaction through our work accomplishments, the easier it is to overlook the need for God in our lives.
In Matthew 6:19–20, Jesus warned:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
We live at a point in time in which there is more focus on the individual than at any time in history. Because of this, it is difficult to recalibrate and put our legacies and the false idol of career success into perspective. At least, that is the case for me. As we approach the end of the year, let’s think through these realities and adjust as needed. If we do so, I believe we can work towards future goals with greater perspective, peace and motivation.
Kevin Anselmo is the author of Reframing Career Success: Picture Your Significance at Work from a Christian Perspective. The article is based on one of the chapters in the book.
Kevin also conducts Reframing Career Success workshops. This learning experience is centered on helping teams and individuals come up with a clear definition about what career success entails from a faith-based perspective. Individuals gain clarity; consider how their definition connects to the organization; glean new ideas on how to connect one’s personal faith to work; connect in a deep and profound way with colleagues; and work with peace, contentment and motivation. Contact Kevin to discuss running a workshop at your organization (email: email@example.com or call / text: +1 919 260 0035).