By Kevin Anselmo
What do you want your career legacy to be?
This is a question posed by many career experts and incorporated into the curriculum of organizational training programs. It is an important question to consider. However, I think how we might want to answer this question and what the experts would want us to believe is far more grandiose than what it is very likely.
In answer to this question, I think there is some bad and good news to share. Let me start with what you might consider to be the negative.
Imagine the year is 2171 - 150 years from now. 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.
1. The organizations where we spent the most years will be extinct.
Think about the organization where you have dedicated the most time throughout your career. I would venture to say that very few of these organizations were around 150 years ago - in 1871. This will likely be the case 150 years in the future as well. A 2016 study by McKinsey found that the average life-span of companies listed in Standard & Poor's 500 was 61 years in 1958. Today, it is less than 18 years. If you look at lists of the most influential companies in the 1800s, you would primarily see organizations that were in the industrial space.
Look at companies today - the Amazons, Facebooks and Netflixs of the world - and we know that these organizations all began in the last 25 years. In our enlightened times, we might want to think that the amazing innovations that these and other organizations have brought to the market will be long lasting. That is what Blockbuster and Kodak probably assumed. If I were a betting man, I would say that the Amazons, Facebooks, Netflixs of the world will be extinct in 150 years. So too will the company where you work. So the harsh reality is that if your goal is to have a lasting legacy that will propel your organizations for centuries to come, you might want to reconsider some of your priorities. 2. Our jobs in all likelihood won’t even exist.
Think about the year 1871. Did your job exist? Many of the lists of most common jobs involve laborers and farmers. Think about the year 2171. Will your job exist? Google the “future of work” and we will see countless articles referring to how artificial intelligence will upend jobs. One-third of all jobs could be at risk of automation in the next decade, according to this article via the World Economic Forum. Many have already seen this play out. Just ask travel agents and transcriptionists for example. So the harsh reality is that if your goal is to have a lasting legacy within your industry, you might want to reconsider some of your priorities. There is a good chance your industry won’t exist in 150 years. 3. Nobody will remember you.
Sorry to disappoint. But it is true. Your colleagues and those you influence on a regular basis today will all be dead. Can you name your great, great grandparents off the top of your head? What about their best career achievements? If you struggled with these questions, how can you expect your great, great grandchildren to remember your name and career achievements? Let’s look at stars. In 2021, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are the top two richest people in the world. Who was the richest man in the world in 1871? Wikipedia tells me it was Cornelius Vanderbilt. How much does his legacy impact you today? My guess is you answered not at all.
Novak Djokovic is at the top of the tennis world today. 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. Many religiously follow the plight of Britney Spears’ censorship battle and the everyday actions of the Kardashians. Who were the top entertainers from the 1870s? If the people at the top of their professions are forgotten, then the harsh reality is that nobody will remember you, let alone your professional successes (and failures).
It bears repeating what I mentioned before sharing these points: 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 let me know if the above points are different.
Inspiration in the Midst of our Forgotten Career Legacies
Apologies if these realities have burst your bubble about your perception of your career legacy. I actually think these realities are inspiring. Since we will all soon be forgotten on earth, we should think about how our work ties to our faith - a more long-lasting legacy.
As a follower of Jesus, let me share with you some examples from the Bible that underscore the importance of God wanting us to do our best at work.
At the outset of the Bible, one of God's first commands is that we are to labor for six days and then on the seventh day to rest.
The book of Proverbs is filled with rich insights on why excellent work is important. I personally appreciate:
Proverbs 21:25 The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor.
Proverbs 12:14 From the fruit of their lips people are filled with good things, and the work of their hands brings them reward.
Jesus, the Son of God, came down to earth and spent his young adult years as a carpenter before going into public ministry. People even referred to him by his profession as Mark 6:3 notes: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary …” I would think this shows that Jesus had a reputation for good work. I would also think that it is no coincidence that Jesus spent time in a profession just like most all of us. Surely, as God, he could have just come down to earth, done some miracles, proclaimed he was the Chosen One, died on the cross and resurrected without toiling in a career. Perhaps God wants us to see that doing good work is so important that even Jesus would do this during his brief time on earth.
There are entire books written on the topic. I particularly recommend Called to Create by Jordan Raynor and his related podcast entitled The Call to Mastery. It is inspiring to hear so many authors, business leaders and entrepreneurs share how their faith motivates their work via this podcast. The book delves into why we create: not to make a name for ourselves but to glorify God and serve others.
I personally find it freeing to connect my work to my faith.
For one thing, it puts failures into perspective. Think about your most significant career disappointments. Do they still gnaw at you? We are indeed our greatest critics. Any embarrassing career setback is probably shortly forgotten by others within a very short period of time (unless you did something unethically that gets you in jail!).
I can recall a few instances when I made an editing error and an egregious mistake was sent in a newsletter that was disseminated publicly. It was humiliating for me; I haven’t forgotten about a particular instance that literally took place 20 years ago. Nobody else remembers today. Nobody else will be thinking about this in the years to come. I doubt when the eulogy at my funeral is delivered, this professional hiccup will be highlighted! The same is true for your failures.
Please don’t interpret this to mean that we should be sloppy and not give a hoot about our work as it will be forgotten anyway. Far from it as I believe we are called by God to do our best work.
I also do think that there is a connection between failures being forgotten and producing great work. For me, I do my best when I am not crippled by fear.
Take an athlete. When the coach is smoothering the player - constantly yelling and barking orders - the athlete will usually not perform optimally. However, if the coach provides structure yet also provides the freedom to make a mistake, the athlete will usually play better. I know this is true for me, both when I played sports and even in my professional career when I have worked for people who have been more domineering as opposed to those who trusted me and saw mistakes as opportunities for learning.
I also think that when we connect the spiritual as part of our career legacy, we take the onus off ourselves and can think about how our individual contributions do have a legacy on the greater good: our families and communities.
While nobody will remember your individual successes and failures, your career performances are able to influence generations. If my great grandparents didn’t come to the US from Italy 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 have 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 have a legacy on the community. Take the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 in the United States that led to the formation of our current highway system. We probably can’t name one person who actually was out there in the late 1950s constructing these highways. But most of us in our communities benefit from these efforts today.
If one of the highway workers said that he wanted his legacy to be known for painting the yellow dividing lines, he would be disappointed in what actually has transpired decades later as he would be forgotten. If however the motivation was to create a legacy that would enable future generations to benefit at a specific point in time, then that person can take satisfaction.
Now ultimately the highways we currently use will not be around in the decades to come. Maybe there will be a new highway system or roads won’t be necessary as we will be flying around in electric planes or using robots to transport us from one point to another. If we think about our work as one contribution at one specific point of time as part of a higher being’s master plan, we 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 for all professions.
This impacts how we treat one another. If we are only after our individual glory as part of our legacy, then we will take 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 as us in this particular moment of time should take a much higher precedence than 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.
We live at a point in time in which there is more focus on the individual than at any time in history. There were no “i”Phones, on-demand content catered to our interests and countless resources on how to build our personal brands in previous time periods. In the midst of this, it is difficult to recalibrate and put our legacies into other perspectives. At least that is the case for me. But I think going in this direction provides greater peace, contentment and motivation as we grapple with career disappointments and consider achieving future goals. I hope the same is true for you. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or you can write me directly at kevin.anselmo (at) gmail.com.
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