How do you leave your legacy without being a legend in your own lunchtime?

I bought a rhododendron the other day.  They give names to certain plants which have lots of variants, like rhodos, camellias and azaleas.  This one was called Mrs G. W. Leak.  How impertinent to Mrs Leak, I thought.  What was her name – Genevieve, Georgia, Gwendoline, Grace?  And why did she have to be Mrs – why not just her name in her own right rather than as some bloke’s attachment.  I don’t know if she was the gardener who cultivated this particular strain of rhodo, but whatever the shrub’s name commemorates, I thought she might have been given a more lyrical legacy.

I have been a little obsessed with this idea of leaving a legacy.  As a younger lawyer, I once created what I thought was a groundbreaking suite of documents, in plain English, for Aussie dollar denominated commercial paper programs (what? – corporate IOUs).  My dream was that the clients would be able to read and understand the documents without having to get a translation from their lawyers.

After I had moved on, I learned that the documents were slowly demolished and the shalls and suches and whereases were all put back.  There went my plain English legacy.

I became even more obsessional about the whole concept of leaving a legacy as I approached my semi-retirement.  I had spent seven years building my version of a values-based, high-performing professional services team, and set up a collection of other structures including the company’s philanthropic foundation.

But I just couldn’t get my executive colleagues interested in planning how all that stuff would be carried on after I retired.  They of course were extremely busy running their own shows, but I didn’t see that.  It was all about me.  About a week before I left my boss finally made various appointments to fill the holes I would be leaving.

I left  feeling disappointed about the fragility of my legacy.  It took me a while to put it in perspective.  Here’s what I figured out:

  • It wasn’t all about me after all.  I was actually confusing the idea of legacy with legend.  What I really wanted to have was have something attributed to me, rather than leave something worthwhile for its own sake.  I was in love with my own legend.
  • Whether anything that I created actually survived was not the point.  I stumbled across a piece of wisdom which was reputed to be written on the wall in Mother Teresa’s orphanage, but was in fact written by Kent M. Keith.  It’s known as The Paradoxical Commandments .  One of those commandments goes: “What you spend years building someone may destroy overnight.  Build it anyway.”

If something is worth being a legacy, then it has to be worthwhile for its own sake.  You do it because it’s right, not because it is in service of your own legend.  As usual I could have saved myself a whole lot of pain if I had worked that out a bit earlier in life.

By David White

    • Betty
    • August 3rd, 2012

    Keep up the good work on Plain English. You never know, it might become your legacy. It is a really important for us all, especially the lawyers and other users of technobabble.

  1. I had another awful thought – that the “G.W.” wasn’t Mrs Leak’s names at all, but her husband’s – remember when women were known that way? The “Mrs” plus her old man’s initials?

  2. This speaks to me; thank you. Loved the paradoxical commandments; I hadn’t seen them.

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