Do you ever ask yourself why?
Why do you crave success? Why does success matter so much? What are you striving for? Many of us have a fuzzy answer to this question or none at all. I certainly don’t think about it too much, at least until more recently.
The phrase start with why was made famous by author Simon Sinek, who posed the question as the starting point for any business or endeavor. If you don’t understand why you’re doing it, then what does it matter? The why drives everything else you do.
His TED Talk and subsequent book on the subject are wildly popular. This isn’t much of a surprise. The idea is so obvious, it’s surprising that we all didn’t recognize it before. Except it isn’t that surprising at all.
Why would we notice these words of wisdom when we don’t apply the same thinking to our own lives? Do you live your life by starting with why?
Why are you doing what you’re doing? What is the meaning of your life? There are a number of possible reasons, but the typical answer of the motivated individual is often the same: legacy.
You want to build something that lasts ages. You want people to remember your name, decades after you pass. You want to be timeless.
Unfortunately, this is a bunch of crap, for a few reasons. First of all, have you ever thought about how insignificant you are in the scheme of things? You’re one human of 7ish billion on one tiny planet. In about 100 years, there will probably be 10 billion new humans living on Earth. 1 in 7 billion today. 1 in 17 billion in a century. It’s going to be hard to stand out. And that’s just if we limit things to our solar system, which is one of many in the vastness of space.
We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock.Carl Sagan
But forget the numbers, you’re ambitious right? Do you ever notice how few people we reference from our history? This is a travesty to be sure, but how much of the past do we even recall? How many people actually leave a legacy behind?
How many people can you name from the golden era of The Renaissance? This was the heyday for artists, you’d think they would have left a legacy? Outside of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, who else can you recall? Maybe a few here and there, but in reality we know more about Renaissance artists thanks to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than anything else.
Leaving a legacy is not a great reason to strive for success and ultimately it is our ego taking over. Do you think those that are remembered were just trying to build a legacy? Was that their why? Or was there something deeper? I tend to think they were chasing something more, something beyond their names.
Of course if you really dive deep, the question of meaning can get pretty depressing. Irvin D. Yalom explores this question in his book Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy:
If death is inevitable, if all of our accomplishments, indeed our entire solar system, shall one day lie in ruins, if the world is contingent (that is, everything could as well have been otherwise), if human beings must construct the world and the human design within that world, then what enduring meaning can there be in life?
What if meaning isn’t a feasible goal? We can seek an answer, but the question seems to stay ahead of us, acting as an ever moving target. If no answer is imminent, then what is left? Yalom goes on to say that it is our actions that matter, not so much the answer to the question:
The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it; the rational questions one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers. In therapy, as in life, meaningfulness is a by-product of engagement and commitment… not that engagement provides the rational answer to questions of meaning, but it causes these questions not to matter.
Perhaps the answer to meaning is unattainable, but what is left is action. Striving to act and engage in things that matter to us, whether they are valid or not, is something we can all do. And so what actions have meaning, what can we commit to? The answer isn’t legacy.
The Dalai Lama has some insight on this point:
We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.
We need to strive to make an impact. To make a difference. To make the world a better place. To bring happiness to other people. This is what it’s all about in the end.
This happens in many ways, from spreading ideas to creating culture, from curing diseases to building technology, the goal is impact. Impact for other’s, beyond yourself. That is something tangible that you can leave behind.
What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.Albert Pine
If you approach life this way, your name won’t remembered, at least it’s not likely, but what you accomplish will last forever. Your impact will be seen throughout history as part of an endless journey.
From actions as small as raising your family to as large as saving the world, there are many ways to make an impact. What each of us needs to examine is what that impact is for us and then embrace it fully.
Strive for impact, not legacy.