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Search for personal legacy

Column/Eric A. Sohn

One of my favorite songs, albeit a bit dated, is the Tubes' "What Do You Want From Life?"

It's a good question: ask yourself what you want to accomplish during your lifetime. Better yet, imagine what you think other people want from life ... say like President Reagan or Donald Trump. The usual things spring to mind, like wealth or success; maybe even happiness. Not for me.

I'd like that elusive luxury known as a legacy. Not necessarily something with my name on it (like Sohn Hall or a grant to the Smithsonian), but something I can look back at or point to with a feeling of ownership and pride.

The ability to transform your surroundings, to make your mark on some part of the world, is much more satisfying than seeing your name on a high school basketball trophy.

How do you grab something and make it your own? I can only guess: effort and creativity. MIT makes very good technicians, but it doesn't give you the spark that places you at the front of the pack.

Try to think of the last original thing you did; anything from artwork to an inventive approach to a problem you will do. Are you sure it wasn't derivative of something you had seen elsewhere or something you'd done previously?

Think hard. Did you have trouble answering these questions?

Legacy, in some respects, is a more permanent version of professional respect. Like all good things, respect begins at home -- learn to be proud of your creations. It's good to be able to step back from your work when you're done, wipe your hands off, and say "I did a damn good job on that."

Give it a once-over. Check for faults and room for improvement. Be at least as hard on your work as you are on others'. Admire your handiwork -- you'll do it even better next time. Don't worry about patting yourself on the back -- for many things you do, yours may be the only reinforcement you get.

Carried out over time, professional respect becomes a reputation, which can be the stuff of legacy. Your methods get subtly enshrined; it is taken for granted that your way is the right way to accomplish the task.

Imagine being the guy who invented the Day-Timer management system. If you're not familiar, a Day-Timer consists of a set of wirebound monthly planning books, with sections for today's appointments, expense record, and a record of what you accomplished, including the time it took to do the tasks.

Do you have any concept of how many people use these things? Imagine lying back in your bed on a sunny Sunday morning and realizing that millions of people are carrying around your creation and applying your principles of time management to their daily lives. What a thrill!

Mind you, I still like the creature comforts. I'm not going to trade in money, a fire-engine red sportscar, or real estate (none of which I really have) for my legacy. I'm no fool. But someday I'd like to look down from the heavens or up from the depths and discern my stamp on the face of mankind, no matter how small. As long as it's there, I can be happy.