Marcus Aurelius, the 16th Emperor of Rome, the most powerful man on earth for a time, kept a journal of thoughts and notes for himself, to keep himself grounded. The twelve “books” worth of writings cover a broad range of things, from practical tips to heavier philosophical musings, but the emperor brings up one thing over and over and over: the absurdity of legacy.
So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone. – Book 7 ¶6
He brings up death multiple times per book, constantly reminding himself of his own mortality, of the fact that it is not something to fear, and of the need to ignore the distractions of everyday life and those around him, and focus on what’s really important. Legacy, is not one of those things, and he ridicules those who chase that goal:
The way people behave. They refuse to admire their contemporaries, the people whose lives they share. No, but to be admired by Posterity — people they’ve never met and never will — that’s what they set their hearts on. You might as well be upset at not being a hero to your great-grandfather. – Book 6 ¶ 18
It’s amazing how many great people become concerned with their legacy in their later years. On the one hand, it’s good for the world: if you’ve led a villainous life, spending a few years pouring your resources into making up for that past is good, regardless of your motivation. But, it’s also the height of narcissism and delusion. Steve Jobs will be almost entirely forgotten within three generations. Bill Gates, unless he cures cancer, will likely be forgotten within five. Political leaders, celebrities and sports legends will be lucky to be remembered even while they’re still alive, let alone one generation later. No matter how many libraries, or schools, or monuments you build with your name on it, you will be forgotten.
So, doing things for legacy’s sake is clearly the wrong way to approach your life, not only because it’s ridiculous to be concerned about what people you’ll never meet or know think about you, but because almost without exception, no matter what you do, they won’t think about you anyway.