You’re never going to have a legacy, so give up trying


One day, Conan O’Brien’s show will end. In time, the TV host will fade from public memory, relegated to a footnote in wonky discussions about early-21st century talk shows. Eventually, he will be entirely forgotten.

O’Brien himself has no problem with this. In an interview with the New York Times last week, he said any grand farewell show would be a waste. “Two years later, it’s going to be, ‘who’s Conan?’ This is going to sound grim, but eventually, all our graves go unattended.” Famous talk show hosts aren’t the only ones who have to reckon with their own insignificance. O’Brien recounts a conversation with actor Albert Brooks, in which he told Brooks he was awed by how his movies would “live on forever.” O’Brien describes the exchange as follows:

“And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] ‘What are you talking about? None of it matters.’ None of it matters? ‘No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.’”

He’s right, of course. Amongst those younger than 40, only the odd film buff is familiar with Clark Gable’s film oeuvre, and they tend to be proud of their obscure knowledge. Chuck Berry transformed music by more or less creating rock and roll, but how many of his songs can you name besides “Johnny B. Goode”?  Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the most accomplished painters of the 17th century, but the vast majority of people today couldn’t pick her paintings out from other great Baroque artworks. In time, when climate change destroys the human race, even the remnants of these creations will be reduced to dust.

This is not a bad thing. It means our names and legacies are mortal, just like us. And so we are free to choose a more meaningful lodestar to guide our lives, rather than chasing the ephemeral possibility that our names will be spoken with gravitas once we’re dead.

This applies to smaller, daily priorities, as well as big picture questions. For example, recognizing that I’ll never be remembered as a great writer—that, even if my yet-to-exist books are taught in schools, eventually the syllabi will be updated—helps me focus on the immense satisfaction I get from meeting people, entering different worlds, publishing articles that raise awareness of overlooked problems, and the act of writing itself. Conversely, though having a higher Twitter following might open opportunities for me to build my brand as a writer (such as invitations to give public talks and the chance to rub shoulders with public intellectuals), reminding myself of the impermanence of any possible legacy also reminds me that I really don’t enjoy personal-brand building, so why devote energy to it?

It doesn’t matter what field you are in: If you know that what you’re experiencing now is more important than how you’ll be remembered when you’re gone, then you can adjust your career to pursue the activities you find personally fulfilling. It’s a far better way to live than dreaming of the perfect CV for your gravestone.

Reckoning with the insignificance of your own legacy can also improve your perspective on life more broadly speaking. We all die, and our legacies all die, so what really matters? Even in the face of impending mortality, some acts have worth: Great love, acts of kindness, exciting experiences, and personal sacrifices for the wellbeing of others contain the best of human existence. They hold intrinsic value, regardless of whether they are remembered. This is the crucial point that every corporate villain in movies forgets: Destroying the lives of others for the sake of your own wealth and reputation is never the right choice. Your legacy will fade, any importance that people assign to your name will one day be forgotten. And so all that really matters is that you enjoy life, and bring joy to others. It’s big, it’s cliched, but it’s true. No one, other than you and your mum, will truly ever care that you got a perfect score on the LSAT. Or even that you hosted a late-night talk show.