There comes the point in many people’s lives where they have hit a certain level of success and then struggle to find the meaning of what they have done. This is because so much of what we define as success in today’s society is standardized and happens when you have ticked off all of the boxes on someone else’s checklist.
Perhaps it started with getting into a prestigious private high school and then a selective college. If you got good grades and did the requisite amount of extracurricular activities and volunteer hours, you landed an internship, which led to a great entry-level position, which eventually led to a career you could be proud of having. Check, check, check. Somewhere along the way you ticked off other boxes in other categories if you married someone you loved, had some kids, bought a car, bought a house. Check, check. Maybe you even adopted a dog or purchased a beach house that you rent out in the off-season. Check.
Through it all, you were dutifully moving along with your eyes set on the next step, the next goal, the next box to mark off the list. Before you knew it, you were past what you once considered the end of the list, and now you find yourself struggling to figure out what comes next. Sure, there is always more to buy. You can get a more beautiful car, a bigger house. You can focus on pushing your kids to start checking off the boxes on their own lists, vicariously extending the pressure down the line.
At some point, though, you have to ask yourself what your success really means and how you can leverage it to make a difference not just in your own life but in the lives of those around you and those you will never get to see.
In the poem “Manifesto,” Wendell Berry implores the reader to “plant sequoias.” These giant trees will be growing long after you are gone. He says to “say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.” His twin message is a complex one that both places responsibility on your shoulders and removes some of the pressure you may have put on yourself. By recognizing that the work you do now will resonate for generations to come, you become aware of the weight of your choices. What have you done that’s worthy of eternity? What ripples have you made that will touch a life 500 years from now?
At the same time, recognizing that it is impossible to live long enough to see the end of your life’s work puts the checklist in perspective. It will never be finished. You will never reach the bottom of the list, and trying to is just a fool’s attempt at immortality.
Instead, embrace the limits of your life by recognizing that every choice you make has the potential to send that ripple out into the unknowable future. You are building tomorrow’s reality. That is the work that matters.
Think of it like links in a chain. All of the people who came before you gave you the tools to stand where you are standing today. This is not just about bloodlines and lineage. It is about humanity and what it is to be a member of it. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains that humans did not evolve to the top of the food chain because we were the fastest or the strongest or even necessarily the smartest as individuals. We developed because our imagination allows us to create realities and then work together to make them happen. The technology you hold in the palm of your hand is a testament to what happens when people build on the tools of the generation before them, continually improving and working to make new dreams a reality.
Thinking about your legacy should add clarity and a sense of purpose to your life. What do you want people to say about you when you are gone? What do you want the people who interact with the people who learn from you to do? If we are links in a chain, are you making the chain stronger?
Don’t leave it up to chance. Now is the time to work actively to build the legacy you want to leave in your place. Plant sequoias every day by interacting with the world in a way that matters. Instead of chasing down the phantom end of a bottomless checklist of someone else’s successes, build the life that matters to you today. Live by example and show the people around you how to live their lives in a way that matters, too.