Sometimes I wonder what I am leaving behind as my personal and professional life unfolds. The grand and lofty version is an idea we refer to as “a legacy” – something important for which I might be remembered. It sounds pretty intimidating. The simple day-to-day reality is far different. What most of us leave behind is revealed not in highly visible monuments, but in accumulated decisions, incremental choices and sustained commitment. Perhaps these represent a more realistic and profound understanding of our lasting contributions.
Some years ago I met a colleague who was working for an institution I once served. As we exchanged greetings, he said to me, “I see your name in many of my files.” I felt this moment of panic, trying to discern if he was offering a compliment or an indictment. My guess is as he assumed the responsibilities of the role and explored the legacy of my work, his reflections ranged from “What was this guy thinking?” to “How did he ever think of that?”
Coming to peace with the past and carefully planning for the future leads us to the realization that every day we work for our successors. It’s true in our professional work, our volunteer and community service, our participation in communities of faith and even in our families.
The following text is the essence of an exchange between Fareed Zakaria, host of the CNN news program GPS (Global Public Square) and Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Monti. Monti, an academic and economist, came to office in November of 2011. Following the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi in the tumult of the sovereign debt crisis, Monti was asked by the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, to form a technocratic government to address the financial crisis. The interview aired May 20, 2012.
FAREED ZAKARIA: What do you think it says about Western democracies that when one of the most important democracies, like Italy – one of the richest countries in the world – got into trouble – you had to almost suspend democracy to fix it. They have gone to an unelected czar, you who has been asked to please fix it and the politicians can come back and do their mischief in a few years. The problems Italy faces, all western democracies face. Over the last 30 years there has been a buildup of entitlements, of goods and services being provided to the public from the state with no sense of fiscal balance, and the result is that all these countries are in debt and the picture looks worse as people retire. Can democracy handle this?
MARIO MONTI: Democracies have to handle this. How? Well, I believe the reason why democracies are very poor these days to handle this is that democracies like markets have become much too short term. The combination of very important media, frequent elections, [and] even social networks, which tend to polarize people towards more extreme positions – a combination of these factors has the consequence that in democracies professional politicians tend to reject or only to embark into solutions that imply short-term costs and longer-term benefits with great reluctance – only when they are faced with an actual, huge crisis. So, the problem to me is how it’s possible to reconcile a classical electoral democracy, which after all we love, with a longer-term perspective. So, I think democracy in the long term in our countries will survive if it comes to be associated with leadership, [but] will not survive if democracy, plus media, brings to us more and more followership rather than leadership.
It has become very difficult in our society, and societies around the world to make decisions, offer choices, and sustain commitments about the long-term future. I find this troubling. When I look around me, I see the legacy of those who preceded me. The benefits and privileges of today are firmly rooted in the distant past.
When I was in college in the late 1970s, I visited the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Adjacent to the magnificent structure was a small building occupied by stonecutters and carvers. Over the years, generations of these workers were trained to build this magnificent structure, which began in 1888 and reached substantial completion in 2008. The lives of architects, workers, church leaders and elected officials passed, and yet the collective, intergenerational commitment remained. These individuals and groups spent their entire lives working on something they would never see completed. That image has stayed with me.
There are many other examples.
The federal highway system was initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, when in 1956 he signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Some would be surprised to know the 1956 Act remains alive with a section of Interstate 95 yet to be completed.
The Internet finds its roots in the early computer technologies of the 1950s. The protocols for moving data were standardized in the early 1980s. Today we would not know what to do without the flow of information and communication.
The earliest notions of preserving natural lands for the public began to emerge in the early 19th century. By 1872, the National Park System was launched with the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Today there are more than 450 areas protected and maintained by the National Park Service.
Our societal predecessors have a long list of accomplishments we celebrate today. But there is also a shadow side. Some of the legacies we inherit have not been beneficial. We continue to do much as a nation to overcome the environmental impacts of our expansion and modernization, and provide for a sustainable future. We have not yet developed an economic culture that can be directed effectively toward the long-term future. We have not yet found the pathways that will enable us to embrace human difference and diversity in all its forms. Many well-intended choices can result in unintended consequences. This is a legacy we have to own.
So, we work for our successors. Our task in forging a worthy legacy is to adopt a perspective that allows us to willingly devote time, energy and resources in the short term, for the long-term benefit of everyone – particularly for those who have not yet been born.