Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Foundational Work

Legacy is a tricky thing.

When we think about the common understanding of the word "legacy", we often consider it to be a summation of output. There's a finality to the word. Financial advisors speak to their retirement clients about "legacy planning", which translates roughly into "what do you want to leave behind when you die?"

Really? The only time we contemplate our past is when we're coming to the end of the road?

That's not only morbid, but a waste of opportunity. 

Santayana famously warned that "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it". Implied in that statement is the corollary that history has things to teach us for today. And to whose history have we had a unique front row seat? Our own.

I've been spending some time lately thinking about a podcast from Strategic Coach's Dan Sullivan and Shannon Waller called "Recognize The Value Of Your Past For Business Success And A Bigger Future". Sullivan posits that your past has unique value because no one else owns it. Others can look at it and attempt to ascribe descriptions or context to it, but those descriptions and context only mean anything if you allow them to mean something. Your past is 100% yours, and your story is what you say it is. Because you own your past, you're free to use your past as the history that guides your present and your future using your own personal lessons from your previous experiences and observations.

The conversation reminded me of the lessons I learned reading Man's Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl, a book listed in a 1991 Library of Congress survey as one of the Ten Most Influential Books in the United States, and that Tim Ferriss revealed in 2021 as the most frequent answer when he asks his guests for book recommendations. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy (Greek for "healing through meaning"), and argued that the search for meaning was the central human motivational force. A significant portion of the book details Frankl's time in Nazi concentration camps. One of the book's most cited passages is Frankl's realization during a particularly bleak episode:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Today, I happened to read a new Rolling Stone interview with Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins. I was deeply involved with music in the '90's, and the Pumpkins hold a special place for me. During one particular personal valley when I was at my most down and out, living in New York City (or perhaps more accurately surviving), I scraped together enough money to buy an album as soon as it came out: Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadeness. That album was one of a handful that I would listen to repeatedly, either on my Walkman or in my car, and feel better about my existence.

Corgan has become quite candid over the last few years. He was seen as hostile in the '90's and '00's, and there was a time when his career was largely seen as finished (with many in the press seeing that end as a result of Corgan's own faults and failings). This new interview, however, underlines Frankl's themes and the podcast's point: no one really knew what was going on but Billy. No one saw the whole story but him. And once he started looking at where he had been, what had happened, and what he wanted, he used the past and it's lessons as both a foundation for his creative work and (I would argue) as fuel to sustain him through the creative process and the inevitable comparisons and reminders from his past. And now he's happy. And quite successful on his own terms. As he states in the interview:

"Here’s what I would say. If you haven’t graduated at this point, then you become one of those Sunset Boulevard characters that’s holding onto something that’s really far in the rearview mirror."

It's not merely enough to own your past. You've got to understand it, grow from it, and move forward. 

I'm currently coming out of what has been a personally turbulent period. One of the things that leads me to be optimistic about where I am and where I'm headed is a good hard clear-eyed look at my past. I own my mistakes. I own my successes. And I own my history; what I've done, what's been done to me, and what I've witnessed. I own my legacy, but it's far from complete. It's the foundation upon which I'll build whatever comes next. It's been examined, inspected, and to an extent, shored up where needed. And with that, as a great man once said, "Onward and upward."