Sunday, November 20, 2011


The term "Legacy" is one that carries both gravity and pretension. It's something I've been chewing on a lot lately after reading Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography and tackling a Richard Feynman collection after. Now in the throes of the J. Robert Oppenheimer bio American Prometheus, the concept of legacy and what it means has become quite fascinating. Steve Jobs created revolutionary products that delivered intuitive computers for normal consumers, but was a notorious asshole who routinely berated his coworkers, swindled his friends and was often too busy/callous to spend quality time with his family. Steve Jobs often fretted about his legacy, but at the end of the day he chose to be worshiped by millions of strangers than revered in his own family.

Feynman was a different character entirely. He possessed the same ferocious curiosity of Jobs, but his curiosity was not limited to a specific discipline like computing or design. He embraced everything with the zeal that few of us can muster for even our most interesting pursuits. He planned a trip to Brazil, so he taught himself Portuguese and became immersed in the culture, picking up the drums in his spare time and soon mastering them. When he worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, he taught himself lock-picking and spent hours mastering the craft and learning new tricks. He was a kind and gentle and nurturing influence on his students at Cal-Tech and was equally patient and beloved by the scientific community at large. He became interested in hallucinations but was reticent to indulge in drugs, so he spent many hours in sensory deprivation chambers to satisfy these questions. He made landmark Biology observations and even became popular enough as an artist to warrant an exhibit under his pseudonym "Ofey". He had two children from a long marriage to his third wife (his first died of TB and second divorced him), and proved that genius need not be a ticket to a solitary life.

For the rest of us, does the word "legacy" even apply? Does it even matter? Some could effectively argue that concerning yourself over how you will be remembered is a pointless pursuit, and I would not disagree. But the fact of the matter is that life is an end sum game, and having a nice legacy is a validation of a life well-lived, even if your memory dissolves quickly. What's interesting is how these legacies can change over time, and how your life can be distilled into a sterile paragraph that scrubs away any complexity or dimension. Watching Boardwalk Empire, I was struck by a portrayal of a KKK member as a family man. When you have the KKK on your resume, it doesn't matter that you were a doting husband or a wonderful father or that "things were different back then", your legacy is sealed. Perhaps those who are fighting tooth and nail to defend marriage from a "liberal assault" will enjoy a similar fate in twenty years and they try to explain themselves to their grandchildren who simply dismiss them as an old bigot.

There is so much unhappiness in the world today, that most people can only cope with it by channeling it into frustration and impatience that only serves to propagate the problem. It is exceedingly difficult, but we would all be better served if we understood that everyone is struggling in some way, and that their actions are their response to this. This sentiment is better expressed in David Foster Wallace's commencement speech, but it's something I try to come back to when I am close to boiling. Perhaps legacy is an inappropriate motivator to get someone to treat others with respect, but if it gives you a moments pause before you beep your horn or spout profanity, maybe it's not such a bad thing.

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