This post was part of a blog series on Brazen Careerist being sponsored by Entrustet in 2010. They asked Brazen members to answer the following question: What do you want your legacy to be? Here’s my response…

Image from AFM

What is a legacy?

Every day in college, I got in the pool. We swam laps back and forth across a 25-yard, under-heated, under-ventilated pool. Our coach, a looming, 6’-7” Italian man with athletic sneakers that made my hands look tiny, would cross his arms, stare down at us in the water and dare us to dream about our athletic legacy.

“What will YOUR legacy be?” he would ask, pacing up and down the side of the pool. “What are your biggest dreams, your aspirations, your hopes, your ambitions? When you leave college, what will be left of your talent? More importantly: how do you want to be remembered?”

This question of legacy drives us to define ourselves, define our goals, and think about our daily activities beyond the task-list of the day or the errands of the week. What do our cumulative activities add up to? Are we driven by money, by respect, by a desire to help or change the world, by a passion for what we do? In short, why do we do the things that we do?

And after we’re done doing them, what will our accomplishments add up to?

In the pool, I would touch the wall, stop for a quick gasp of air, check the clock and push off again, driving myself to swim faster, to do better, to reach farther. Some days, I would fail miserably, and my body would cramp up, check out, and stop performing in the ways that I wanted to. Other days, my mind would wrestle with the workout and push myself beyond what I was capable of. My coach, ever the inspiration, would bend down to the pool’s end, grab my shoulders and look me in the eye, and remind me to reach further than I was currently dreaming. “Stop dreaming small,” he would remind me, “And start dreaming big. Now.”

Not many people ask this of themselves on a daily basis: “who is the best YOU that you can be? Are you sure? Can you be even better than you dream of?”

Yesterday’s legacies.

In a blink, college was over, and those four years of intense training and shivering in the cold pool was done. My ten-workout weeks are done, and I’m beyond the pool now, and my legacy is what it is: I was a swimmer. It was a phenomenal experience. I was lucky to have this training, mentally and physically, towards reaching for challenges and defining yourself as a competitor, as a person, as an athlete, and as a teammate. The shadow of my name will be left in a few record books, perhaps for a few years, until a faster swimmer comes along and replaces my names in those books. I’ll tell the stories a few times – here, to my future children, to people I meet, to peer swimmers. But that was yesterday’s legacy.

Here’s the thing. You already have at least one legacy: your legacy is the print that you’ve already left behind, in the people you’ve met, the work you’ve done, the words you’ve spoken. Perhaps your current legacy is still in its infancy, or you are still hard at work in the beginning of a project that won’t make it big for several years. But regardless of where you are, your legacy is being made, right now. If all your work were to stop today, what would your legacy be?

You are what you do. Take a look around: do you like the waves you’re making on the world? People ask this question about legacies, because it helps us evaluate what we do and frame goals for the future.

What are tomorrow’s ambitions? What are your dreams? 

Today’s legacies.

Today, my legacy starts again, in a different way. I’m more than just a swimmer or a runner (although many of my posts talk about athletics, running, swimming and triathlons as a metaphor for other life lessons).

I am a writer. I am a designer. I want to be an inspirational speaker and motivator. I think about complex problems and processes and apply design thinking to real-world problems.  And more than anything, I want to be a teacher or a public speaker – because I love explaining things to people.

I am fortunate to have great bosses and mentors who challenge me to define myself, to define my goals, and to discover what I’m meant to contribute in this world.  I work full time as a designer in a great office in Sausalito, California. I love design – but it’s not enough. And for some reason, this is transparent to my mentor.

In my annual review a year ago – we debated the direction of my future. There wasn’t any holding back: “Well Sarah,” my boss asked, a man with more years’ of experience than my current age: “Do you want to be a landscape architect?” I stammered for a minute, not sure what to say. He continued: “we are an office of landscape architects, so in order to do well – don’t you think you ought to want to be a landscape architect?

The scariest part for me, was answering honestly: I still don’t know. After a three-year masters program and several years in the field, I couldn’t say decisively. I’m not sure I can convey how terrifying it is to stammer out – to the people who’ve hired you – that you’re still not sure that this is what you want to do.

But I said this, to my boss: I’m not convinced that I want to be a landscape architect for the rest of my life. I will be embedded in this field – because I love design, I love figuring out problems, and cities and urban spaces fascinate me – but I’m not sure that I will continue down the ‘prototypical path’ of a landscape architect.

It was terrifying to admit that I haven’t figured it out, that I don’t know what I will do, that I’m not fixed on one legacy. And sometimes it’s really hard to understand what to do next if I’m not sure where I’m headed.

Today, your legacy is a combination of the dreams, aspirations, and goals you have about your future. Not all of it will go according to plan. And for many of us – those of us in our 20s and 30s and young in the field – we’re still figuring out how to carve our path, what the best use of our talents is, and what we are passionate about.  A lot of it is trial and error, experience, and making mistakes along the way.

The point of this story is that it’s okay not to know what your legacy will be – it takes time to figure it out. Each year, you’ll whittle down more as you grow, learn, change, and understand yourself.

My boss was positive in his feedback. As a young employee, he encouraged me to look closely at what I like doing and why I like doing it. “You are curious to me,’ he said, “because I’m not sure I fully understand your point of view as a designer yet.” I laughed – because I was thinking the same thing. “Me too!” I replied “I am still figuring it out – and I think that’s okay.” Being honest about my learning process was huge.

What are your dreams? What makes you dance?

Multiple legacies: making waves

A legacy is something you leave behind; something you’ve contributed or given in some way. You will, undoubtedly, make multiple contributions throughout your lifetime. Each of us will have a lasting impression on our families and our close peers; you will contribute to your professional network, and for others, your contributions will reach out towards the greater world. Some contributions will be physical, built works, or products, and others will be less tangible – perhaps academic prowess, analytical theories, or words and messages of inspiration.

We probably won’t connect the dots of our legacies until after we’ve traveled through the projects and paths still ahead of us. Each experience, exploration, and adventure will contribute to the people we become and the thoughts and ideas we leave behind. In everything that you do, there will be ripples of your legacy, touching others. You may have multiple legacies.

Tomorrow’s legacy: future ambitions

A year later, I had another review. This time, I could elucidate a little bit more of what my goals are in my career(s): I want to work 25% in design, 25% writing, 25% researching and reading, and 25% teaching and presenting. This isn’t a tangible goal about a product or place that I want to be in the future. This is a process that I’d like to use towards building my legacy. This is the methodology and means towards some unforeseeable ends. I can’t map it out all in front of me right now – because if I knew in advance everything I’d be doing, well – that would be boring.

And I’m not sure I can do it all at once, I continued. But I hope to have at least 40 years, give or take, depending on where and how much I work. And so, for now, I’m focused on writing and design. Because I love both – and I love learning about both. But I can’t wait to be teaching, giving presentations, and sharing information with the world.

I want to be an inspiration to others. I want to challenge myself to be the best person I can be. I want to write – about what I’ve learned, so that other people can benefit. I want to teach and share information. I want to be a positive impact on the lives of people around me. I want to solve complex problems and design solutions to make the physical world a better place. I want to be amazing.

And yes, I want to have a legacy.

I’m just not sure quite what it is yet.

And that’s okay.

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