What Do You Want to Be Remembered for?

The Curious History of the Nobel Prizes: Alfred Nobel Changed His Likely Legacy from “Merchant of Death”

Alfred Nobel Changed His Only Likely Legacy from The Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel (1833–96) is most remembered in the awarding of Nobel Prizes every year. The spur for the Nobel Prizes apparently came from a remarkable incident of careless journalism.

Nobel patented the explosive dynamite in 1867. Before long, he became very wealthy as the owner of a vast international explosives empire.

In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died. A French newspaper wrongly announced Alfred’s death instead under the title “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (Eng. trans. “The merchant of death is dead.”) The article called him the “dynamite king” and reported, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Upon reading this obituary, Alfred Nobel was so distressed at the prospect of how the world possibly could remember him. He wanted to leave a better legacy for himself and rewrote his will. Nobel left 94 percent of his estate to institute five prizes to celebrate the greatest achievements in chemistry, physics, physiology/medicine, literature, and peace. (The “Nobel Memorial” economics prize was instituted in 1968 by the Sweden’s central bank.)

Make a Conscious Intention to Embrace the Spirit of Your Life’s Work

'Managing the Nonprofit Organization' by Peter Drucker (ISBN 0060851147) Peter Drucker (1909–2005,) the 20th century’s leading thinker on business and management, advocated self renewal through the probing question “What do you want to be remembered for?” in his Managing the Non-Profit Organization:

When I was thirteen I had an inspiring teacher of religion who one day went right through the class of boys asking each one, “What do you want to be remembered for?” None of us, of course, could give an answer. So, he chuckled and said, “I didn’t expect you to be able to answer it. But if you still can’t answer it by the time you’re fifty, you will have wasted your life.”

I’m always asking that question: “What do you want to be remembered for?” It is a question that induces you to renew yourself, because it pushes you to see yourself as a different person—the person you can become. If you are fortunate, someone with moral authority will ask you that question early enough in your life so that you will continue to ask it as you go through life.

Your Life’s Work Becomes the Essence of Your Legacy

'Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society' by John W. Gardner (ISBN 039331295X) Emphasizing self-renewal and its inhibitors, the American intellectual John W. Gardner wrote extensively about the need to embrace change for personal enrichment and fulfillment. In his seminal Self-Renewal: the Individual and the Innovative Society (1964,) Gardner encourages a sentient attitude toward the future to kindle self-renewal:

For self-renewing men and women the development of their own potentialities and the process of self-discovery never end. It is a sad but unarguable fact that most people go through their lives only partially aware of the full range of their abilities. … Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life—not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent. And by the potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.

Idea for Impact: Asking, “What should be your legacy?” is a Great Self-Actualizing Exercise

The English novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817) wrote in Mansfield Park (1814,) “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

One single spark in your mind has the potential to alter your life forever. Inspire your personal renewal by contemplating the following questions: What do you want to be remembered for, 5-10-20 years from now? What should be your legacy?

Without doubt, you can’t tell your future—you really don’t even know what’s going to happen next. Even if you make a deliberate plan, it probably won’t succeed because reality will regulate your plan. In spite of this life’s uncertainties, reflecting on the question “What do I want to be remembered for?” can help you become more intentional in your behavior and more mindful about your life’s purpose.

What Will You Regret?

'The Top Five Regrets of the Dying' by Bronnie Ware (ISBN 140194065X) You’ve probably read about an interesting study by Bronnie Ware regarding the most common regrets of people in their deathbeds. Ware, a palliative nurse who counseled the dying in their last days, studied a cohort of people between the ages of 60 and 95. One question she asked her patients was, “what do you regret in your life?” The answers were remarkable: the regrets of the dying had nothing to do with their wealth, possessions, or status. They regretted most missed opportunities in their life—not having tried something, not having taken that chance, and not having stepped out of their comfort zones when they knew they wanted to do something and could have done it.

  • “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  • “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
  • “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  • “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
  • “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Ware published her studies first on a popular internet article and later expanded it into a mediocre book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures

Younger people shared comparable sentiments on regretting not taking chances to have fun. Ran Kivetz of Columbia University and Anat Keinan of Harvard University conducted a study of how college students felt about the balance of study/work and amusement during their winter breaks. Immediately after the break, the students regretted not having studied enough, not working, and not saving money. However, a year later, they regretted not having enough fun and not traveling.

Further along, when the students regrouped for their 40th reunion, they had even stronger regrets about not fully using their college breaks to travel and enjoy life. Kivetz explained, “People feel guilty about hedonism right afterwards, but as time passes the guilt dissipates. At some point there’s a reversal, and what builds up is this wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures.”

Long-Term Regrets Are Usually About Not Taking More Risks

Regrets take two forms: regrets of co-mission (regrets regarding things you did that you wish you hadn’t) and regrets of omission (regrets regarding things you didn’t do that you wish you had.) As people get older and look back at their lives in retrospect, they tend to ruminate more about the things they didn’t do but should have. Deciding not to take gap year and travel around Asia, shying away from telling that girl you love her, holding a grudge against a sibling for years, not learning to surf, and other what-ifs will come to dominate your pangs of regret.

It's Easier to Live With Disappointment Than With Regret

It’s Easier to Live With Disappointment Than With Regret

As you grow older, you will realize that the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do—things that you didn’t commit to when you had the opportunity. The following three quotes echo this life-lesson:

  • “I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth. I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace,” wrote the American writer Henry James at age 70 to English novelist Hugh Walpole
  • “The best advice I got from my aunt, the great singer Rosemary Clooney, and from my dad, who was a game show host and news anchor, was: don’t wake up at seventy years old sighing over what you should have tried. Just do it, be willing to fail, and at least you gave it a shot. That’s echoed for me all through the last few years,” said the American actor and activist George Clooney
  • “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover,” wrote H. Jackson Brown, Jr., the American bestselling author of the inspirational book Life’s Little Instruction Book. (He possibly incorporated a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain.)

Idea for Impact: You will Come to Regret Your Inactions Far Longer than Your Actions

A fascinating way of looking at life is to think about your life and your career in the context of future regret-avoidance. Regrets for the things you did are likely to be tempered by the passage of time, but regrets for the things you do not do will be upsetting in retrospect. Therefore, contemplating about what you may come to regret in the future could transform you into taking different actions today.

One key to helpful decision-making is to forestall subsequent regret. Many of the questions you will grapple with in life are about taking risk—stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. You know what you want to try but you’re not sure if you should try it.

The best things in life may happen just beyond your comfort zone. Don’t ruminate excessively before making a decision. Make a habit of embracing the adventure of uncertainty by taking low-risk actions. Being wrong and failing costs very little in the long-term. You can bounce back faster than you imagine.

Slow down, reassess your options, and question if the choices you’re making at the moment are part of a life-trail you’ll come to regret sooner or later.

Leaves … Like the Lives of Mortal Men

Spring and Autumn - The renewal of the elements of nature

Spring and Autumn not only call to mind the renewal of the elements of nature but also remind us of the brevity of life and the temporal advancement of life.

The past is immutable and the future is yet tenuous and undefined. Memories of the past are full of triumphs and regrets while anticipations of the future are full of hopes and fears.

If we lose ourselves in memories of the past or fantasies about the future, we lose valuable experiences that take place in the present moment. As I mentioned in my previous article “Present Perfect,” we don’t remain completely in the present.

The change of seasons reminds us of the Buddhist concepts of transience and impermanence—that everything is impermanent—everything, including our own selves. Somehow, we refrain from acknowledging our own impermanence and resist confronting our own mortality.

'The Iliad' by Homer, tr. Robert Fagles (ISBN 0140275363) In Homer’s epic The Iliad, men die at an astonishing pace in various battles. During the Trojan War, when the Achaean commander Diomedes confronts the Trojan lieutenant Glaucus, the latter reflects,

Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

Source: “The Iliad” (6:171) by Homer, tr. Robert Fagles

Idea for Impact: The passage of time induces us to confront our own mortality. Considering our own morality is a useful tool to guide our present actions. It reminds us to appreciate and live each moment purposefully and wisely.

Bereavement and Death

The Dharma Mirror blog features Trang Tran’s touching article about the loss of his family pet dog. Trang reflects on the concept of impermanence and the virtue of compassion.

Paradoxically, [my pet dog’s] death brought to life the impermanence of our existence and how the greatest and truest love that you could ever give to anybody is in their darkest moment—the moment when they need you the most. Whether it’s your children, parents, or even a dog that you love and cherish with all your heart, you carry that love and compassion with you into your next life.

I hope that in the last moments of my life, I, too, will be surrounded by loved ones who will brush my thinning, white hair, bring in some boxes of chocolate, retell funny, familiar stories, and not part with me until I take my last breath.

Bereavement and Contemplating Death

Impermanence

When you were born you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a manner than when you die, the world cried and you rejoice.
* Kabir, Indian Mystic

The loss of loved ones often leads us to contemplate death — to become conscious of the fact that life is fleeting and we shall all die someday. Our education, relationships, career, possessions, belongings — none of these are stable or permanent. Reflecting on the briefness of our lives can be a powerful motivating force to help think about the purpose of life and clarify our values and priorities.

Have you reflected on the impact of your life? Have you touched others? What will be your legacy? How will you make a difference in the lives of others?

Cherish Your Loved Ones

1913 Illustration by Nandalall Bose from Rabindranath Tagore's 'The Crescent Moon.' Source: Wikimedia

Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘My Song’

Rabindranath Tagore was an influential philosopher, visual artist, playwright, novelist, and composer from Bengal, India. Popularly known as Gurudev, he won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature.

‘My Song’ is from ‘The Crescent Moon,’ Tagore’s translations into English of a collection of Bengali poetry.

This song of mine will wind its music around you,
my child, like the fond arms of love.

The song of mine will touch your forehead
like a kiss of blessing.

When you are alone it will sit by your side and
whisper in your ear, when you are in the crowd
it will fence you about with aloofness.

My song will be like a pair of wings to your dreams,
it will transport your heart to the verge of the unknown.

It will be like the faithful star overhead
when dark night is over your road.

My song will sit in the pupils of your eyes,
and will carry your sight into the heart of things.

And when my voice is silenced in death,
my song will speak in your living heart.

My Grandma

Grandma » B. S. Mahadevamma My grandma, Smt. B. S. Mahadevamma passed away two Saturdays ago, on the 24th of November, eight days before I would have seen her in Bangalore, India. As her first grandchild, I retain very fond memories of her.

Last year December, she had recollected her experiences growing up, discussed her large family and had described change during her lifetime. When I would return this year, I had promised to, among other things, watch her favorite movies with her and take her on an airplane. Frail and old, she was filled with tears as she had come to the door to bid me goodbye. Deep down in my mind, I had wondered if I would see her again. Yet, I had said, “Grandma, I will see you next year.”

Goodbye Grandma; I will miss you!

Call for Action

Cherish Your Loved Ones

Cherish your loved ones everyday.

Pick-up the phone and call them. Write to them. Better yet, visit them. Be grateful for the difference they have made in your life.

There may never be a tomorrow.