Friday, April 3, 2009

What We Leave Behind

Every kid is asked the same question when they’re young: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s one of those safe questions asked by aunts, uncles, and complete strangers intended to solicit some sweet or precocious response from the kid. Innocuous, harmless, and fair to ask. The kid’s answer is often something totally imaginative and potentially impractical—cowboy, supermodel, astronaut, fire fighter, or veterinarian (right up until the kid realizes veterinarians have to put dogs to sleep, then it’s back to astronaut). Bonus points for those supermodel astronauts. Hey, that should be the title of my next screenplay, “Supermodel Astronaut.” Okay, people, that’s copy written, so leave it alone.

But what happens when you’re 40-ahem-something and people are still asking you what you want to be? You’ve tried a few things, with moderate success, but still feel like you haven’t quite hit your stride. Sound familiar, or is that just me?

The rude snit in me wants to reply, “Who says you have to grow up in the first place?” or “I’m still deciding. Wait for the memo.” I’m a work in progress, man!

Let’s be honest. We all want something to show for ourselves. We want to leave behind an indelible mark on the world; some brilliant accomplishment everyone can say uniquely defines us. But how long do we have before people stop waiting on us for our “mark”? Is it ever too late?

Dr. Steven Covey, the author of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” tells us we should write down the things we want to accomplish in a mission statement with steps to achieving our goals clearly articulated.

This week, with the exception of this lil’ ol’ blog, all I’ve managed to write is a shopping list. I guess “leaving my indelible mark” must’ve gotten lost somewhere between “Cap’n Crunch” and “Paper Towels.”

And, one has to wonder if people who’ve actually done that—left their mark—even bothered writing a mission statement. I’m guessing, no. Sorry, Dr. Covey. Bad habit.

I do know this (courtesy of my pals at Wikipedia): many, MANY, famous people managed to make their mark when they were my age or even younger. Sit down for this list, true believers. It’s a bit of a shocker:

Thomas Jefferson—my favorite wig-wearing founding father was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence (of course, he had help, but come on! 33?)

Dr. Martin Luther King—the leader of the civil rights movement was 34 when he wrote, “I have a dream,” 35 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and died at 39. Okay. I had a dream, too. Let’s just say Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman are very friendly in my dream and leave it at that. I know, I’m no Dr. King. But my dream is good too, people!

Elvis Presley—“Heartbreak Hotel” hit #1 when the King had just turned 21. That was the halfway mark. He died at 42. A little less conversation, a little more action, please.

Babe Ruth—the baseball legend was the first player to hit 60 home runs in one season when he was 32. The Babe retired at 40 years old with 714 homers. And kids, take note: no steroids. It was 100% chunky white man power back then.

Rosa Parks—That “old lady” who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man? She was 42 when she did that! A legend for sitting still. I think she was onto something. I love sitting still. And, why did we think she was old? Yeesh.

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt—Our 26th president got the job at 42. Of course, he was VP at the time and his President, McKinley, had been shot, so Teddy kinda slid into that one… I guess it still counts. Would Dr. Covey have wanted Roosevelt to write, “Get the boss shot” on his mission statement? Hmm…

Buzz Aldrin—flew to the moon when he was 39 and never stopped to ask for directions. I drove to Arizona from California when I was 39 courtesy of MapQuest. I guess Buzz wins. But I’ll tell you this: Buzz couldn’t stop at the outlet malls on the way. In your face, Lightyear! Kiss my $30 jeans!
Now, some people choose to take the “reality show” path to make their indelible mark. But, to me, that’s more like a dog leaving his mark on a tree. Not exactly indelible and not really how you want to be remembered. Unless your reality show is, “American Idol” and then you get Herb’s free pass. Love Idol, people! Go Gokey!

So where’s that leave us?

The sentimentalist would say our children are our mark.
…All I have to say to that is, ask your kids if they think of themselves as your mark. When they’re done laughing at you, come up with Plan B.

The pragmatist would say, not everyone has to leave his or her mark. Just do what you can, the best you can.
…Okay, but still not feelin’ the love. Dreams aren’t pragmatic. I’m reminded once again of Ms. Berry and Ms. Kidman. Dreams are for the non-pragmatic in us.

The defeatist would say, stop worrying about it. Your mark only matters when you’re dead.
…That’s our plan? Death? I’m thinking I wanna enjoy the mark I leave as long as possible. I’m all about the not dying.

Buddhists will tell you, if you don’t get a chance to leave your mark, you’ll get a “do-over.”
…I suppose you might just have to leave your mark as a chicken or a squid, but them’s the breaks. Yes, Buddhists say, “them’s the breaks.” Just ask a Buddhist.

I say this: Life is that thing that happens while you’re figuring out how to leave your mark. Some of us, through a confluence of skill and luck, get to leave a mark. The rest of us throw our fates to the wind. Maybe a mark. Maybe no mark.

But I know this—we all wanna try. It’s human nature. It’s in us like Gatorade.

So get out there people. Make your mark. Make it good. Make it something you’re proud of. Write that manifesto, build that house, sing that song, join that social movement.

Or, hey, get yourself a blog!

…And check back here—let me know what mark you’ve made, what you’re plan is, or how you’ve just resigned yourself to coming back as a very ambitious squid.

© 2009, Herb Williams-Dalgart


S. Siegel said...

It's a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he'd been DEAD for 8 years!

Herb said...

I guess you could look at it this way. Since he died so young, he hadn't done much by the time he was in his mid-life!

Anonymous said...

". . . The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

From "Middlemarch" by George Eliot