I believe there is a fundamental shift in the way people assess their lives, as they move from the 20’s to the 30’s. The 20’s are all about exploration – experimenting, testing new waters, failing unabashedly, being okay with not having a clear answer to “where am I going in life?”. It’s not reckless necessarily, but on the spectrum of fearless to fearful, their risk appetite is more tending towards the former. On the other hand, the 30’s, more specifically, post the age of 35, one starts thinking more in terms of longevity or legacy – “am I making a mark in my world; what am I leaving behind?” These thoughts figure naturally, while making choices.
On the last day of the Acumen Fellowship, we were all asked to write our epitaph as a “fun” (yeah, funny sense of humor, they got!) exercise – pen down what we would be remembered for, if we were no more. I’ll be honest – it took me over 25 minutes, and some help from Google, to really even write the first word down on paper. The personal stuff came easy – and what a relief that was! Being able to name over 10 individuals comprising my family, friends and dogs, that I was “leaving behind”, is a blessing I knew was rare. However, professionally? That was, and still is, hard for me to comprehend. What would I want my legacy to be, really?
My mom has been a teacher for over 30 years now. She worked in schools for many years before starting her own business. I was 13. At the time, we were 4 students (yes, I was one of them) who would sit around the dining table in our living room. There was an old, green chalkboard mounted on one wall, that would throw clouds of chalk dust in the air every time she wrote down boring algebraic equations. One of her students, Advait, took a special liking to her- he hated math and science, you see, and it was her patience and coaching that helped him clear his exams. She has a way with students, my mom. She has a temper, and her students bear the brunt of her yelling on multiple occasions. But she’s so invested. It bothers her when they don’t do well. It hurts her when they choose some other teacher over her – not from a pure business customer growth standpoint, but a blow to her talent and commitment. And almost all of her students know that she’s more than just a teacher – they confide in her; even when they can’t talk to their parents, they trust her. Every year, on Teacher’s Day, our home is filled with handmade gifts, cards, chocolates, flowers. Her students who have graduated many years ago make it a point to visit, to take her blessings and show her that they’re doing well in life.
So does Advait – every year without fail. He is in the Merchant Navy now, so he is sailing away for 6 months of the year. But every time he lands, he makes it a point to visit my mom. He brought a box of sweets when he first got into Maritime School, he got another box when he graduated, he came after his first successful sail, he came to give her his wedding card, he brought his wife to introduce her to his teacher, and then last week, he brought his newborn son. It’s been over 15 years since we all sat around that dining table. Isn’t that what legacy is? When someone touches your life through boring algebraic equations?
What my mom did was nothing out of the ordinary, if you think about it. She chose a vocation, not just a career. Legend has it that when she was in school, my mom would study history and science by pretending to teach the walls, tables and windows of her room. Almost like a theater performance! She was a natural. But she honed her skills through years of training. And she did her job really, really well. For well over 30 years, she put in the work that was needed. Bore the shit sandwich of demanding parents, demanding hours, less time with her own family – all because of the love for teaching.
Maybe that is all it takes then. Rather than think about legacy today, let that be an afterthought to an immense, genuine, sincere body of work that is built over years. Work that puts people first, work that is not calculated, and is personal. With the hope that in due course of time, the legacy will show itself at your funeral.