Many of us are concerned about our ‘legacy’ – what we will leave behind as a testimony to the labours of our three score and ten. It’s a human instinct, even if we don’t get as agitated on the topic as Tony Blair seemed to in his final months as PM (driven, no doubt, by fear of ‘leaving on a low note’). But as sustainability in every sense becomes a more widespread topic, perhaps a more vocal concern for our individual and collective legacy is an inevitable consequence. It struck me, however, that when asked – separately from each other – what they hoped their legacy would be, most of the ASK Team wrote about their children. I’m not a parent, but I suspect that focusing on those you will leave it to may substantially influence your thinking of your ‘legacy’.

Thinking about the generations to come, rather than the future per se (an altogether more nebulous concept), is not something I’m the only one contemplating, of course. David Willetts, Conservative MP and Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills has recently published a book called The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give it Back – with the implication that it may pay those who will follow us to be a little less meek, as they’re going to inherit the Earth anyway.

Apply this approach to the world of work, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the strongest legacy is the largest possible organisation with the healthiest possible bank balance. Which is, of course, to base your expectations of the future on the circumstances of the past. If your thinking would benefit from a jolt here, here’s a recent quote from Brian Eno on what has happened to the record industry:

I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along. Record music equals whale blubber. Eventually something else will replace it.”

There’s a missing point here, however. The recorded music industry has changed beyond recognition in a very short space of time. Record shops are closing even faster than manufactured pop groups rise and fall. Musicians, whose ‘product’ (ie recordings) has been driven down in price by e-commerce and high street competition, are returning to live performance and associated merchandising to make their living. (Madonna, who’s arguably always made better business decisions than records, is ‘signed’ to a concert promotion agency rather than a record label.) Small niche record labels survive, but by playing to small niche markets. The big winners have been supermarkets, Amazon and – perhaps the most unexpected – Apple, an IT company.

But … music itself endures. (As Philip Ball explores in another recent book, The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do without it, we have yet to determine quite why we respond to it as universally as we do, or what evolutionary purpose it serves, but all societies have it as an important cultural entity.) Those who work in music and its related industries, however, have had to be exceptionally Darwinian in recent years. The most abundant legacy catalogue may not ensure the survival of a company wedded to pressing and distributing little silver discs if that stops being how we purchase it (unless they secure a deal with a digital retailer who makes it all available for download.)

There was another, almost delightfully ironic example of the need to adapt on the Today programme this morning, and picked up by the BBC News website. Rory Cellan-Jones BBC News blog carries an item – A digital time capsule at the library – that looks at the British Library’s fears that some websites may be lost forever. Many decades ago, I worked in its R&D Division, monitoring research into digital retrieval systems, electronic Chinese typewriters and many more examples of the ways in which we store, archive, disseminate and record human knowledge in its broadest sense. As an organisation that funds research across such a wide range of disciplines, the BL is far-sighted enough to recognise that books aren’t the end of a Library’s remit. Given that book publishing may yet undergo upheavals that go far beyond those of the record industry, this is an important recognition.) It is therefore fighting for a ‘right to archive’ (as the BBC reports in a separate news item).

The double-edged sword of ensuring legacies is illuminated precisely by their spokesperson’s comment:

We can’t make a judgement about what people in the future will find useful”

What music, the British Library and other examples of enduring aspects of our lives share is an important kind of tradition – a tradition of change. They have the ability to adapt to circumstance and to changes in their environment that enable them to stay relevant to the current and future generations. (And we could say similar things about Apple, which still makes computers but actually makes far more of its income – and its impact as a brand – by selling music and phones.)

If we think back to the start of this piece, the majority of our consultants chose to talk about their children when asked about their hoped-for legacy. Society has moved on from the days when we bore and raised children so that someone would be strong enough to hunt mammoths and gather berries for us in our dotage (although demographic trends and the state of the pensions industry may yet provoke a return to old behaviours), but a relationship between raising the next generation and succession planning remains.

We may not be consciously aware of it, but Darwin and the dinosaurs have – at some level – taught us that adaptability and responsiveness to external change are key factors in sustainability and survival. While we hope to instil values and morals in our offspring (and by that we usually mean our morals), good parenting involves an acceptance that our children may not turn out to be carbon copies of ourselves.

Indeed, the ‘rebellion’ of adolescence is a process by which we learn how to arrive at independent thinking, evolve opinions and shape and choose our own values. Overly strict parenting and micro-managing have similar outcomes, at least in as much as they ill prepare us to develop and to manage our own affairs. As Stephen Covey once said:

There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children… one is roots, the other wings.” 

Succession planning is not so different: while they may not be kith and kin, those who follow you in the workplace will inherit whatever you leave behind – including the lessons you pass on to them. If your legacy is to be more than short-lived, the skills and values you pass on must include the ability and awareness of the need to adapt – and the ability to help and inspire others to do so. And succession planning should not attract the emotional attachment of family respect: the future may be yours to influence, but it will not be yours to either live or deliver.

Yesterday’s death of Michael Foot is perhaps instructive. He may have lead a major political party to a historic defeat, but tributes paid to him paid recognition for ensuring that – despite this – the party would continue. In the words of Lord Kinnock:

The fact that the party survived as a recognisable political entity at all is attributable to the commitment, conviction, sheer guts and self-sacrifice of Michael Foot.”  

Your legacy is fundamentally about those you leave it to, rather than about you (which is why the media were less than supportive of Tony Blair’s pubic concern about his): focus not on being a giant, but on having shoulders that will bear the weight of those that follow. (As David Berlinski, American mathematician – and, in the context of this piece, ironically a leading critic of both evolution and Darwin – has commented, “every monument accumulates graffiti”.) As the oldest author I could find of a relevant quotation (and quotations are a legacy in themselves), I’ll leave the last words to Pericles:

What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

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