Question: What is the one thing that you want to be remembered for?
A dear reader posted “The Question” above, a reader who can be found reading the web, as he put it, over “a delicious cup of hot coffee” instead of shallowly, franticly skimming. He’s my kind of reader.
Does that Question interest you? Scare you? Perhaps you hope to hear my own answer. You will have to wait. I’m not trying to wiggle out of answering, like a fish trying to wiggle off the bright dock back into dark water, but then but again I’m only human.
I suppose many folks wouldn’t be scared or excited at all by the Question. In fact, they’d be bored. And they’d also be the ones who never accept the challenge to Answer.
The Question in a good one, according to business guru Peter Drucker. Back in school in Europe they were all asked that Question. He tells of attending his class reunion. The party was limping along until someone said, “Remember that question?” Instant energy! Down the years, the Question had seriously mattered. As boys, the silliest answer was from a lad who said he hoped to be known as a famous horseman and ladies man; other students had answers a little more worthy of them. Now, here they stood, casting grownup shadows. Long before Drucker had invented Management By Objectives, the boys-to-men had lived an experiment on themselves about the power of setting goals.
Drucker tells this story in his autobiography, Confessions of a Bystander. I don’t think he tells what his own Answer was. As for coming up with answers and goals, an executive once said his favorite tool was a paper and a pen, to focus his words and thoughts. Experts say our goals must never be composed in point form, but must be deliberately written out as proper sentences.
As you know, a goal is usually long term and not easily measurable, while an objective is short term and very measurable. An objective is a nice tool for managing employees; a goal draws men to lead themselves. A goal means more freedom, not less: In a world of endless possibilities, uncharted and chaotic, a “goal star” gives me constraints, leading me to a feeling of freedom, and feeling more productive.
In everyday life, when it comes to goals and philosophies, many of us do not have our “consciousness raised” enough to be able to trap our wispy thoughts onto paper… Yet, I’m sure I could tap into my deepest, noblest self if I dared to pose the Question, “What one thing do I want to be remembered for?” Maybe I’m ready, here before you, to stop swimming around and, as a human, just set my hook for my “one thing remembered by” goal.
Of course, the definite term “one thing” can be awfully challenging, nevertheless I need to say “one” in order to focus. Thinking won’t be done quickly. Here’s my pen, here’s my paper: Whatever easily pops into my head can be jotted down, and set aside, allowing time for pondering. Here’s where a lifestyle of frantic skimming would be fruitless; here’s where stillness pays off.
Telling you my own answer would be better for us both than my being modest. I know this from my Toastmasters club: (public speaking) At the beginning of every meeting we have an “introduction question,” where we go around the tables and everyone gets to speak. My essay Learning to be Nice (archived May 2013) came from the intro question, “What are you known for?” No modesty—we love hearing each other’s answers. Without escaping into modesty, I will do my best to sneak up on the Question.
“Being nice” might be my Answer: Let me jot that down, and park it over in the corner of my blank page, encircle it with a dotted line, and call the area the “parking lot.” I’ll park “being nice” to be considered later. With thoughts at the scribble stage: Obviously, as I mentioned last week, I was once a soldier, and at the time I tried to be the best I could, but I never aspired to be remembered as obtaining the ultimate rank of the regimental sergeant-major. Years later, I was once a good university student with good school spirit, but at the same time, I never aspired to be remembered as being a popular, straight-A student. As it happens, I was known to my professors, had a good time, and had my name in the campus media. But if I had set “to be remembered” as a goal… then maybe I would have been more involved in campus life, helped my fellows, set up a campus charity, innovated a new student celebration, planted a garden, and more. I didn’t. Cross out soldier and scholar.
It’s good to cross out; it’s good to “pick one,” like choosing to take a cat home from the pet store: It would be so sad to put off getting any cat at all, indecisive, holding out for a dream cat, forever. Better to let all other store cats become wavy dreams, while a warm heavy Schrodinger purrs on my lap.
A productive way to postpone answering the Question would be to take a satellite’s camera view of the land. At the “intersection of everyday life” I live on “the lonely prairie,” nestled up to the Rocky Mountains, among young people pioneering new lives out here, attracted by jobs. I wonder what my international readers would think? Many of us have to leave our families back east. Or overseas. I guess older people on the bamboo side of the Pacific must find it strange that we here could live so far from our families and the cemeteries of our ancestors.
Across the Atlantic the Europeans used to find it queer that we settled our gun duals alone, under the harsh light of high noon, not with our “seconds” and our family and a good doctor standing by in the morning. For us, riding into town alone, so far from clan and family, we had to fight alone. Settling here, we had to depend on each other, on government and community. No wonder we amazed the French athletes who came here to observe our Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics: Such citizenship, such community spirit! The French for their own Games could not duplicate our sheer numbers of enthusiastic volunteers four years later.
On our own continent, since my blog is at “the intersection of citizenship,” I had better note that down in the United States, to my regret, volunteering and citizenship seem to be in decline. From what I can see: People are withdrawing from scrutinizing and participating in their government. They tell themselves, for example, that market forces will suffice for the public to realize the greater good. They are mistaken.
Consider their current war. Market forces, such as the contracted Blackwater armed security, made insurgency in Iraq increase, undoing all the goodwill of other Americans. And yes, at least one individual, in his book Fiasco, spotlighted Blackwater to his fellow Americans, but to no avail, not for years. Meanwhile the Iraqis, while on paper less democratic, knew enough to massively participate, rather than leave everything to their leaders and regular army. And the U.S. people? Not so much. The goals of their occupation? Developing Iraq and teaching democracy to the Iraqis. Their result? A fiasco—what a waste! This was in part because although U.S. citizens would still go off to Africa in the Peace Corps, no level headed engineer who liked development, no American housewife who liked speaking Arabic, would go over to help the war effort. (see Imperial Life in the Emerald City:Inside Iraq's Green Zone) Instead, as streetlamps flickered from dying engines, U.S. soldiers figuratively “recruited” for the insurgency, terrifying people by kicking down their doors in the dark, with no language but a roar. Too bad they had no housewives. (Only local males) Back home, I wonder if “The market knows best” morphed into “Hands off! The White House knows best!” For a nation at war, reversing the practice of WWII, turning active citizens into passive civilians, is not proving to be a viable strategy.
A Good Life
In my car this August morning, on CBC radio, in clear sight of the still snow-capped Rockies, I heard about a community spirited man know as “Crazy Larry” who, over the last 25 years, has never missed a public event in the Banff and Canmore area. For years, behind his bike he towed an air compressor so he could blow up balloons to give to children. Crazy (“not just Larry”) Larry lives alone at the YMCA. But now he must miss every event. He was in a bike accident; he lies in hospital. Now what?
How nice that thousands of dollars have been raised for him, partly from former kids who knew him; meanwhile kids of today have made lots of “get well” cards. He is touched. The money will come in handy. Of course Canada, just like the lands across the Pacific of New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and just like all the nations of western Europe, has “free communist-style medicine,”—scrutinized by the public. Accordingly, the money raised for Larry is not for medicine: It’s for getting his life back on track when he gets out, starting with buying a new bike helmet. A nice story. I doubt Crazy Larry ever asked himself the Question, but it’s obvious he will be remembered for enriching children’s lives, and for his community spirit… even if he is “only” a poor civilian, unvalued by the marketplace.
…As a child I had an impression “the good life” meant doing a bit of everything, ideally being a renaissance man, while specializing in nothing: Specializing was for monks and scientists. I suppose I got that unkind impression from handy farmers, and from the “everything in moderation” Athenians. And from the educated British, where, except for the armed services, the various professions were supposed to be indistinguishable from one another during evenings in their social clubs.
Certainly I think our children should be exposed to the full spectrum of life. And of course, in the child-to-adult zone of university (for those who attend) there should also be a worthy spectrum. College can change lives. As for the campus years, I remain skeptical of Spartans who would, say, change a business major into a business conservatory. Especially after Peter Drucker noted that in Canada the evidence showed that bank managers performed just as well whether they had come from a lengthy university or from the shorter college system used in the province of Quebec. Maybe university is best seen as a scouting mission for “life, the universe and everything.” Soldiers know: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”
I saw my years in school as being comparable to a stint on the streets, or in the merchant marine or the peace corps: Not time ripped away from life, but a genuine part of life.
I am still pondering, “What is a good life?” even now in my early autumn years. As satellites built by skilled technicians orbit overhead I believe living in the space age means interdependence. … specialization… Now then—despite distracting myself with admittedly important matters of citizenship, the personal challenge of the Question remains. Needless to say, my profession is my specialization, but that doesn’t mean that any aspect of my career has to be my “one thing.” Besides, as I said in Art or Business, (archived September 2010) I want my “top of mind” thinking, the “stuff my subconscious pops up” when I am showering, to be about my art, not my day job.
If my art, meaning my writing, is to be my “one thing to be remembered for,” then I could work on cracking the publication barrier. That could involve objectives of man-hours worked, people to consult, books to read, classes to take, and more. If I set out to publish essays then I would have to look at the works of fellow essayists, and at their careers too.
If my one thing is “being nice” then I could develop a lifestyle of focusing more kindly on my fellow beings, being less closed off, more vulnerable, more skilled at current events and small talk, being large minded, never petty —and hey, learning to juggle or do card tricks, sing or play piano. And, as well, being of service and cultivating “an attitude of gratitude.”
Another goal could be around my interest in citizenship.
Sure, I could do essays and do being nice and do fiction and do other things too, all at once… but the challenge of “one thing” is meant to “up my game,” to a level surpassing the rest of my life, a level that’s “memorable.” Maybe it would be just common sense, and not postponing my Question, if I took time to consider: What do people say to me? Human nature being what it is, several people commenting the same thing is quite significant… Except for all those ladies who call me handsome: they are just being friendly.
Let me think: I’m told that I see the world differently, for example, in evaluating people’s speeches in Toastmasters I see things others don’t see, while my own speeches are of things unseen. Yes. I suppose I set an example in being different. But in everyday life I like to push on the envelope, not break it. I always like to gently know my own strength for what people can handle. I’m really not interested in being noticeably free of my culture.
People say I’m knowledgeable and well read. That’s because I wanted to know enough to be able to write interesting novels like my favorite authors. I can’t think anything else to use my broad knowledge for, except being a schoolteacher in Asia.
People say I’m funny. Yes, but—my humor depends on the setting: I believe in helping working groups who need to relax to get on with their job, and in helping the people I love if they tell me they want to laugh. On the other hand, my Freefall writing class is not a “setting,” because my “audience” is not the writers present in my class. Nevertheless, my impromptu fiction, when I read aloud, is often funny. Often, my fellows don’t need to give me a “writer critique,” for by the time I finish reading their wordless laughter has said enough.
If being remembered for humor was my “one thing” goal, then it follows I could read funny essays and study serious books on the craft of humor. And observe “standups” and situation comedies on TV. In a small way I am doing that now, but not with intent to “up my game.” At my convention this past weekend, When Words Collide (a pun on the old Philip Wylie novel) I found a fascinating panel on using humor in fiction. One of the folks on the panel had just won a crime novel of the year award, for a novel that used humor. Crime and humor! Together! It can be done.
I loved the wealth of writing knowledge that people shared all weekend; maybe I could be known as a writing teacher—if so, then I’d have to be one of those who can “do,” and “do well enough” to teach. Wow. Another goal. I won’t list the steps, since now I have the concept: Any worthy goal, consciously held, means a rewarding series of steps along the way…
I’ve enjoyed thinking this through; I’m almost ready to announce my “one thing;” I hope I’ve provided a little inspiration for you to join me in stepping up to the challenge. If you and I are up to it, we have an exciting life stretching out ahead of us. To be continued…
… … I’ll do fiction, without directly focusing on humor.
~At the Words convention, as I bought my ticket for next year, I was asked to fill in: Reader, Writer or Other (with a blank), pick ONE. (Perhaps so they can give feedback to invited guests) So, as part of my new plan to do fiction, I picked “writer.” I have made several sub-goals requiring a lot of words between now and next year.
~The convention is not out to take your money or pay big bucks to professionals; (they volunteer too, receiving a token stipend) the con is run by and for volunteers. The next con is already “three percent sold out.” We’ll be moving to a bigger hotel so we can raise the cap on attendance, and maybe not have anyone needing to stand in the back of the seminar rooms.
~This summer the newspapers are reporting how music festivals across the land are having deaths by substance overdose. Last night, Sunday, we bookworms and writers partied in several hotel rooms on the second floor past midnight, with one room for magic cards, ingesting only soda pop.
~Tomorrow night my autumn years get frostier: I go for a free-in-Canada MRI scan—a reminder to face the Question and live the Answer now, for we can take nothing for granted. (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)