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Blog » The importance of legacy: who wants more fame when you could have lasting influence?

It’s interesting to reflect on how many of most influential people in any field of human endeavour were not famous during their own lifetime.  Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting while he was alive, but now his merest scribble sells for millions, and he is acknowledged as one of the greatest artists of all time.  (By comparison, Odilon Redon, a contemporary of Van Gogh, made a tidy living out of his art and is still well known to art historians – but, you say, “Odilon who?”)  Shakespeare was no more famous to his audience than playwrights such as George Chapman or Francis Beaumont (who were they, you ask?). Gustaf Mahler was known only as conductor during his lifetime, and his own compositions were barely ever played, despite the fact that nowadays his symphonies are amongst the most performed on concert programmes throughout the world.

Other examples abound in the worlds of business, science, politics and social services (google a list of Nobel prizewinners and see how many you’ve heard of), not to mention all the unsung heroes who diligently build families, advocate for public parks, create great businesses and mentor kids.  As Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you never know what you’ve got til it’s gone”.  And that applies to whole societies and not just individuals. We are notoriously bad at recognising people who do things of lasting importance.  It stinks, but it’s just part of the human condition and it’s not likely to change.  So why aim to create a legacy when you may not get the recognition you deserve?

Firstly, because it’s more satisfying – as Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true”. Secondly, because it’s a much bigger prize to achieve ongoing benefits for humanity than to get a few minutes or days or even years in the media spotlight.  So after viewing some paintings by Van Gogh and Odilon Redon in the Louvre in Paris I asked my ten-year old son, “What’s better – to be famous only when you’re alive, or to be famous only once you’re dead, but to go on being famous for a hundred years and maybe longer?”  To him the answer was obvious: who’d want to be Odilon Redon when you could be Vincent Van Gogh?

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