When I was in high school, I went through a period where I was obsessed with building a thorough family tree. I tried to thoroughly document my ancestors as many generations back as possible, adding as much detail to them as I could.
On my mother’s side, I was able to dig back several generations, particularly in one lineage. I was able to discover ancestors that had been dairy farmers in rural Wisconsin in the 1800s and I was able to fill out names and birth dates at least dating back six generations in a few places.
On my father’s side, the digging was very difficult once you started looking at my grandparents. I relied on some hand-scratched notes from my paternal grandmother to figure out some information about my great grandparents, but I essentially have no information prior to that.
What’s amazing to me is that these people are essentially lost to the mists of time, even though they have descendants today who are actively looking for them. These people, in the end, left no mark on the world aside from passing on their genes and their values to their children.
Until very recently, I was essentially heading for the same result. Until I started The Simple Dollar, my name had only appeared on a small handful of largely uncited scientific papers which very few people will ever read. I have a number of handwritten letters floating around out there, but many of those have likely found their way to trash cans over the years.
In the last year, I’ve been lucky to see quite a bit of my writing in print, and there are literally thousands of copies of 365 Ways to Live Cheap floating around out there in print. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write things that have impacted thousands of lives, and at least a few things I’ve written will stick around for a while.
Yet, in the end, my mark on the world will be painted over by time as well.
What can I do with my life that will leave more of a mark on the world than just another name on someone’s family tree in a hundred years?
The most obvious thing is to take care of my children and give them every tool and every opportunity I can to allow them to succeed in life. In this case, obviously, it would not be my own mark on the world, but I will have been the person most responsible (along with my wife) for shaping someone who did something great.
This calls me to be a good parent. When I’m being a bit facetious, I describe good parenting as “love and grammar,” but that’s a big part of it. My job is to show my children love, but also teach them the basics of, well, life. At their young age, it’s simple lessons – how to be polite, how to use the bathroom. As they grow, I’ll push how they think and how they express those thoughts to others.
After that, my best opportunity to make a mark on the world is through my writing. By some stroke of luck, The Simple Dollar has given me an opening – an opportunity to share my writing with a large audience.
This calls me to push myself to be a good writer. Sure, I post a lot of articles for free on The Simple Dollar, but that’s just part of what I write. I write some freelance articles. I’ve written a book and started writing a second one. I’ve written some unpublished fiction, too, and on top of that I also journal extensively and also try out some writing exercises from time to time. I’m a big believer in the “fifty pounds of pottery makes you a better potter” theory, so I write. And read. And write. And edit. And write some more. Eventually, I hope to be able to write things – hopefully, a lot of things – that transcend my life and last for a very long time.
My other avenue for leaving behind a mark is sharing what gifts I have in a public forum. For me, that means being involved in volunteerism, particularly in starting such projects and managing them for the long term.
This calls me to dig into opportunities in the community – and create my own. I’ve already started doing this by participating in a number of community organizations and activities, and I have a few ideas for initiatives that I want to start in the future.
In the end, I’m left with some pretty big things to focus on: my family, my writing, and my civic-minded projects.
Whenever I devote significant time or significant money to things that aren’t in line with these areas, I think back to all of those names I’ve written down in my family tree. Those forgotten ancestors of mine had dreams as well, but those dreams were lost in the mists of time.
Today, every day, I have a choice. I can make the easy choice – but that choice will lead me to be just another name on someone’s family tree. Or I can make the hard choice – focus on being a good parent, work hard on my writing and my community activities, and maybe, just maybe, leave something more behind than just my genes.