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If Your Physician Told You "Get Your Affairs in Order," What Would You Do Next?
April 27, 2009
I have a lot of irons in the fire. I would have to take a bunch of them out of the fire if my physician told me that I was terminal.
I have a lot of projects in mind that I can finish if my mind remains alert, I discipline myself, I stick to a tight budget, and I live for 15 more years. If I live for 20, all the better. If I match Jacques Barzun and Peter Drucker in age and productivity, I can achieve a whole lot. But it's all dependent on my survival. It's the compounding effect that will make the difference. These are all long-term projects.
I have short-term projects, too, such as writing four articles a day, six days a week, for this website.
So many projects, so little time. Are you in a similar situation? You should be. I highly recommend it.
You need several long-term projects that might make a difference. These will constitute your primary legacy. They are projects that no one else is likely to do. They will be the things you are remembered for. They take lots of time.
Sure, if you're an inventor, and you stumble across The Big One, and you raise capital for it, and a government regulatory agency does not bankrupt your company, and a competitor does not steal it, maybe you can leave a legacy in just five years. How likely is that? How many inventions ever pan out commercially? Optimists say 20%. Pessimists say a tenth of one percent.
I suspect that the pessimists are closer to the truth. The odds are against you.
So, you need time. You need persistence. This assumes that your projects are really good.
You need more than one project, because half of them will not pan out. This assumes that you have already dropped 30% of the ones you started out with. If 20% of those you ever launched actually come to market-sustained or donor-sustained fruition by the time your time clock is stamped for the last time, you will have done well.
My friend Murray Rothbard died without warning at age 70 before he completed his monumental book on the history of economic thought. That left us poorer. But he had begun it, and he had worked steadily to complete it. He wrote enough text to fill two large volumes. It is great text -- no, incomparable. No one has ever combined biography and the history of economic ideas any better. I cannot think of anyone who did as well. He explained his motivation for writing it as follows.
The entire work is much longer than most since it insists on bringing in all the "lesser" figures and their interactions as well as emphasizing the importance of their religious and social philosophies as well as their narrower, strictly "economic" views. But I would hope that the length and inclusion of other elements does not make this work less readable. On the contrary, history necessarily means narrative, discussion of real persons as well as their abstract theories, and includes triumphs, tragedies, and conflicts, conflicts which are often moral as well as purely theoretical. Hence, I hope that, for the reader, the unwonted length will be offset by the inclusion of far more human drama than is usually offered in histories of economic thought.
In other words, people are important. Their motivations matter. They leave something behind. To discuss accurately what they left behind means understanding the journalist's W's: who, when, why, where, and what.
These also matter for your legacy.
Rothbard always had many irons in the fire. If he had known he was terminal, he might have focused on completing this book. But he did not know.
His example is a good one. He worked on completing sections of his book before he went to the next. This left something behind. Even though it is incomplete, it is valuable. He did the same with his amazing 4-volume history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty
He never finished the fifth volume on the Constitution. The transcription device he had used for his notes died on him without warning, and there were no replacements. The company had gone out of business. Terminal! But he had finished the first four manuscripts. We are richer for this.
I have worked since 1973 on my economic commentary on the Bible. I have finished most of it. I have the historical books of the Old Testament to complete, plus Job and the Song of Solomon (not much there), plus the gospels of Mark and John. I have posted most of it on-line, with three volumes ready for typesetting: http://www.garynorth.com/public/department57.cfm. If I died tomorrow, the bulk of the project would be finished.
It is steady as you go. It is line upon line. It is cumulative. If you are working on several projects, be sure that you have a schedule to complete each one in sequence. Stick to your schedule. If you don't, you will probably die with all of them incomplete and fragmentary.
So, you must prioritize. Be in a position to reschedule your time, so that if you ever find out you are terminal, you can complete the main one. This means that you must steadily complete sections of the main one. Get them finished. Don't assume that you have 20 years.
One more piece of advice from Rothbard: "If my physician ever tells me I am terminal, I will look for a quack."