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Creating a Legacy Project

Originally posted on February 2, 2009

[Note: This 3,000 word article is all about creating your own legacy project. It’s not short reading, but it can help you work towards building something beautiful.]

In the spring of 2007 I was feeling stuck. As amazing as they were, the four years I had spent in Africa were fading off into the distance. In my new life I had migrated to Seattle, entered graduate school, started a new business, and began traveling independently to faraway places during school breaks.

These were all good projects. Grad school, check. New city, check. Business, travel, volunteer work, marathon training, check. But despite the fact that these were worthwhile ways to spend my time, I knew something big was missing:

I had no legacy project, and it really bothered me.

I thought of a legacy project as something I’d create that would outlast me; something I could point to years from now and have more than just memories to show for it. In other words, I wanted something tangible and documented for anyone who wanted to see it at any time in the future.

As I was looking for a new focus, I considered a few options that initially seemed to be good choices. The major ones were:

1. Create Wealth for Myself

2. Enter a Ph.D. Program

3. Go Back to Africa (or elsewhere as an NGO executive)

All three of these options were attractive, but the more I looked at them the more I realized they were all flawed. The first one, “Create wealth for myself,” would offer long-term benefits (financial independence, increased opportunities), but I had enough experience with making money to know that it needs to be rooted in something deeper to prove ultimately fulfilling.

It’s not strictly a question of denouncing wealth-making in general. Most wealth is created by entrepreneurs, and for a particular season, I don’t see anything wrong with focusing on building up some long-term savings. All I know is that for me, this was no longer an appealing prospect, and it definitely wasn’t a legacy project.

The next option, “Enter a Ph.D. Program,” was something I was also excited about in the beginning. The more I learned about the process, however, the less inspired I was. In addition to a number of conversations I had with advisers I trusted, I attended a conference on African studies (my field of study) around this time, and I was surprised at how petty and critical the conversations were. It appeared to me that many attendees – professors and other graduate students who would be my colleagues if I pursued the Ph.D. option – were more interested in bringing down other people’s ideas than in finding common ground or advancing their own good work.

I know that some people can be remarkable in academia, but experiences like that conference helped me to see that it would be hard for me to be one of them. I’ve heard it said that academics are so contentious because the stakes are so low. I found that to be the case, and I also realized I did not want to put my legacy project on hold for 5-10 years while I went through the rites of passage required with an academic career.

One of the things I’ve thought a lot about is that I spent roughly the same amount of time writing my Master’s thesis as I did writing the World Domination manifesto. The thesis was read by a grand total of three people, the committee members responsible for approving my graduation. They all said nice things about it, but the point is that it was a lot of work for only three people to read.

The World Domination manifesto, on the other hand, has been downloaded by more than 100,000 people so far. It took me a while to figure this out (my friends were telling me for months, and even a couple of my professors), but if I want to reach a wide audience, I think I’ve found my platform.

On to the third option – go back to Africa or elsewhere as an NGO leader. Again, this was attractive, but I also had reservations about it. The time in Africa was incredibly life-changing and foundational for both Jolie and I, but we also believe that we need to keep moving forwards, not backwards. The time to leave the best job in the world is right when you are still enjoying it, and that’s pretty much how it worked out in our case.

Thus, while I enjoyed my time as an NGO executive, the thought of returning to that kind of environment, having to look for a job, and giving up my independence to a certain extent help me realize that this path would not be the best way to create a legacy project.

Good Choices versus Legacy Projects

Note that I viewed all three of these options (Create wealth, continue with graduate school, or return to full-time charity work) as good, valid choices. They were just not the best choices, and I didn’t view any of them as legacy work.

Sometimes you need to reject a number of reasonably good choices to create a legacy project.

This is because legacy work is different from other good, valid work. If you want to create something that will provide tremendous value to others and outlast your own life, you have to be able to clearly answer the question, “How will this really help people?”

For most of us, asking this question can be difficult because it may cause us to realize how little we do that has only negligible long-term value. For me, I knew I had helped people on an individual basis, but I wanted to help more people on a broader basis. That was one of the primary motivations for the legacy project, and the three initial options I considered were somewhat lacking in this regard.

The Next Step: Deciding on What to Do

I began to think about what I was good at and how I could expand on those skills. For me, my primary skills are 1) leading small groups and 2) writing. I’ve had a lot of experience leading groups over the past five years, and while I enjoy that kind of work, I didn’t really see how I could use the skill to help more than one group at a time.

I also knew that coming off my experience working overseas, any major leadership role I took on would undoubtedly be a step down. In Africa I had a staff of 120 people, and I regularly traveled around the region meeting with cabinet ministers, ambassadors, and even presidents. It’s hard to get a job like that back at home when you’re 30 years old and have no record of conventional employment.

Thus, I started looking towards developing my writing as a way to create the legacy project. I decided to create a web site, originally called the 3×5 Project and then The Art of Nonconformity. The goal of the web site would be to encourage independent, unconventional living. I would show how I achieve my own goals (travel to every country in the world, work for myself, etc.) and help other people set and achieve significant goals of their own.

Planning and the Slow Growth Method

That was the idea in a nutshell, but I had a long way to go to make it happen. In fact, the process of planning and outlining took about 12-18 months before I published anything, working off and on while I was going to school and doing other things. If you’ve read about my business work, you may recall that I advocate the ready-fire-aim model for starting something up and then correcting along the way. That is what I’ve done for every business project I’ve ever worked on, but for the legacy project, I wanted to be a bit more careful.

I knew that the personal web site would be something that I’d be working on for a long time. The primary goal was not to make money, but to spread ideas and create a community. You don’t get a lot of second chances with goals like that, so I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing before I jumped in. Instead of ready-fire-aim, the idea here was to be very intentional and deliberate.

In that 12-18 month incubation period, I also started writing regularly without publishing anything. I had in mind that I was writing the initial site content, and in fact I did use some of it later on, but as I worked I realized that my focus was naturally shifting. I tested out different ideas and wrote several drafts of early material. Writing is like any other skill in that you tend to improve over time as long as you keep working on it and make it a regular habit. If you’ve been following the site for a long time (6 months or more, let’s say), I hope you can see some improvement. Of course, I am still far away from being a fluent, professional writer, but I’m glad I took some time in the beginning to work on it before putting things out there for the world to see and critique.

Things to Think About

I’ll continue telling you the story of how this web site came to be, but this is a good transition point to begin thinking about legacy projects in general. When you set out to create something that will outlast you, there are a number of characteristic you need to consider:

  • Beneficiaries – who will benefit from the project
  • Method or Medium – how you will do the work
  • Output – what will be produced as a result of your work
  • Metrics – how will success be measured
  • Future Visualization – how the world will be different because of the project

I’ve listed my own answers below. As you’d expect, your own legacy project will require your own answers – I offer mine as examples, but each project is fundamentally unique.

Beneficiaries: A relatively small group of loyal readers who want to change the world

Method or Medium: Writing (primarily; I also create multimedia products and do some limited events)

Output (2008): 3 essays each week, 1 manifesto, 75k words

Metrics: Visitors / Subscribers / Page Views / Product Sales (although the last one came later)

Future Visualization: You can see the original vision from the first post here. It’s fair to say that things have changed a lot since then. In fact, I now view the original vision as quite limited, as I’ll explain below.

Big Vision / Small Vision

As I wrote on my own for three months, and then as I started the project and began receiving daily feedback, my vision expanded from what I now see was a fairly narrow mission to the current plan.

The small (original) vision included goals like 1,000 readers and a detailed email series. The big (current) vision includes my full-time writing career, major media coverage, the development of a real AONC online store, and a few other things I am keeping to myself for the time being.

The difference between the small, original vision and the big, current vision is quite significant. When I started, I wasn’t certain I would ever monetize the project, and now it provides the bulk of my income (albeit much less than when I worked strictly on entrepreneurial projects). I achieved 1,000 readers within a month of starting up, and quickly realized that it was more important to recruit 1,000 true fans – a small army of remarkable people, as I call it.

A couple of goals took longer than expected – I’m still working on the book contract, for example – but overall, I’ve moved on to bigger and more challenging goals. I view this as evidence that your vision expands as you follow your calling. It works in your favor and serves as confirmation that you’re doing the right thing.

A Legacy Project Requires Legacy Content

When I chose writing (and the default medium of blogging), I knew I wanted to write about subjects that would be relevant for many years to come. I definitely did not want to spend much time writing about current events or politics, even though I closely follow those subjects every day. Instead, I wanted to write what is sometimes called evergreen content, or work that does not lose its value and relevance as time goes by. For the purpose of this article, I’ll call it legacy content.

I’d say that about 70-80% of the essays and posts on the site now fit this description. Articles like this one, the annual review planning outline, all of the detailed information on international travel, and posts that combine theory with practice (How to Be AwesomeA Short Collection of Unconventional Ideas, etc.) are examples of what I consider legacy content. Admittedly, the trip reports from every country do not necessarily fit in this category, but some people enjoy them and I like having a written record of each trip as I pursue my goal.

One of the things I am most excited about is that several of the archive articles have gone on to a life of their own and continue to receive new traffic every day. While I am thrilled that thousands of people are following along with the new articles, I am equally excited that hundreds of (new) people also stumble on the archive content every day. Presumably, I could stop writing now, never post anything else, and the site would remain somewhat active thanks to the legacy content.

Of course, I have no intention of stopping. I just appreciate that I have articles and other content out there that add value to readers’ lives even while I am out traveling the world or writing about new ideas. For me it is one of the most rewarding things about the project, and further confirmation that I made the right decision to focus on this more than anything else.

A Legacy Project Requires Serious Commitment

Because I’ve maintained several big commitments simultaneously in the past, I initially thought it would be no big deal to add another one. I found out I was wrong about this. Even though I have been creating web sites for 10 years, I still underestimated the amount of time required for successful marketing and connecting with other people on this one.

Yes, technically I can crank out the writing in 10-20 hours a week depending on what is going on – but I didn’t foresee all the other tasks and mini-projects I’d need to actively take on to make this project a success. I do no outsourcing and respond to every email myself.

The reality that I need to work more than I thought has required some sacrifices I did not expect in the beginning, and it took me a while to become comfortable with this. Multitasking and managing multiple, big projects has worked for me for 10 years and counting. Technically, I still have a lot of plates in the air, but far fewer than I’m used to. I wrote the post on Radical Exclusion during a week when I was taking a serious look at how I spend my time, and I do strive to accurately model the things I write about.

I don’t think everyone’s experience with this will be the same. I’d expect that a person who is dedicated enough could create a legacy project by working only a few hours a week over a longer period of time. However, I don’t work very well that way, and even if you do, I think it’s fair to say that it will require more time than you expect in the beginning.

Art and Fear

During the early part of the process, I experienced a lot of fear that I would fail. No one would read, people would read but not care, I’d give up after a few months, I’d give in to distractions and wouldn’t keep the schedule, and so on. The question I kept asking myself through the 12-18 months before getting started was, “What if I don’t try? How will I feel then?”

I was uncertain about a lot of things, but this question had a clear answer: if I didn’t try, I had no doubt I would regret it. More than anything else, that answer was why I started the site.

Far from Over

My legacy project is far from complete; in fact, I think it is just beginning. I write a lot more detailed, how-to articles like this one because they are what the majority of readers respond best to. We made a big writing and design change in early January. All of the metrics I track are up at least 20% over the past month, and more good things are on the way.

Every day I get up thinking about how to improve this project. I haven’t felt this kind of confidence since the second and third years of my time in Africa. I have learned from many of you, and I’m glad that you’re keeping me accountable and encouraging me to keep raising the standard. And as I said, the end goals are much bigger than when I started. If you’ve read this far, I assume you’re fairly committed – and I greatly appreciate you being along for the journey.

Your Own Legacy Project

By nature, this article was all about my work. I try to share by example and with a fair amount of transparency. If it sounds like I’m fairly confident about this subject, I can assure you I’ve made countless mistakes and false starts along the way. I’m pretty sure that’s how it works when you set out to change the world.

Also, I’ve used the example of writing because that’s what I do. Obviously, there are other mediums you can use for a legacy project. My personal hero is a guy who lives in Africa and does free reconstructive surgery for people who lack adequate medical care. I think most people would agree that is an extremely meaningful legacy project. Since it’s probably a good idea to get some training before setting out to do surgery, I chose writing instead.

I also know that I did a lot of unrelated things before I started working on the legacy project. I see those things as prerequisites, not wasteful years. I am far more interested in looking to the future than to the past. All of the things I promote on a regular basis – intentional thinking, questioning expectations, finding your way through the wilderness – are important in this process.

You can do this too, in your own way.

You can make something beautiful that will outlast you.

You can help others in a way that is unique to you.

Remember: we all get one life to live. You might as well take it seriously, and a legacy project will ensure that what you bring to the world will continue to be valuable for a long time.

Are you up for it?

(I know it was a long article, but if you stuck with it, I’d love to know what you think. Feel free to share your thoughts, suggestions, or your own legacy project ideas in the comments.)