Your legacy: would you rather be remembered badly, or not at all?

IAGO: Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
– William Shakespeare, “Othello”, Act 3 scene 3

A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.
– Joseph Hall

I’ve been in more than my share of deep philosophical conversations over the years. Most of us have, I suspect. For me, generally, a couple of pints of beer are involved; and the deep philosophical issues being deliberated are along the lines of “Ginger or Mary Ann?” and “Betty or Veronica?” and “Jennifer or Bailey?” (Correct answers, by the way: Mary Ann. Betty. Bailey.)

But when the conversation gets deepest – sometime after the third pint, and before “Hold my beer and watch this!” –  I enjoy trotting out one of my favorite ponderables. I’ve deliberated it countless times since my college days and it almost always leads to a great discussion (in the right group of people). It goes like this:

“Upon your deathbed you are presented with two options, and only two: After you die no one will ever remember you existed, or everyone will remember you as a total asshole. Which do you choose?”

It’s a question that speaks to your character (your mental and moral qualities) and reputation (what others think of you). They’re not the same. It’s quite possible to be thought of by everyone as a ne’er-do-well, and still maintain an outstanding array of mental and moral qualities. Likewise it’s quite possible to have shitty mental and moral qualities, and still be thought of by everyone as a hell of a swell fellow. (John Edwards comes to mind.) Ideally they are the same, or nearly the same, as one another. But when a person’s reputation and character are put together it reflects his good name, his legacy, his honor, and his integrity.

It’s fascinating how people spin this question. No one wants to contemplate that everyone who knew them, to a person, would consider them to be nothing but an asshole. “C’mon, now, everybody wouldn’t think I’m an asshole!” “They might think I’m an asshole in some ways, and kind of okay in other ways.” “My mom would never think I’m an asshole….?” No, it’s everybody, even your mom, and they don’t think of you as anything except an asshole. That’s the rules of the game.

Over the years I’ve learned that people are terrified of not being remembered at all, even if it means being remembered as an asshole.

My answer, though, is that I would rather not be remembered at all. I’d rather have no name than a sullied name.

We debated this once on a lunch break at a former job. As I expected, nearly all of the participants opted for the “asshole” option. I was one of the lone holdouts as was a coworker, a studious and thoughtful man named Thutmose. As the conversation rolled, Thut sat back and reflected quietly. When asked what choice he would make, he simply replied:

“If I don’t have my good name, I have nothing.”

Thut summed it up for me.

It’s a fascinating question, and yes, know your audience before you throw it out there. But humor me. Pretend we’ve had three pints and weigh in on this one.

The secret to building a good reputation?  Become a person who deserves one.  Take consistent action that embodies the characteristics you want others to associate with you.  A good reputation shouldn’t be an end in itself, but rather a natural outgrowth of your striving to be the person you most want to be.
– Alex Lickerman

Your reputation is in the hands of others. That’s what the reputation is. You can’t control that. The only thing you can control is your character.
–  Wayne W. Dyer

Yup. Bailey. Definitely Bailey.