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Communications of the ACM

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Locality and Professional Life

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One Sunday morning nearly three decades ago, my wife Dorothy and I were walking along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. I was considering a job change and was concerned about whether my new responsibilities would divert me from my aspiration that my work "make a mark." She asked what I meant by making a mark. That meant, I confided, that people would long remember my contribution by name. She said that if that is my philosophy of life, I am likely to be disappointed. She explained her philosophy, in which she does not have that concern. She sees herself as a cell in the large body of humanity past, present, and future. Her life purpose is to be a good cell. She embraces every project with care and excellence—to do the best possible job. In this way she will contribute to the health of the whole and have impact on the whole. It is not her purpose that her name be attached to anything she has contributed. When she is gone, her job is done and other cells will continue to serve the well-being of the whole. I asked her about the awards and recognitions she received for her work. She said she appreciated the honors, but it was never her objective or interest to win awards or be recognized. This conversation forever altered my thinking about the contributions I could make.

Think about this. If each of us is doing our job, being a good cell in the large body of all humanity, we keep our neighboring cells healthy and thereby contribute to the health of the whole. Our contribution flows through to the whole like a ripple in the river of humanity. Over a period of time, the ripple remains but any memory of me as the author is likely to disappear.


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