My home country of India has had more than it’s fair share of truly crappy politicians. Corruption is rampant at both the state and national levels. Every politician seems hell bent on outdoing the next in reaching new venal heights. As an example of what I am talking about, I present to you Jayalalitha, three time Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu (a Chief Minister is similar to a Governor). “A raid in her Poes garden residence in 1997 recovered 800 kg (1,800 lb) silver, 28 kg (62 lb) gold, 750 pairs of shoes, 10,500 sarees, 91 watches and other valuables”.
So when Dr. Abdul Kalam became the 11th President of India, he was a breath of fresh air.
Dr. Kalam served as the President of India from 2002 – 2007. In a former life he was an aerospace engineer. Dr. Kalam was one of the architects of the Indian Space Program. He trained at NASA for about a year and then returned to India. He served as the director of the project to develop the country’s first satellite launch vehicle and in 1980, his efforts were met with success with the launch of SLV3. In addition to his long career working on India’s space and nuclear programs, he is also credited with co-inventing a low cost coronary stent and developing a tablet meant to be used by healthcare workers in rural areas. In 1997 he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.
A scientist as President! Unprecedented.
Even more unprecedented though was the fact that he made integrity one of the hallmarks of his Presidency. Dr. Kalam refused “gifts” and was known to keep detailed accounts of every personal expense he incurred while staying at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. e.g. when his extended family visited him while he was President, he kept detailed accounts of the expenses they incurred and repaid that amount from his personal account.
Dr. Kalam died in 2015 at the age of 83.
What He Left Behind
I admired Dr. Kalam during his Presidency, and I wish that he had stayed at the helm longer than he did. What I did not learn until recently though, is what he left behind when he died. I found the list fascinating.
Here is a list of the things that a one-time President of a country of 1.3 billion people with a GDP of over 2 trillion owned at the time of his death:
- 6 pairs of pants
- 4 shirts
- 3 suits
- A pair of shoes
- A wristwatch and
- My favourite item on the list: 2500 books
He never owned a television, a car or an air conditioner. He left behind no property – he did own some at one point, but he donated it before his death.
We aren’t talking about a man stricken by poverty in the twilight of his life, forced by circumstance or poor judgement into penury. He was paid a comfortable pension by the Government of India (INR 1,50,000 which is about $2324 a month) and he received royalties from the four books that he authored. This then, was a man who willingly eschewed material goods and consumption and favoured instead a life of minimalism, contribution and learning.
What Will You Leave Behind?
The next time you are overcome by the temptation to buy just one more thing, it might be worth your while to pause and ask yourself: what will I leave behind?
Our choices are:
- The things we have created.
- Memories in the minds of those who knew and loved us.
- An enormous pile of stuff, most of which was manufactured in China by folks working in pretty abysmal conditions, for our disgruntled descendents to pick through and add to the landfills.
The act of creation, and the task of making a positive difference in the lives of those around you, both take time. Time that you are likely to have significantly less of if you are busy running on the hedonic treadmill. Earn more. Spend more. Rinse and repeat ad nauseum. They also take effort, and how much energy do you have left when you step off the treadmill at the end of every day?
Perhaps we should not ask ourselves what we are sacrificing when we choose not to consume. We should instead ask ourselves what we gain when we abstain from consumption. What we gain is the time and freedom to work on our legacies.
Your legacy is the work of a lifetime. You can’t wake up at 75 and suddenly decide that you need to get to work on a worthwhile legacy. I mean, you can, but your odds of success will be somewhat depressing. You need to get to work on that legacy now.
In the final reckoning, when Death is at your door, it isn’t going to be your junk that brings you solace. In the twilight of your life the only things that will matter are:
Was your time well spent?
Did you love well?
I think Dr. Kalam probably had satisfactory answers to these questions.
The next time you’re about to 1-click-order something, ask yourself: what will your answer be?