My legacy is real, but it’s nothing like what I planned

The Great Wall of Ego

Over the course of my career, I tended to work long, hard, and intensely at my jobs. I was obsessed with making a contribution that would matter greatly to a large number of people. I wanted to leave a mark.

Looking back, I did leave a mark. Just not in the way I had planned.

Looking back

If you’ve been around for a while, you may want to review the impact of what you did, as I am about to. It may depress you. Most of us don’t make as much the difference we thought we would. Looking back on my career:

Nothing became of the mathematical research I did in graduate school at MIT.

I worked long hours contributing to software products called TK!Solver, Javelin, and MathCAD. Very few people use TK!Solver or Javelin any more. MathCAD, used for mathematical and engineering calculations, is part of a suite of products at PTC Software, but competing tools like Wolfram are a lot more popular.

I produced a bunch of textbooks working for a company called Course Technology. College students used them to learn tools like the spreadsheets Lotus 1-2-3 and Wingz (swept away by Excel) and the management tool Lotus Agenda (also obsolete). Thousands of students used these textbooks, but given the pace of technology change, they’re now obsolete. Course Technology was acquired and subsumed into a much larger publisher; the imprint no longer exists.

I wrote dozens of reports and gave hundreds of speeches at Forrester Research, including extensive research on the television industry. My research on digital video recorders and video on-demand may have slightly changed the trajectory of the TV industry; I was right about the TV schedule becoming irrelevant, but I neither caused nor significantly accelerated that change. My research forecasting that HDTV would fail was wrong, and didn’t slow it down in the slightest.

I trained many analysts to think more clearly and write in a more pointed and succinct way. Many of them have told me they think and write differently after working with me.

I helped create a consumer survey research program at Forrester. It was called “Technographics,” a term that I coined. Forrester still markets consumer research under that trademark, and has continuously surveyed consumers on technology topics and sold the resulting research since 1996. So that’s still around, although I doubt that any of the people doing it now think at all about my contribution to its origin.

I wrote reports and coauthored a book on social media, Groundswell. That book sold 150,000 copies. Many people have told me it transformed how they thought about social media. The ideas in that book came from Charlene Li, she deserves the majority of the credit.

Since then I have written and edited many other books. My book on writing clearly, Writing Without Bullshit, created an impact on thousands of people, but failed to start a movement as I had hoped. I also more directly helped change the way hundreds of people at companies wrote through workshops I gave.

I’ve had an impact on a smaller number of people, mostly authors, including through my book Build a Better Business Book. The dozens of authors I’ve worked with definitely think and write differently because of me. I worked with them on what became many books, and those books have collectively reached tens of thousands of people.

What did matter

I made a difference to the people I worked with. I like to think that I bent the course of their careers. That group included colleagues, clients, and authors. What I did for and with them mattered.

I made a difference to the people who read my books, and the books I helped create. Well-written and appropriately targeted books can change people.

I made a difference to my family. We raised children who are now grown and contributing to the world in very creative ways. I helped create the fulfilling life my wife and I had and still have by making a good living and investing wisely, but more importantly, by being supportive and loving.

It’s very striking to me that the of things I worked so hard to create, most made very little difference in the long term. But I did make quite a difference to the people I invested time in.

If that is my legacy, I can feel great about it. It’s just interesting to me how different it is from what I originally set out to do.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Josh, what if Wilbur and Orville Wright and their far-less-famous sister, Katharine, (their PR and marketing genius) saw and heard supersonic aircraft today? Would they feel disappointed in their rudimentary creations? Would they think nothing they did lasted? I certainly hope not. You contributed to fledgling tech. What you did mattered in the maturation process.

  2. This is one of the most significant blog posts you’ve written. I was so immersed, I barely blinked.

    You have taken a sobering look at a well-lived professional life and deemed your legacy a mixed bag. But you seem to have forgotten out a key contribution: This blog. Even your topical topics are evergreen, drawing enduring conclusions from fleeting examples.

    And what about your new newsletter, which is available to millions on LinkedIn?

    By setting up a trust fund, you will make sure that this site remains funded long after you’re gone. And one day, professors of communication, business, and media will discover that you have provided the framework of an entire course.

    1. I was going to chime in on the blog, Josh. For a post made, probably in passing, regarding an European airline going out of business, you saved me a ton of heartache and stress on a trip to Jordan and allowed me to spend more time in Ireland on the way back, contributing to the creation of several photos that I would never had taken otherwise. And thus, not created some textile art, and so on…

      It’s like the the butterfly affect, one small thing can make a huge difference in someone’s life. What seems insignificant to you now may be earth-shattering to someone else or more evident at a future time.


  3. The impact doesn’t need to be lasting to be big. I remember my brother introducing mathcad to his studies, helped him become a PhD. It impacted him and his students.

  4. Sometimes a huge (often hidden) part of our impact is indirect – through others. Every single person I impact with my writings and workshops is a hidden piece of your legacy, as a gifted idea-shaper and editor. And then there is what THEY will accomplish, never knowing that the long reach of Josh Bernoff has touched them.

  5. Writing Without Bullshit is a mainstay around here. It has transformed my writing and I constantly remind my team of it. Thank you again!