I was just reading that the Alaska North Slope oilfields will largely play out in my lifetime. My father made good money working for one of the companies that built the Alyeska Pipeline. Some day the Alyeska Pipeline and the North Slope fields will be history. And so will your business.
But this doesn’t mean my father’s work was wasted. It means his work meant something other than he might have thought.
Business people spend a tremendous amount of their lives building and running their businesses. But it’s unlikely that anything substantial will remain from these businesses in another generation or two. With the rapid rate of technological change, we’re mostly working on some version of a dried out pipeline, a software program that will draw ridicule from the next generation of users, or a retail concept that will be driven from the scene by faster and smarter competitors.
Someday, sooner than you think, no one will really care about your business.
So what does our business really mean in the grand scheme of things? It should mean something more than the physical output of its machines, computers, or people. It should make some contribution to our culture, our families, and the world. It should make lives richer and happier. It should help build schools, and care for those in need. It should teach virtue and compassion, and other values that will pay forward to the lives of people 100 or 200 years from now.
When I drive through an older city, I see scant evidence of the businesses that paid the wages of the local population. What I’m more likely to see is evidence of the values and intentions of those businesses – whether or not they paid fair wages, picked up their trash, and paid their taxes. The businesses will be largely gone. The legacy of their products will be seen in museum displays. Their lasting legacy will be seen in the lives of people.
I didn’t learn from my father how to build an oil pipeline, but I learned a great deal that will be passed on through generations. That’s what Dad was really building, and that will last for a long time indeed.