When I STAND before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything that you gave me.’ —Erma Bombeck
Magnum Opus is Latin for “Great Work” and it commonly refers to the greatest, most popular, pinnacle, or most renowned achievement of an artist or composer. In other words, it’s considered a “masterpiece.”
For the purpose of this blog, I would like to use Magnum Opus as an analogy to describe the lifework of any individual. I have three real-life stories that I would like to share as examples of Magnum Opus.
The first story is about an accomplished veteran military officer, attorney, and law school professor. On the surface, this individual may seem to have completed her greatest work. However, she is grappling with the comfortable lifestyle that she has earned for herself. As a law professor, she works 9 months out of the year. Her kids are almost grown, yet she is now considering whether she should pursue her dream of becoming an executive level administrator within her university. Complacency says, “Coast, relax. You don’t need the stress of a 12-month appointment.” Genius says, “There is more work to do. My life has greater purpose and meaning. I must continue to try and make a positive difference in the lives of others.”
The second story is about a child of Haitian immigrants. This individual has completed her Master’s degree and has recently earned a great career opportunity with a new employer. Coming from humble beginnings to landing a dream job, it would seem that she has completed her greatest work. However, she has recently been challenged with the opportunity of going back to Haiti to develop a school for children. Complacency says, “Let someone else educate the children. The politics are tough to navigate and the amount of work required is overwhelming.” Genius says, “Mete fanm sou ou” (creole for “woman up”). We must take personal responsibility for our children’s education. If we don’t, then we can’t blame others for not caring either.”
The final story is about a young South African who was born into his tribe’s royal family. This individual was brilliant and had a promising career as a law student. However, he was born into apartheid, a system of segregation that facilitated white privilege. Instead of living in luxury, this individual became an anti-apartheid revolutionary. He gave up his claim to royalty and a promising career to fight for his people and his country. He believed in his cause with such conviction that he was willing to serve 27 years in prison for it. Complacency says, “Enjoy the fruits of being a member of the royal family. Practice law, have a family, and allow apartheid to exist or end on its own. Just keep your head down and no one will notice you.” Genius says, “Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he/she will rise even in the end.”
This quote, by Nelson Mandala, was taken from a letter written to his wife during his 27 years of imprisonment. After being released from prison, he later became the President of South Africa and the winner of the Noble Peace Prize.
In the final story, I profess that Nelson Mandela’s life was his Magnum Opus. He found and lived his life’s great work. The first two stories will apply to the majority of us. We wrestle with our complacency and genius every day. My challenge to you is to differentiate between your talent and your genius. What’s the difference between a genius and someone who is just talented? A talented person CAN do something (really well), but a genius MUST do something. Like Nelson Mandela, a genius is driven to do it, and was “born to do it.”
What will be your Magnum Opus?