What Will Your Obituary Say?

January 2018

group of friends huddled together

Image: iStock

When I was teaching at Boston University, I asked my new students to write the obituary they wanted to see when they were at the end of their lives. The exercise was to gauge their writing skills as much as it was to learn their dreams and values. Here’s the thing: hardly anyone included career accomplishments. Instead, they intended to marry well (sometimes to celebrities), have children and be remembered for the good they did in the world largely outside the job.

I was reminded of those obituaries when I discovered one tucked into a holiday card. A dear friend had died weeks before due to complications from catatonic depression. Her husband of almost 60 years found time in his grief to let us know by carrying on one of Nancy’s favorite holiday traditions: exchanging cards with personal notes to each of us. He also explained that the included obituary had been written by his wife some years earlier so that she would be remembered for the things that mattered most to her. Again, what stood out to me was only brief mention of her many years as an excellent proofreader.

For many of us, we are fresh off a week of frenzied activity and food comas. We are into Day 2 of a new diet, new fitness routine, new financial plan, maybe even a new relationship. Our homes are freshly cleaned and organized, or will be soon. We are committed to doing a better job at work. Or finding a new one.

So often we joke that our work is our life because it consumes so much of our days and weeks, leaving less time for personal pursuits and quietly eroding our own health and/or connections to others. But let’s listen to the dead and remember that no matter how good we are at work, it’s what we do outside of it that counts most. This is going to require we all say both yes and no more often. “Yes” to the things that truly enrich us; “no” to those that only enrich others. Not sure where to start? Then start with writing down your proudest accomplishments to date and those you hope to fulfill. Keep that page close, but write as if others will someday view it. Because someday they probably will.