Early in my career, I was selected by my company’s executive team to help deliver leadership training to the organization. I was sent off to Utah to get certified in facilitating a course based on Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. I loved the concepts in that book and I was thrilled for the opportunity. I still consider that program to be one of the best I’ve ever participated in.
I thought all the activities were valuable and insightful. One exercise, in particular, truly moved me, though. It helped create the foundation for how I’d think, live, work, and lead for years to come. We were given a homework assignment to write the eulogy that we’d want to be read at our own funeral. This exercise was meant to reinforce leadership Habit 2, “Begin with the End in Mind.”
Incidentally, I don’t do morbid very well. What the heck did I know about eulogies and funerals? I was 23 years old and had never been to a funeral. Well, I thought, surely I can BS my way through this. Only, I found that I couldn’t. I realized it’d be pretty pathetic if my eulogy, even a pretend one, was full of BS. Good grief, I was going to have to take this seriously.
I decided that I’d start with the characteristics that I wanted people to remember me for. Then, I’d add the touchy feely stuff. Basically, I’d describe how I had impacted those around me, how I had made them feel and what I had meant to them. Lastly, I would include my career accomplishments. I’d write down the roles and titles I had held and the organizations I had worked for. OK, I had an outline.
I spent many hours on the assignment. I added and erased various traits countless times (yes, we used pencil and paper back then). I didn’t want to be greedy with too long a list so I had to prioritize. I mean, “kind” and “outgoing” were things I’d like to be said about me but they weren’t going to make the cut. This was my eulogy – it had to be about the heavy hitters like “loyal,” “passionate,” “trustworthy” and “sincere.”
Unsurprisingly, the touchy feely part came easily to me. I would have been a person who inspired and helped people to do and be their best. I would have made people feel respected, protected and appreciated. I would have been the bridge that brought people together and the glue that held them that way.
I got stuck on the last part. I couldn’t figure out what roles to list or what accomplishments would be highlighted. I had no crystal ball, I simply didn’t know, yet. All I knew was that I wanted a highly successful career in which people knew I was genuine, helpful, and loyal. So, I wrote as much and left placeholders for titles and accomplishments. Finally, I was done with this unnerving assignment. We brought it to session the next day and discussed as a group. Then, we went on to the next topic.
I saved that mock eulogy, though. It made sense to. I mean, if I couldn’t lead myself to achieving my vision, how could I hope to lead anyone else? I would look at it every couple of years to see if I had gathered some worldly wisdom that’d allow me to refine what I’d written. For a few years, there was no such wisdom to be found. It was always a good reminder, however, of what mattered most to me.
Then, I got married and had kids. Now, most days I wouldn’t equate either of these two things with worldly wisdom… Truth be told, though, marriage and motherhood did make me wiser in many ways. I came across my draft eulogy when my daughter was a few months old. I distinctly remember reading the faded yellow sheet and thinking how naïve I was when I’d written it years before. The older, wiser me decided it was time for a rewrite…oh, and an electronic version.
Obviously, being a mother and wife added a whole new dimension to this eulogy business. The rewrite included several things about those two roles and the impact I would have made in each. What I wrote in this regard became the most important part, to me, of the entire document – of my life, in general.
In the revision, I took out everything that had to do with job titles. I was pretty foolish to think the list of roles or titles I held in my career was indicative of career success and something that merited inclusion in my eulogy. Did I want those titles to be what people remembered? I can appreciate how some people would, 23 year old me did.
The people I work with will likely forget the titles on my business card, the deliverables I create, and the nuances of the sales optimization strategy I help them define. If I do it right, they’ll remember that I helped them achieve their goals, had their best interest at heart, and inspired them in a way that made a difference to them. If they do, I’ll count my career a success. It seemed the older I got, the more I recognized it was the humanness of it all that mattered, to me – in work and, well, everything really. Wow…finally, something that felt like wisdom!
That was nearly a decade ago. I’ve since made it a habit to review the mock eulogy every New Year’s Day. It’s my way to check that the life I’m living supports my “end in mind.” It’s my opportunity to make changes to the document, or to my life, if they don’t jive.
I also find myself going to this mock eulogy when I am in a particularly challenging situation. At one point, I was working in a job where I was told to follow a “standard” methodology that I knew wasn’t right for my customer and wouldn’t yield the best outcomes for them. If I followed the shortsighted and self-serving path management was essentially forcing me to, my client would question my integrity [read: sanity] and commitment to them. Rightfully so, they knew that I knew better.
The situation was literally making me sick. If I did what I was told, I’d be letting myself, and my client, down in a big way. If I didn’t, I’d likely be fired sooner rather than later. I desperately just wanted to quit. I had never quit a job without having another job, though, and I liked my paycheck, a lot. I was at a major crossroad.
I re-read my mock eulogy and knew I had to resign. The overwhelming anxiety I’d been feeling was because what I was being told to do was out of line with who I was and what I stood for. I intended to be remembered as someone who helped others, not someone who caused delays, frustration, and confusion. “Trustworthy” and “Loyal” had always been non-negotiable. Enough, this was as close as I was going to let myself get to the house of horrors known as cognitive dissonance. So, I quit that job. Thankfully, I was in a financial position to do so. It was, without a doubt, the right thing to do. Even so, it was difficult, frustrating and depressing, at first.
I moved on quickly, though, and uncovered a better career path for myself. Soon, I achieved a level of success, recognition and fulfillment like never before. I had stuck to my guns, with the help of a familiar 1500 word document, and found a way to do what I love in a manner that supports what matters to me.
I hope you’ll do this exercise for yourself. I won’t lie, it’s a little creepy to sit down and begin drafting your own eulogy. You’ll get past that, though. What seemed like a hokey leadership development exercise ended up being one of the most important things I’ve done for myself. To be deliberate about creating a legacy you’ll be proud of, it’s crucial to begin with the end in mind, and to remind yourself of it along the way.
So, in the end, how do you want to be remembered?
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