Many people make plans for what will happen to their estate after they die. They draw up wills or trusts to prepare for life after they've passed.
But have you considered planning for what people will say at your funeral? Not the order of the service, what songs you want sung, or other technical aspects. But are you living right now in a way that prepares your loved ones to know they're loved, to know that they - and not your career or wealth or status - matter most to you?
Imagine attending a funeral for a family friend who died in their old age, and the officiant dedicated the entire eulogy to details about the size of the deceased's house, the luxurious cars they drove, their career credentials, and extravagant vacations they took. Then, toward the end of the eulogy, they briefly mentioned the person's family, personality, and told one short story about a time the family remembered.
Wouldn't that seem backwards?
We're accustomed to the opposite. The officiant, as well as family and friends, stand before those who came to mourn and recall intimate, personal stories of their loved one. They tell stories about generosity, wisdom, and humor. They might recall moments of extraordinary compassion or devoted sacrifice. Square footage of their house, salary, job titles, luxurious automobiles, or value of retirement accounts don't seem to matter once we're gone.
So why do we dedicate so much of our energy to obtaining things that, in the final analysis, leave little to no lasting impact?
RESUMÉ VIRTUES vs EULOGY VIRTUES
Writer and New York Times op-ed contributor David Brooks wrote a book several years ago called The Road to Character. In an article about the book, The New Yorker magazine wrote:
It's interesting to think of our lives in terms of the priority we place on certain virtues, especially since priorities tend to shift as we age. For example, someone in their mid-30's might not think twice about working late shifts, missing school programs, or skipping anniversary dates because of obligations at work. But it's rare to see someone in their 50's, 60's, or 70's, sacrifice time with family to expand their career or legacy. Most people in that stage of life see greater value in "eulogy" virtues than what their resumé says.
When someone passes away in their old age and family and friends come together to remember their life, the deceased person's career is mentioned only in passing, among a list of other facts about their life. Those close to the deceased knew that they were more than their career. Instead of talking about professional accomplishments, awards, salary, or status, the loved ones recall stories of intimate conversations, meaningful experiences, or character traits they hope to carry forward in honor of their loved one. This is what those close to us remember about who we are.
At the end of our life, professional accomplishments are a footnote to those who know and love us. Perhaps we should pay attention to that fact, and not wait until later stages of life to prioritize what really matters.
NELSON MANDELA: FAMILY MAN
One would be hard pressed to find anyone in history who sacrificed more of his life to achieve success than Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island in South Africa for his resistance toward the country's racist apartheid regime. During that time he had limited contact with family and missed his kid's entire childhood.
Still, in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote:
After 27 years in prison, being released and elected president of the country that imprisoned him, and becoming an icon of freedom and goodness throughout the world, what Mandela wanted most was for his family to know he loved them.
BUT I SACRIFICED TO GET WHERE I AM
It's easy to justify putting career over family - or friends, or serving, or compassion - because of the great struggle you've endured to achieve success. Physicians and dentists struggle for years and make great sacrifices to earn their credentials, then years more establishing a career. It's understandable that after so much work, you would value your work as a physician over your role as a friend, spouse, parent, etc. That's a temptation many physicians and dentists face.
Bob Goff is an accomplished attorney, a US diplomat, and an Honorary Consul for the Republic of Uganda. Professionally, he has accomplished what most law students set out to achieve. He worked hard to get into law school, then found great success and accumulated much wealth. Yet at some point he realized he was in danger of chasing the wrong thing. In his book, Love Does, he wrote:
This is the consequence of living a life that consistently prioritizes resumé virtues over eulogy virtues. We find great success in things of little-to-no consequence.
There is perhaps no more tragic way to live than to give all we have for that which does not matter.
So what's the cure? How do we train ourselves to prioritize eulogy virtues over what's on our resumé? Here are a few ways to guard against living with backward virtues.
1. Set Your Intentions
If you've attended a yoga class or practiced guided meditation, you may know that leaders often ask participants at the start of the practice to set their intentions for what they would like to accomplish. If someone wants to work on balance during a yoga practice, they might not worry as much about poses that require flexibility. Or during meditation, if someone sets their intention on relieving stress, they may not worry so much about posture.
When we set our intentions, we acknowledge our goals from the start, and we dedicate our mental and physical energies only toward accomplishing those goals.
You will no doubt pass through a phase in your life that requires extra hours at work or painful sacrifices in order to establish your career. That's true no matter what profession you're in. But it's important to ask yourself: "What do I want this season of sacrifice to accomplish?"
During this phase, set your intentions for what you would like those long hours and hard sacrifices to produce. Keep your loved ones informed of your intention to use this difficult season as a foundation for better days to come. And, most importantly, avoid the temptation to be consumed by work or stress that does not accomplish what you set out to do.
2. Live Within Your Needs
Once med school, residency, and internships are done, and that big, fat physician salary first appears in your bank account, it's easy to give way to the temptation to buy far more than you can afford. Our firm encounters physicians who, after only a year or two of practicing medicine, are upside-down in debt because they spent beyond their means. Because of this, it's not uncommon for physicians to feel as if they cannot stop working for fear that they'll backslide financially. So it's important to live within your means.
But, if you want to go a step further and free yourself up to live fully into your eulogy virtues, consider living within your needs. While you may be able to afford a sizable home in a high-profile neighborhood, or a brand new luxury car, think of the space it would create in your life if you purchased a house or car that suited your needs. As we've written before, living with less actually produces more joy.
This sounds counterintuitive when compared to the messages that bombard us in our culture. But it's true: living within your needs actually simplifies life.
Financially, it frees up your cash flow to be directed toward more productive endeavors. Rather than pay more for a mortgage on extra, unnecessary square footage, you can set aside more for family vacations, charitable contributions, or to help out family and friends in financial need.
Relationally, you experience far more joy in marriage, partnerships, parenting, and friendships when you are not consumed with worry over whether or not you can pay your bills or make repairs or maintain a high-profile lifestyle.
Personally, a deep sense of peace occurs when your mind is satisfied knowing you and your loved ones have enough, rather than fret over whether you have the best or most impressive. Peace of mind allows you to live more fully into each moment without regret for the past or fear of the future.
Living within your needs accomplishes much of the peace, calm, and freedom many physicians and dentists strive for without plunging yourself into debt or feeling the need to keep up with the Joneses.
3. Keep a Healthy Perspective
A Jewish Rabbi named Simcha Bunam once said to his students: "Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: 'For my sake was the world created,' and in his left: 'I am but dust and ashes.'"
Some days we need to remind ourselves that we are the reason the whole world was created. We are blessed. Gifted. Capable. Necessary. We need to give all that we have because, if we don't, some part of the world will not exist up to its potential.
Other days we need to remember that the world will go right on spinning whether or not we get out of bed. No amount of our personal work or intelligence or wealth or job titles can stop the sun from rising or setting. As much as we might want to change certain things in life, we only have so much capacity to do so.
Learning when to utilize each perspective helps us give what we're capable of giving, and let go of that which we cannot change. And in doing so, we are free to live according to who we are without pretending to be someone we're not.
4. Listen to the People Around You
A good way to check which virtues you actually prioritize is to ask those who know you best. Ask a spouse, partner, significant other, best friend, close co-worker whether they think you prioritize resumé virtues or eulogy virtues. Sometimes an outside perspective helps us see ourselves more clearly.
It's not uncommon to acquire tunnel vision in your career and completely miss the burden you place on those around you. For example, if you work and your spouse stays home, are you aware of the sacrifice they make to keep your home running? Do you see the disappointment on friends' faces when they feel neglected by you? Do you listen when others reach out and encourage you to take some time for non-work activities?
Obviously, there are always moments out of your control in which you would choose to be with family and friends instead of at work. That's unavoidable. But listen to the people around you and do your best to make sure they know which virtues you prioritize through your actions.
What do you want people to say about you at your funeral? Don't assume you'll magically start living according to the virtues that matter most. Don't allow your external circumstances to shape your virtues. Decide what matters most to you, and live in a way that demonstrates the virtues that matter most.