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What Will People Say When You Pass Away?

Since her own bout with burn-out and crippling exhaustion, Arianna Huffington has been giving great advice for finding greater meaning and fulfillment in life: Start working on your eulogy, and stop working on your resume.

She elaborates:

It is very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies. We almost never hear things like:

The crowning achievement of his life was when he made senior vice president.
He increased market share for his company multiple times during his tenure.
While she didn’t have any real friends, she had six hundred Facebook friends, and she dealt with every email in her inbox every night.

After we’ve passed away, people will recount the ways that we made a difference in their lives and in the world. They will tell stories and recount memories of times we enjoyed together. They will talk, in essence, about the meaning that we found in this lifetime, about our value, our impact, and our purpose.

When we start working on our eulogy instead of our resumes, we reorient our efforts toward meaning and away from achievements. We look away from the glitter of external rewards: the decadent meal, the Botox, the designer shoes, the higher paycheck, and the more prestigious title. We look inside ourselves to see what really lights our fire, what really brings us peace.

Please note that this probably isn’t about finding a different job. It’s about identifying the meaning that is already there.

We humans find our calling in all types of work—as janitors and ministers, as executives and hairdressers, as artists and parents and mail carriers and farmers. One study found that among administrative assistants, one-third considered their work a job (they focused on their paycheck—not the meaning or enjoyment they derived from the work), one-third considered it a career (mostly a series of ascending achievements), and another third considered it a true calling (they felt that their work was interesting, socially useful, and truly worthy of their time and energy).

Researchers have found the same results in other occupations. People tend to be more or less equally distributed in each of the categories of job, career, and calling.

It isn’t the job description or title that determines meaning— whether we consider our work a job, a career, or a calling. It’s the person. It isn’t about the prestige or even the helping nature of our work. It’s about the meaning we personally find in it and express through it, and the effort and commitment we give to it. So what do you want people to remember? 

Questions for Introspection

Think about what your friends and family will say at your funeral. What do you want them to say, and what would they likely say now?

Now, take a step back and think about what meaning you find in your work, and in your life.

What are you passionate about? What do you find most interesting, important, and worthy of your time and energy? What positive impact are you having on the world and other people?

Do your time and effort reflect your commitment to the work you value the most?

This is a first step towards discovering what you value, so that you can better prioritize your time. The next activity is about how best to prioritize.

This post is from a series on finding more meaning in how we spend our time. If you are interested in learning more, check out “The Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!