Begin With the End in Mind: How Writing Your Own Eulogy Can Set You On the Right Path
I know what you’re thinking.
First these people name their website after the number of days they have left to live.
Now they’re telling me to write my own eulogy?
I thought this project was supposed to be uplifting!
I’d encourage you to read on because I think you’ll find it is.
Where did this come from?
The idea comes from a book category I used to consider taboo – self-help. Oh the stigma!
In thinking about it now, I suppose my aversion to self-help books was rooted in the fixed mindset discussed in my last post. I held the idea that I was a well-rounded person who didn’t need any self-help and by reading any such literature I would be admitting that A.) I wasn’t as well-rounded as I thought and B.) I did in fact need self-help.
Fortunately I was slowly able to toss aside these insecurities (see: growth mindset) and soak up the wisdom of books like the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey…which brings us to this post.
What do you want out of life?
The million dollar question.
What do you want out of life? It’s the question that underlies nearly everything we do – whether you’ve put conscious thought into it or not.
Yet despite the huge impact answer this simple question can have, relatively few people allow themselves the opportunity to answer it honestly or effectively.
Sure you’ll have people (like my 25 year old self) who answer with a blanket response such as “I want to be happy” or “I want to be successful”; but what do those answers really mean? How do they translate to your everyday life?
I would argue that in this format, those answers don’t translate to anything beneficial. “I want to be happy” isn’t a tool you can use to create a workable plan of improvement. It isn’t a framework you can use to answer a tough ethical question.
So how do you come up with an effective, actionable answer (or answers) to this vitally important question? It’s a tall order but it can be done.
Why is it so important to have a vision?
One of my favorite quotes by Stephen Covey is:
“Before you start climbing the ladder of success, make sure it’s leaning against the right building”.
It nails home the idea that before you start taking steps in any direction, take a minute to ensure you’re moving in the right one. Make sure that you’ve put thought into where it is you’d like to end up so that every decision you make along the way gets you a little bit closer – rather than arbitrarily going down a path because you either A.) haven’t thought about it or B.) are allowing someone else to choose your direction for you.
It’s important to develop a vision because once you have a vision, decisions become clear.
When you have an idea of where you want to end up, time and energy is no longer wasted doubting each step along the path because instead of the question being “Is this what I want to be doing?” it simply becomes, “Will this get me closer to fulfilling my vision?”, an infinitely easier question to answer.
But to bring clarity to the latter question, you must first take the former head on.
Why is it so hard to answer this question?
The answer is two-fold.
First, existential questions like this are something that’s relatively new. Think about it, from the beginning of human existence until roughly about 1900 the vast majority of the world’s population was in a struggle for survival.
Contemplative thoughts of what it takes to lead a meaningful life took a backseat to fighting off wild animals, collecting fresh water, avoiding dysentery, etc. Thinking was, for the most part, relatively short-term and necessitous.
Thoughts were generally centered around the question of how not to die whereas today they are revolve around how to live.
You could even take it a step further and argue that existential thinking provided absolutely no survival benefit to us as a species during the course of our evolution, therefore it’s not something that comes natural.
Now the second, more contemporary reason; even though we now have the time to consider these questions most people aren’t prepared with the right tools.
This brings us to the eulogy.
How does writing a eulogy help?
This idea was presented by Stephen Covey in his famed self-help book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here’s how he sets the scene:
“In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral parlor, parking the car, and getting out. As you walk inside the building you notice the flowers, the soft organ music. You see faces of friends and family you pass along the way. You feel the shared sorrow of losing, the joy of having known, that radiates from the hearts of the people there.
As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself. This is your funeral, three years from today. All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life.”
Little eerie isn’t it? This whole idea felt weird to me at first too – and I think it’s because our culture doesn’t handle the idea of death very well. We don’t like to talk about it nor do we like to think about it.
So naturally the idea of being at your own funeral is a little uncomfortable – but bear with me because we’ve arrived at the point:
“As you take a seat and wait for the services to begin, you look at the program in your hand. There are to be four speakers. The first one is from your family…who have come from all over the country to attend. The second speaker is one of your friends, someone who can give a sense of what you were as a person. The third speaker is from your work or profession. And the fourth is from a community organization where you’ve been involved in service.
Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate? What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions? What achievements?”
Think about that for a second.
How better to answer the question of ‘What do I want out of life?’ than to visualize what you’d want those closest to you to say at the celebration of your life? It’s the most effective, honest way to develop the vision to have for your life.
Do you picture your husband or wife standing up there and saying how loving you were as a partner? Do you picture your children (or future children) getting up and extolling your role as the central figure in their development as a well-rounded human being? Does a co-worker stand up and reminisce on how your leadership lifted up every employee to being a better person? Maybe a local charity recalls how selfless you were with your time and donations?
Whatever you’re envisioning is precisely what is most important to you.
The (Vital) Mental Addition: Why You Should Speak at Your Own Funeral
Jenna brought up a great point while we were discussing this idea. She thought it was valuable but with one glaring omission she couldn’t ignore – what about a person’s mental development? How does someone else get up and attest to another’s intrapersonal development?
Well, in reality they can’t. No one can really know what’s going on in your head except you so in reality, no one is going to stand up at your actual funeral and accurately describe your mental accolades.
Good thing this isn’t your actual funeral then, huh? (Er, for more than one reason…)
In addition to the most important people in your life saying a few words in front of the group, you need to stand up there too. You need to stand up and state exactly what is was that made you proud to be inside your own head. For as strange as that sounds, this will provide the framework for the mental portion of your vision.
Maybe you’ve developed to genuinely feel compassion for all human beings? Maybe you’ve moved beyond prejudice? Maybe you’ve become at peace with yourself?
These realizations will, just like the words of your friends and family, shed light on the path that will lead you towards fulfillment.
So what do I do after envisioning all this?
Write it down.
As author Brian Tracey says, “Think on paper”.
Write it all down.
This was my writing process:
- Write the words that each of the speakers at your funeral say
- Transfer these ideas into bulleted points
- Meld all of the ideas into a one-page piece called A Vision of Chris Regan
It’s as simple as that but it’s absolutely vital that pen hits paper. While thinking about these ideas is certainly important, it’s amazing what can happen when you start hashing out these ideas in front of your eyes as opposed to behind them.
I’ve written out my vision, what’s next?
The next step is to put it into action!
Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, said:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
No matter how lofty your visions are, they all begin and are ultimately completed with small steps – I’ll go more in depth into the concept of converting your vision into actionable objectives in my next post.
Is it ever too late to develop a vision?
As novelist George Eliot* once wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been“.
It’s never too late to develop a vision because the next moment always provides an opportunity for you to change the direction you’re headed.
Years of moving arbitrarily without a vision may tempt some to believe that they can’t do it – but they’d be mistaken. Sitting down and deciding what you ultimately want in life does not mean you have to abandon the life you’ve been living (although for some it can). All it means is that you’re evaluating what it is that is most important to you and hopefully starts moving towards it.
*Pen name for Mary Anne Evans
I’ve included a lot of quotes from a lot of illustrious writers in this piece so I think it only right to end it with one by one of the great wordsmiths of our time:
“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” – Yogi Berra
Best of luck developing your personal vision. If you embark upon the practice honestly, I think you’ll find it to be one of the most valuable of your life.