A few days ago, I came across a Ted talk with a title that caught my attention: “Should you live for your résumé… or your eulogy?” While the talk, just five minutes long, didn’t bring much in the way of insight, the question itself got me thinking.
“What do you do?” is often the first question we ask when we meet someone for the first time. In doing so, we’re defining others in large part by the job title on their business card. It gives us an immediate sense of who that person is, their position in society, and whether we have anything to talk about.
The job title is important for our own identity as well. I’ve seen articles that claim that this is particularly true for men, who tend to attach more significance to their work achievements. Anecdotally, a friend recently observed that her school reunion saw the men talking only of their successful careers, while the women spoke of their partners and children. That said, it’s no longer the 1950s, and valuing the prestige that comes with a successful career is not something that is exclusive to men.
A longer period of maternity leave causes us to say that we’re “just” a housewife or mother. Unemployment leaves us feeling ashamed and having to come up with euphemisms that we’re “in between jobs”. Leaving a job voluntarily without a clear next step leads to people asking, “but what are you going to DO?” Retirement means that we will never again be the CEO or business owner to which peers and employees look for guidance and direction.
Are we really to distil our entire being – our hopes and aspirations, our unique qualities and quirks, our every nuance, our inner spirit – into a heading and a few bullet points on a piece of paper? Is that who we are?
The eulogy, on the other hand, tends to speak more to the individual and to the people he or she touched. It’s not just when someone has died, we do it at other milestones like weddings and birthdays as well. We talk about what a wonderful person she is, how he’s always been there for us, the time we went on that amazing trip together… Are these stories and character judgments getting closer to who we really are as individuals?
I will personally respect someone more if I see him act with integrity, with consideration for others, and with a sense of humour – a great deal more than if I simply hear him tell me that he is Managing Director of bla bla bla. A title alone gives very little indication of how he reached that position, the values he lives by, or fundamentally what kind of person he is.
Perhaps you think it’s naïve to say that the job title doesn’t mean anything at all. More to the point, beyond the title itself, a fulfilling career can be incredibly meaningful. Through our work, we learn a great deal, we have fun with our colleagues, we touch other people’s lives (more completely, in more parts of the world – sorry, that’s an inside joke), and we have the opportunity to make a real difference in whatever field of work we happen to be in. Saying that we should disregard our professional careers completely is disingenuous.
But we put enough weight on job titles and achievements, while I would argue that there’s room for a much greater focus on our interactions with others, from individual relationships through to contributions to humanity as a whole, as well as our own inner fulfilment.
Thinking of the eulogy, or the image that I’ve often used of sitting in your rocking chair and looking back over your life, what is the one thing you want to remember about your life, the one thing you want people to say about you? What can you do to live out those values in your day-to-day life?
The next time you meet someone for the first time, why not try a different question as an introduction? You might just be surprised by what you find out…