Humans spend a lot of their waking hours avoiding thoughts of our inevitable end. That’s probably for the best, since dwelling on your death is a morbid exercise. But, it turns out, it’s also a very useful thing to think about when trying to figure out your life.
Tech companies and CEOs have embraced a specific thought experiment as a way to decide what they’re doing next, wherein they write their own eulogy. It’s become popular in part because of a coaching group called Building Champions; their executive coach Daniel Harkavy spoke with Fast Company about the technique, and why it works.
“When we take the time to write our eulogies, it creates this magnetic pull power that draws us forward,” Harkavy says. “Our priorities and our vision for where we want to be as leaders and how we’ll get there come into sharp focus. This clarity enables us to make the best decisions, get up out of our comfortable patterns, create new habits, and start moving us towards a better future.”
If you think you can handle it, this is how envisioning your own demise works.
Make Time For It
This isn’t your shopping list. If you are going to take your own eulogy seriously, give it as much time as you would for writing the eulogy of a dear friend. Go someplace quiet, away from the internet and the office politics. Maybe in nature. Maybe a coffee shop. Somewhere you can get away from your daily life a little bit and focus on the task at hand: your death.
Write Your First Eulogy
The exercise actually has two parts. The first part is writing what would be said about you if you died today. While you shouldn’t be unkind to yourself, you should be realistic about what kinds of accomplishments would be noted. Then Harkavy says to take it a step further:
“Picture your memorial service as if it were being held right now. Your casket is sitting centre stage, and as you look down the centre aisle you see the first three rows, usually reserved for those with whom we were closest. Who’s sitting there for you?” he asks. “Most likely your family and dearest friends. Now keep looking down the aisle, and now you’re looking at rows 10 through 20. Who’s sitting there? Probably acquaintances, clients, customers. What did you give to the people in these rows?”
Harkavy often gets the same answers to these questions, saying CEOs tend to claim their clients would say they got their best from the imaginary dead person in the casket, but friends and family would say they got “the leftovers.” You don’t have to be a CEO to realise your life is maybe out of balance. Picture what the people in the rows would say, and it will give you an idea of what you need to adjust in your life.
Write Your Second, And Future, Eulogy
The nice thing about the first eulogy is that when it’s over, you are most likely still alive! That means you can turn things around. You’re Ebenezer Scrooge after his encounter with the ghost of Christmas Future. This is your “legacy statement,” or how you would like to be remembered one day.
“By writing both the eulogy and the legacy statements, you may begin to see a gap between where you are and how you want to be remembered in the future,” Harkavy says. “This gap then creates a felt need that should propel you towards putting a plan together to close those gaps in your life.”
You can even look at them side by side afterwards and see what it is that’s missing in between. What have you been ignoring or putting off? Who have you not connected with? Where haven’t you gone? What do you spend time on now that won’t matter at the end? Now you know. And you can still do something about it.
Do A Sincerity Check
If you’re going to take the time for this exercise, really make it as real as possible for yourself. Confronting death is extremely frightening, so you may not want to “go there,” as they say. But Harkavy says the easiest way to check if you’re being honest with yourself is to read the eulogy aloud, and see if it emotional affects you.
“The eulogy and legacy statements will only propel you down the path towards realising your desired future if they engage both your head and your heart. If your heart’s not in it, it will be hard to make the necessary changes and decisions that will lead you to that greater future.”
If you can’t quite get there, put what you’ve written aside, and check back with it later, to see if what’s missing jumps out at you. But not too much later. We only have so much time on this earth, after all.