NY Times writer David Brooks wrote an opinion piece a few years ago about how, as a society, we focus on developing resume values instead of eulogy values.
Ultimately when we pass, no one’s going to care about the degrees we accumulated, the perfect spreadsheets we built, or the $ in our bank accounts (okay, maybe some interested parties may care about the last one). What matters above all is our eulogy values—our depth of character and our generosity of spirit; whether we are able to connect soulfully to others without expecting anything in return.
Most of us are familiar with the story of the Buddha. Born to an aristocratic family, Siddhartha Gautama (his birth name) was shielded from witnessing any form of suffering. Folklore recounts how Siddhartha had an existential crisis when he left the palace walls for the first time and encountered suffering in the form of old age, disease, and death. The experience transformed him completely. It forced him to renunciate his life of comfort and turn into a monk in the search for nirvana—liberation from suffering.
In a modern-day parallel, Ajahn Siripanyo, the son of Malaysian business tycoon Ananda Krishnan—apparent heir to a multi-billion-dollar fortune made news a few years ago when he shunned his family fortunes in search of spiritual meaning by becoming a forest monk.
Building resumes, not values
The reason Ven. Ajahn Siripanyo’s story made news is because such acts of sacrifice and selflessness are rare.
We live in a culture that rewards resume-building over value-building. By a large margin, our societies promote material achievements over human kindness.
As a result, far too many of us are steeped in everyday busyness to even notice the subtle calls of our conscience towards loftier pursuits. Not that we don’t contemplate the meaning of life.
There’s a philosopher in each and every one of us lamenting the loss of meaning in life. Some more vocal than others.
From Thales of Miletus to the modern-day Twitter philosophers, we’ve shown that we’re capable of deep pondering.
The most difficult thing in life is to know thyself. Thales. 670 BC
Have a safe weekend, everyone. Sunscreen will not protect you from despair. @KimKierkegaard – August 2015
Clearly, over 2500 years of pondering haven’t resulted in much action as we continue on our quest to find out how to be better versions of ourselves.
Eulogy values v Resume Values
In 2015, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times introducing the phrase “resume v eulogy” values. Brooks’ article was about how he felt compelled to move away from the virtues that help us build our careers (resume virtues) to the ones we’d like people to mention at our funerals (eulogy virtues.)
Brook argues that our culture places so much emphasis on building resume values that we rarely have the time to consider developing eulogy values such as the strength of character or compassion. As a result, Brooks writes that over time
It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K.
Brooks makes a great point. If we consider ourselves “good” people simply by virtue of not having killed another person, then we have to admit we have a problem. We’ve lowered the bar to the floor.
The reality is that this way of living sets us up for a shallow life with little to show for at the end. After all, you don’t want the killer spreadsheet you built (to track the stats of your favorite NFL team) or your card-shuffling expertise to be the signature achievements of your life. Surely you and I can do better than that, right? If nothing else, it’s our duty to give some material to our eulogy deliverers so they’re not fumbling around for things to say at a difficult time.
So, in the resume v eulogy values debate, how do we get the balance back?
Identify Eulogy values
In Sep 1979, the defendant’s lawyer in a criminal trial requested a Des Moines, Iowa, judge to postpone the scheduled trial by a week. The defendant, accused of owning a house of prostitution, was concerned that the Pope’s four-hour visit to the city the week of the scheduled trial would create “the immense possibility that the standard of morality may be magnified 50‐fold” and adversely affect his position.
It is an amusing anecdote for many reasons. However, what stands out is that our definitions for what’s okay and what’s not seem quite fickle. If a four-hour papal visit has the potential to dramatically, albeit temporarily, alter our standards of judgment, then we probably need to devote more time and resources to identifying and defining our baseline values. Especially the eulogy ones.
Build Eulogy values
At the outset, let me state this: we’re not lacking in self-improvement how-to material. Over centuries, many wise women and men have given us blueprints on what we must do to enrich our inner lives meaningfully. Also, like Ajanh Siripanyo, there’s the option to dedicate our existence to learning about the meaning and purpose of life.
But, for those of us juggling worldly responsibilities such as jobs, families, social commitments, Netflix shows, and Instagram stories, here are some practical tips to enhance eulogy values.
Raise the bar
It’s hard to fathom that it was okay not so long ago to own slaves, smoke everywhere, or indulge in rude and misogynistic humor at work. Thankfully, we’ve raised the bar now to say that’s not okay. Mostly.
Over time, as our understanding of the world and its working improves, so too should our internal moral compass for what’s okay and what’s not. But let’s be honest. We cut ourselves way too much slack when it comes to personal ethical considerations. And only we can change that through self-awareness.
Breakthrough inner goodness can only come when we set ourselves higher standards.
The only time I set the bar low is for limbo. Michael Scott, The Office.
In September 2020, Forbes published an article titled, The billionaire who wanted to die broke is now officially broke.
The article was about one of the most inspiring people of our times—Chuck Feeney—whom Forbes dubbed the James Bond of Giving.
Chuck Feeney, who amassed billions through his business ventures, decided to give away all his earned wealth. The key difference between Feeney and most other philanthropists was that Feeney chose to make his charitable contributions to causes he supported not after his passing but DURING his lifetime.
Feeney’s Giving While Living philosophy worked wonderfully. In September 2020, Feeney and his wife officially closed down their charity, as planned, after giving away every penny of the foundation’s $8 billion.
Here’s how most of us think: It’s a great story but not really applicable to us. If we had billions, we would probably give some away too.
But giving need not be about money alone. We can all donate the things we’ve spent our lives building (aka put those resume virtues to good use.) For Feeney, it was money. For some of us, it may be sharing skills we’ve honed through mentoring or teaching.
But before embarking on a giving project, here are two principles to never violate:
- Give without expecting anything in return (not even gratitude.)
- Never make the recipient feel small, like you’re doing them a favor, or that they owe you. They don’t.
The joy is in the giving.
Don’t rest on your laurels
We do nothing. We hope that our early successes make up for the embarrassing mess we’ve become. Like Facebook. Or America – Eleanor Shellstrop, The Good Place 4×07
Building strong eulogy values isn’t a one-and-done activity. You cannot contribute to one feed the hungry day every year and then forget about cultivating empathy until the following year.
Rather, value-building is a slow, somewhat painstaking process of self-awareness, where we may need to acknowledge our character flaws and chip away at them.
The whole point of trading resume values for eulogy ones shouldn’t be because we want our friends and family to deliver accolades at our eulogy. We won’t know anyway. So, why bother?
Rather, it is to leave behind a legacy of having made our time on earth matter by radiating strength of character and compassion.
Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs.
― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life