As I watched the documentary film “Obit” the other day about the New York Times’ three obituary writers, what they shared triggered memories of a module I am passionate about teaching but do not teach often enough. Times being what they are, perhaps now is a good time to revisit the importance of owning the content of your life story.
The Times writers’ daily challenge is to summarize, in 600-to-800 words, the life achievements of a notable individual. Each day is a new challenge, since death is unpredictable. Only the legends are granted more space. They are given feature status with much longer stories that are mocked up in great detail ahead of time. The newspaper has these archived in waiting for When the Day Comes.
Times writers strive to allocate just ten percent of the obit’s word count for the fact-checked particulars surrounding the demise of the deceased. The other ninety percent shares the person’s life. Research and interviews with family and friends seek notable areas of the person’s chase for fulfillment, as well as life events that impacted others.
To make sure your obit reads the way you would like, here are six things that help. Hopefully your story will be archived and stored for a very long time too.
- Pursue personal happiness. Every life summary should include things that mattered to you. Nothing is too large or small. If it makes you happy, invest time chasing it.
- Be positive in the lives of others. The Times’ writers are reporters first, so sometimes the life stories they summarize deal with nefarious no-goodniks. Each of us is empowered to be either a positive or negative force in the universe. Positive reads better.
- Live with a sense of urgency and make things happen. I am fond of saying that days drag but years fly and that mortality ruins a lot of weekends. Our waking hours pass one of four ways: they are wasted, spent, invested, or cherished. The best way to muscle up your obit is to make time decisions that invest and cherish as much as possible, while spending only what you have to, and wasting as little as possible. Urgency and passion pursuits help do this.
- Own your dash line. The dash line is the hyphen between your birth year and death year. That dash is comprised of tiny little dots similar to the “DPI” (Dots Per Inch) that determine a printer’s image density. Each dot is a life event. The bolder the dots, the bolder the dash line.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Nobody’s perfect and even the strong are broken in places. Learn, change, grow, adapt, and morph over time. Until you are happy with who you are, you will never be happy with what you have. But once you get there – to a point of personal satisfaction – everything in life gets easier. Your best self is fully able to help others become the best them they can be.
- Above all, push on. If life is a card game, every once in a while we feel the joy of being dealt a great hand. But sometimes we get stinkers. Play your cards the best you can as they are dealt. If you get a bad hand, trust life’s process: a better one will soon be on its way. Push on. Keep making things happen in areas that matter most to you.
Do your best with these six things and your obit will be extraordinary. A life well lived deserves exactly that.
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