“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And Brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.” — Erich Segal, 1970
Death is always with us.
Okay, I realize this is a morbid topic (literally!). And you might be wondering why in heaven (see what I did there?) I’m bringing it up, given that I normally talk with you about leadership, communications, and marketing.
Stay with me.
Some of the leadership topics I cover include emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and integrity.
And part of dealing with death is simply acknowledging that it’s something that every single one of us will face. Aside from birth, it’s the only thing common to the entire human race.
The Stoics are big fans of staying aware of death. They even have a phrase for it: memento mori (Latin for “remember that you must die”). And they advocate for keeping some physical object to remind ourselves of that.
When we do think about it, death is one of those subjects or eventualities that we hold in awe: we're reverent and respectful — even fearful (more on fear in next week’s edition).
But the sense of reverence and respect means we attach solemnity and thoughtfulness to death. When William Butler Yeats died, W.H Auden elegized him (not a eulogy; an elegy), he wrote:
"Earth, receive an honoured guest."
This short phrase packs a critical truth about death: that typically we're judged not by how we died, but by how we lived.
I don't know about you, but I'd like to be received as an honored guest by the earth one day. I think we'd all like that.
At a certain point, we come to recognize what the important things are in our lives — the things we spend more time on as we age.
"Epitaph, n. An inscription on a tomb, showing that virtues acquired by death have a retroactive effect." — Ambrose Bierce, 1906
If we’re lucky we might realize that it's the relationships we create that matter the most. And with any luck, we realize it long before the end of our lives.
What are you doing with the relationships you're tending to each day? It exists in the little moments you share with your partner, the rapport you create with your team members, and the way you make a customer or client feel when they see you.
And what about online? Is the digital you anything like the you in the real world?
It can be difficult at times, with so many distractions and negative commentary on the web. It’s tempting to get pulled into things that rile us up and make us want to comment.
We’re protected by the near-anonymity that the online world provides us — or at least by the glowing bulwark of a screen. The slings and arrows that we send and receive are blunted by virtue of the virtual. It's hard to resist. I know I’m trying to improve, even though I’m flawed.
Every tweet, every comment, every GIF and emoji, we tell the world who we are. What will your digital memorial look like?
Leonard Nimoy left us with this final tweet as his:
That's a beautiful sentiment and a wonderful message to leave us with.
Three Losses to Cancer
I’ve witnessed many friends online succumb to cancer over the past few years. Three in particular stick with me.
Jewel Figueras was a blogger whom I invited to many events when I worked at Ford. I remember one time she showed up at one of them with a gift for me: a few bow ties from my favorite bow tie company, Beau Ties Ltd. of Vermont.
It was thoughtful and generous, and what had already been a fun and friendly relationship was solidified. Jewel valued being acknowledged as an influencer, and I valued Jewel for her unique take on things and always making me smile.
Another was Del Williams. Del was a freelance journalist who was interested in technology, and because of that, we were interested in her. I first met her in person at the Los Angeles Auto Show, but we remained regular online correspondents.
Del knew that I ran a website about Sherlock Holmes and was always forwarding me things in the news about Sherlock Holmes. I was usually aware of them already, but I didn’t always tell her that; I told her how much I appreciated her being an extra set of eyes and ears for me.
And finally there was John Haydon, who passed away over the weekend. While I didn’t know John well, I always appreciated his thoughtful approach to things. He was a Buddhist and practiced the calm and balance that his faith taught, even in the darkest hours.
What struck me about John when I heard about his death was how he left his Twitter account in perfect balance: he had the same number of people following him as he was following.
Each of us has a choice about how we approach death—and how we approach life.
When George VI died in 1952, Winston Churchill wrote a eulogy in which he acknowledged how the king made his peace and embraced the inevitable in the most serene way:
“During these last months the King walked with death as if death were a companion, an acquaintance whom he recognized and did not fear. In the end death came as a friend, and after a happy day of sunshine and sport, and after ‘good night’ to those who loved him best, he fell asleep as every man or woman who strives to fear God and nothing else in the world may hope to do.”
Whether you're stepping away from your job or thinking about the finite nature of life itself, what choices are you making each day that build the monument that you'll leave behind?
How do you wish to be remembered?
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“Death and vulgarity are the only two facts in the nineteenth century that one cannot explain away.” — Oscar Wilde, 1891
Spend enough time on the Internet and you’ll be faced with jokes, reflections and other thoughts about death. And you’ll inevitably see brands following a lifecycle. Which is why we should have expected Planters to kill Mr. Peanut. (Mashable)
The plan was to kill Mr. Peanut in a fiery crash in a video online an then make a big announcement during the Super Bowl. Only one thing: the weekend after the video was released, Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed, killing all nine people on board. I’m not sure who needed to get the memo that using death so cavalierly — especially when we’re surrounded by death — was bound to end badly. Killing Mr. Peanut Was Never a Good Idea. (Forbes)
To some people, being rejected is the worst thing they can imagine. (What, not death?) Emily Winters made it her goal to get rejected 100 times in a single year. In putting herself into situations for which she didn’t think she was qualified, she learned a lot in the process. (The New York Times)
Related: my friend Charlene Li trades “Fail Fast” for “Learn Fast”:
“To desire immortality for the individual is really the same as wanting to perpetuate an error forever.” — Arthur Schopenhauer, 1819
Shirley Jackson's famous short story “The Lottery” is a classic take on community dynamics and death. First published in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker.
The September 2016 lead article in Esquire opens with these chilling words:
“In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear intimidated by gravity's divine suction or by what awaits him.” He is The Falling Man. (Esquire)
On a warm January day in Boston in 1919, a combination of physics and neglect led to the deadly Great Molasses Flood. Two million gallons of the sticky substance hit the streets like a 35 mph tsunami, killing 21 people and injuring another 150. (HISTORY)
A Heart Replete with Thankfulness
“When I had no wings to fly, you flew me.” — The Grateful Dead, 1970
Is it a cliché to use a Grateful Dead quote for the section on gratitude? Well, whatever it is, this week I’m grateful for my parents, who have always been there for me, supporting whatever direction my life has taken and showing me unconditional love.
Recommended Reading / Listening
“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” — J.K. Rowling, 1997
Death, Sex & Money was born out of a desire for open and honest conversations about the things that we “think about a lot, and need to talk about more.” Since host Anna Sale launched the show in May 2014, the show has featured intimate conversations with celebrities and listeners about money, relationships, infidelity, career shifts, parenting, mental illness, divorce, gender identity, dying, and more.
On a Pale Horse is the first novel in the Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony. Shooting Death was a mistake, as Zane soon discovered. For the man who killed the Incarnation of Death was immediately forced to assume the vacant position. Thereafter, he must speed over the world, riding his pale horse, and ending the lives of others.
If you have a couple of extra minutes, read Robert W. Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” in its entirety. It’s classic Service—one of his best-known poems.
Here’s the first stanza:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.