Death has been a frequent topic of conversation. My father-in-law, a longtime friend, and even the untimely death of Robin Williams have all brought a subject I rarely dwell on into the spotlight.
Death and loss are part of the human experience. Authors have written wonderful prose about the impact of a person on their life or the influence that the sadness and loss had on them. There are movies that reveal the eloquence and poise of those who speak at funerals that are rarely seen in our real non-movie lives. Poets are often quoted or songs are played and we marvel at how lyrical and moving it seems.
Some see another’s death as a wake up call for their own life: life is short. Don’t waste a moment. Do what you want, say what you want, and live the way you want. There is no day but today. Live a life of intention.
The other day I had a more sobering thought: what will people say about us when we are gone?
While I know that this is out of my control, I found myself thinking about what I was doing with my time and how that translated into what people saw, and what they thought about what they saw.
I’m not suggesting that people should live their life with what others think in mind. In fact, I often advocate the notion that you should do what is right for you. Don’t worry so much about what others are doing or saying about what you are doing.
But when it’s all said and done –what might they say?
You may be wondering: what does that have to do with organizations and managers and employees?
Everyone believes they see the world with great accuracy. It helps us get around and function if we think we are right about most things. If we didn’t, we’d be second guessing ourselves, doubting even the most basic of observations, and many of us would simply refuse to leave the house! So we go off into the world with what we think is a pretty good understanding of who we are and who others are.
Our understanding of others is based on what we observe and what we hear. Our experience allows us to create a picture of not who they are, but who they are as we experience them. This explains why you might loath someone I adore.
Our understanding of ourselves is based on a history too, but it’s an internal history based on our thoughts and feelings. These tend to be subjective (rather than objective) and can explain why being late doesn’t bother you while it drives me up a wall.
Imagine everyone that populates your life: family, friends, colleagues, customers, neighbors, the boss, the vendors – it can be quite a crowd. Now imagine that TIME magazine interviewed them for a special issue after you were gone.
What do you think they would say about you? Does your self-perception match what others think? What did you mean to them? How did you impact them? What have they lost now that you are no longer around? What will they remember most about your interactions?
What’s your reaction to this mental exercise? If you are less than thrilled with the outcome, it allows you to figure out what you have to do to get from where things are now to where you want them to be. You’re reading this – so you are still here! Those who are still here have the capacity to change things to affect the future. In workshops, I help managers and employees create or improve an existing vision for their organization. Defining or recalibrating the mental picture of your future can shift what people do on a daily basis.
Not every shift needs to be major. You may only need to call more often, smile more often, or write a thank you note more often. Maybe you only have to make eye contact, put away the phone or keyboard, and listen. If that’s what it took to shift the outcome to something closer to what you hope for, why wouldn’t you do it?
I read that Robin Williams had a rider as part of his performance contract that specified that anyone who hired him had to also agree to hire a specific number of homeless people for the event or movie. It changed the writer’s view of him profoundly. When I read about it, it changed mine as well.
I realize that this is one of the lessons that Dickens intended when he wrote “A Christmas Carol.” After Scrooge has viewed his present and future, he realizes that it isn’t too late to change the outcome of his life by changing the way he lives. His vow to ‘keep Christmas in his heart every day of the year’ changes not just him, but those around him as well.
I refer to this phenomenon as ‘synthetic learning.’ This is what happens when you learn not from your own experience, but from seeing, hearing, or reading about something that has happened to someone else. When that learning is integrated into your behavior, it can change what you do. And that’s what makes a difference to others.
Often, that impact can last long after you’re gone.