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How vividly imagining your own death can help your next career move

Imagining what you would like to have said about you when you die could give you the blueprint for your future.

How vividly imagining your own death can help your next career move
[Photo: davidford/iStock]

Six years before his passing, Steve Jobs gave a highly regarded commencement address to Stanford graduates. In it one of the main themes he talked about was death. The way that Jobs talked about death, it wasn’t something to be feared, it was a tool to be used to empower you.

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“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,” Jobs said. “Because almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

But to follow it to where? For many that’s a hard question to answer–but one that might be easier if, like Jobs pointed out, that we remember one day we are going to die. And that’s the whole premise behind a visualization technique that asks people to write their own eulogy.

The technique is finding increased popularity among business executives and, as a friend who owns a small tech company in China told me, among startup circles there. And it’s a technique that Daniel Harkavy, CEO and executive coach at Building Champions and co-author of Living Forward, has been teaching executives for over 20 years.

“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 toward a better future.”

But if you’ve ever had to write a eulogy for someone else, you know what a monumental task that is. And it can feel all the more overwhelming when you are tasked with doing it for yourself. But Harkavy says the task is much more achievable when you break it down into four steps.

1. Set aside a few uninterrupted hours, block it in your calendar, and get out of the office.

Harkavy acknowledges that for many of us–especially busy executives–taking enough time out of already packed schedules to really concentrate on writing a eulogy is a big ask. “But this exercise won’t be nearly as effective if you’re trying to squeeze it in between meetings and focusing on writing your eulogy with all the usual distractions at the office vying for your attention,” he says. It’s why he advises leaders to pick a day to write their eulogy and put it on their calendar. “If you wait until some free time opens up, it will never get done.”

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Once you’ve blocked the time out Harkavy says you then need to decide on where you want to work on your eulogy. He notes that for many a change of place can equal a change of perspective and thus encourages clients to go somewhere they can focus and let their creativity come out. For some this might be a local indie coffee shop they don’t get to often, but for others, this could be the solitude of the mountains.

“By going somewhere where you can slow down, get offline, and have a change of scenery, you will be better able to concentrate on the task at hand,” says Harkavy.

2. Write your eulogy as if your life ended today.

Harkavy’s next tip is to write your eulogy first as if your funeral was today and everything you’ve accomplished so far was all you ever would. “Picture your memorial service as if it were being held right now. Your casket is sitting center stage, and as you look down the center 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 says when he walks clients through this exercise during his speaking engagements, they usually all say the same thing: “We gave them our best!” He then asks them what they gave to the people sitting in rows one through three–and their answers usually amount to “We gave them our leftovers.” In other words, their work-life balance is out of whack.

“When you go to write your eulogy, you need to be brutally honest. Don’t pull any punches. You want to really feel this,” Harkavy says. “What would those closest to you say about who you were, how you lived, and what you had to give them, and why would they say that?”

3. Now write your eulogy as you hope it would read in the future when you die.

The whole point of writing your “today” eulogy is to help identify the shortcomings or imbalances in your personal and professional life. The next step, says Harkavy, is writing your “legacy statement”–or your future eulogy, that is, how you would like to be remembered.

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“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 toward putting a plan together to close those gaps in your life.”

He also acknowledges that while some people may find these eulogy exercises easy, others could struggle with them. That why he’s created free detailed templates that people can use to help them craft their eulogy and legacy statements.

4. Read it out loud, and if it doesn’t pull out emotion, then there’s more work to be done.

Finally, Harkavy says the final step is to read both your “today” and “future” eulogies out loud. “The eulogy and legacy statements will only propel you down the path toward realizing 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.”

Harkavy says that if your heart isn’t connecting with what you’ve written, that’s okay. Just put the eulogy aside for a bit and then schedule a time to return to it in the near future. Just remember to “keep working and remember to be honest in what you write and to be open to the process.”

In that 2005 Stanford commencement address where Jobs talked about the importance of realizing you are going to die, he also stated that, upon reflecting on his success, he realized “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”

Yet with the eulogy technique, now maybe you don’t have to wait until the end of your life to connect the dots. By changing your point of view and shifting your perspective from your present to your future, you’ll be able to see where you want to end up, and then know what steps you’ll next to take–what dots you’ll need to connect–to get there.

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