The Lives They Lived & The Lives We Live
At the end of every year, we are presented by the media with an enormous number of lists that run the gamut of “best of”, “worst of” and “most memorable or significant” across the arts, science, politics, politics, etc.
I consume these inventories greedily curious about the expert opinions. But being one who tastes can easily turn towards the melancholy, I linger longest over the obituaries.
One outlet captures my attention each year with its celebration of the people who passed in the past twelve months, “The Lives They Lived”. As I read the pieces about the lives lost, I am grabbed in part by how it might be renamed, “The Work They Did” because so much of what is shared is devoted to their professional lives. Drinking in other people’s lives in this way is inspirational and of course prompts you to think more about your place in the world.
I work so often with people trying to make conscious decisions about the make-up of their lives and it most often boils down to two things: What do we want/need from the work we do? What should our life be outside of our paid labor? There is often some tension there, but the puzzle pieces can fit together more or less well depending upon the realistic planning that we do.
If you read these pieces as I do, you notice how a list of accomplishments features prominently. Person X did the following things with the role or creative powers they had and was recognized by the following bodies for their genius or leadership. What they can’t capture fully is who these people were outside of work which is often the best measure of truly fulfilled individuals.
I would ask you to consider who you are as someone's partner, child, parent, sibling, and friend. Who do you want to be? How do you improve on the shortfall between your reality and these aspirations? Is it possible given the expectations you, or your employer, have for the work that you do?
In my effort to consider and plan for this part of my life I’ve set up the following goals to which I hold myself accountable:
- I have a goal number of times per week and year to speak with and visit my parents who live on the other side of the country from me. The same holds for my siblings.
- I have a goal of the number of times that my partner and I travel each year.
- I have a number of close friends that I stay in regular contact with and prior to covid limitations would see in person over the course of the year.
- Finally, less about a set goal and more about a personal standard, I have a wider group of friends who reach out during particularly rough times and strive to be available to them through the worst of it.
Now, you are not me, lucky you, and can have some very different goals. For example, you may feel that you want to ensure that you’ve a hobby or passion project that you want to devote more of yourself to. Or perhaps, a faith community that you want to invest yourself in more fully. In the calculus of where you devote your time and how you value the life you live, don’t forget to assign worth to this.
Now, back to the original question about the value of the work you choose to do. Only a tiny percentage of people will have an impact at sufficient scale to be remembered in these assembled lists. Given that, how else do you want to measure your career?
Some people decide they want to dedicate themselves to mastering a craft, using a skill, spending time in a particular domain or having a specific social impact. Others like the idea of creating something that will last beyond them that they might keep in the family or use to employ others in their community or more broadly. A not insignificant number of people think about work as the mechanism upon which to devote themselves to a lifestyle for themselves and their family.
I tend to think about the number of people I’ve helped to land fulfilling work, the founders I supported to change the world, and the institutions I’ve helped shape. I don’t expect to be written up in memoriam in global or local publications. Nonetheless, I take comfort knowing who I’ve been and how I helped, even when it wasn’t about work.
You can and should set your own measurements for a professional life worth living.
As I think back on the people in my life who have passed away, those who left an indelible mark on me were those who were the most generous, listened best and laughed the loudest. Their contribution to my life feels immeasurable and was far beyond their work or any journalist’s story.
Please, never forget that you get to decide how to measure a working life. Once done you can construct the life you want around that calculation.
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.