I recently read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work! It's a short book of excellent advice on getting your creative work out there, and particularly on sharing your creative process rather than just presenting your final product.
Early on Austin talks about the habit of reading obituaries each morning as a gentle way of re-focusing on what's truly important to you.
I have many weird habits as it is, so I was happy to add this to the heap.
I now read an Independent obituary each morning. They are well-written and not too long. I'm intentionally not picky.
I've found that reading obituaries is a powerful way of:
- Discovering the many weird and wonderful ways each of us can approach life. Our final narratives rarely look anything like the templates we aspire to.
- Understanding the drives that compel people to do extraordinary things.
- Recognising the novel avenues that opened up in people's lives through complete disaster.
- Thinking on the legacy that people leave behind.
- Learning some interesting tidbits about culture and history, through the actors who shaped it.
Contemplating mortality and the lives of others is a wake-up call in the midst of our daily autopilot: a warning sound that pierces the muffled, attention-consuming routines that carry us through the day.
Most people would much rather not subject themselves to such thoughts each morning. But I think that beyond the initial gloom, this kind of contemplation is actually an antidote to fear: a reinvigorating jolt. That doesn't mean it isn't sometimes scary or tough or uncomfortable. But other times it can usher in the opposite: laughter and freedom from preoccupations.
Unlike much of the lifehacking or morning ritual material out there, reading obituaries is not prescriptive. There is no fixed lesson to learn or pithy quote to remember. It is intensely personal, alchemical and open-ended, bringing up whatever is most relevant to you, right now.
There is a now-famous Steve Jobs quote that summarises it well:
“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.
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.”
Facing mortality knocks the wind out of us, and blows us over. The petty worries and preoccupations scatter.
But part of us springs back, like bamboo. Those parts that spring back are our deepest values, the currents that animate our noblest intents. Our values are what's left after we grieve for the injustice and suffering of life.
I try and follow up the obituary with two questions that I've used a lot in the past:
What do I value?
I will often re-state my values:
- Wisdom. Self-understanding and endless learning.
- Fitness. Staying fit, healthy and happy.
- Creativity. Writing, building things. This little blog thing I got going.
- Relationships. Being a caring partner, and connecting with other great humans.
Shorter: I want to be wise, fit, creative and kind.
And: What good will I do today?
Based on my values and where I am, what good can I do today? I keep it simple and limit it to 3 or so main tasks.
To honour what we value is the meaning of wisdom. It doesn't always come naturally, and takes courage and reflection.
Obituaries are a potent reminder for all of us. One day someone will be reading yours.
Make it a good one.