What I Learned as an Obit Writer

Back in the early 1980s I began my writing career as a journalist, and I use that word loosely. I had just graduated with a degree in English literature so didn’t have the “J-school” chops, but with luck landed a job at the Lawton Constitution & Morning Press as a “swamper.” No one ever defined the term “swamper” but I think we can discern what it implies. The job included taking information from area morticians by telephone to create the obituaries. I typed up the facts of the deceased’s life on a clackety old typewriter, using a big roll of yellow newsprint that stayed tucked behind the typewriter, tore the hard copy off from the typewriter platten and swirled around to the brand-new computer just installed in the newsroom, reformatting the facts into a life story.

This week I flashed back on this obit experience while watching a TED Talk by Lakshmanan “Lux” Narayan, a self-described perpetual learner and founder of Unmetric, a social media intelligence firm. Mr. Narayan begins every day, he says, with scrambled eggs and a through review of the obituaries in the New York Times. His TED Talk, entitled “What I Learned from 2,000 Obituaries,” is an analysis of what makes a life well-lived, gleaned from 2,000 obits run in the Times over 20 months. Using the mojo of analytics, Mr. Narayan breaks down the famous and unfamous, sharing that in addition to a natural advantage from having the name “John,” the people whose deaths are worthy of the New York Times are more often artists, thinkers, scholars and those who make a lasting contribution to the world through their work. The highlighted word that jumped out of both word clouds, famous and unfamous alike: “Help.” The noteworthy among us did something to help others.

This TED Talk and the recent funeral of my friend, mentor and former publisher Chuck Lauer, made me think about my own experience as an obit writer. In Lawton, Oklahoma, the obit page was rarely filled with Pulitzer Prize-winning economists or gone-too-soon rock stars. The people whose lives I recorded and dutifully wrote up in a defined, obit-style formula were often farmers, housewives and just plain folks. Sometimes the deceased were babies which had me weep while typing up their obits; other times the person’s achievements included producing prize-winning pickles for the county fair. At the tender age of 24, I was moved by the dramas, big and small.

What I learned as an obit writer is that all of us, at some point, will have our lives distilled to a few column inches or, if we’re lucky, a big story in the New York Times. Wherever your obit shows up you can be sure it will include the facts–birth, death, next of kin–as well as any highlights you’ve achieved along the way or, as one poet has alluded to, what happened “between the dash.” Whether we win an Academy Award or the blue ribbon at the county fair, the sum of our achievements most likely will be defined by how we helped others. Whatever our contributions, we can be sure it really had nothing to do with us, but rather, with whom we chose to make a difference. Who do you want to make a difference with today? How do you want to be remembered?

Putting the “Dead” Back in “Deadline”

Pere Lachaise Cemetery
The graveyard is full of great ideas that were never heard (Photo: Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France)

My friend Greg Crawford had a wonderful saying he once shared with me. “I love deadlines,” he deadpanned. “I love the sound of them as they go whooshing by…”

Boy, can I relate. Even with the discipline of having been a journalist for a daily newspaper (read: daily deadlines), I struggle with those commitments, mostly the ones I make to myself. That’s why I loved hearing the audio promo from the August 2013 issue of SUCCESS magazine, in which Publisher and Founding Editor Darren Hardy cites a story about a French mathematician who learned the value of deadlines.

Évariste Galois was a young Frenchman who was born with amazing brilliance in math, particularly algebra. But it wasn’t until he was challenged to a duel that he took the time to furiously scribble 60 pages of notes, ideas that would later lead to a revolution in higher algebra. Sadly, Monsieur Galois lost the duel… thereby putting the “dead” back in “deadline.”

Why is it we’re our most productive when there’s a (literal or figurative) gun to our head? Mr. Hardy of SUCCESS Magazine says this story demonstrates the need for tension, pressure and urgency to push our ideas out of us. “Otherwise the feeling that we have an endless amount of time is insidious and debilitating to the mind,” he writes in his publisher’s letter. “Our attention and thoughts become fractured and dispersed. Our lack of intensity makes it difficult to jolt our brain into high gear, into that higher state of creativity and mental lucidity.”

One of the reasons I love coaching people in mid-career is because somewhere around 40, we start to hear the ticking of that proverbial biological clock. The career trajectory that we saw as endless opportunity in our 20s suddenly has some very real parameters around it. If we don’t do what we were designed to do now, then when? Barbara Sher wrote a book called It’s Only Too Late if You Don’t Start NowJohann Wolfgang von Goethe, known as Germany’s Shakespeare, is often quoted as having said “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Maybe the  best quote of all is from Dr. Wayne Dyer: “Don’t die with the music still in you.”

In other words, we need to get off our duffs (OK, need to get off my duff) and get busy, creating whatever it is we’re going to create. If you want to start a business, begin working on a plan. If you’re dying to become a professional speaker, sign up for one of the many National Speakers Association Speakers Academies around the country. (Shameless plug: I’m dean of the one in Chicago that starts in September–visit NSA-IL for details.) If you have an aria to sing, find a stage and some folks to listen.

While we may not be facing a duel tomorrow morning at sunrise, we don’t get any guarantees. What would you scribble on those 60 pages if you knew your days–even minutes–were numbered? What’s the music still left inside of you?