In Western culture, death is scary. Death is sad. Death is an uncontrollable event which puts an end to all events. This is why we mostly avoid thinking about it. And this is why many cultures and religions have the concept of an afterlife. But thinking about death can be empowering. And one of the most productive ways to think about death is to write your own eulogy.
“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.”Steve Jobs.
Your eulogy as a blueprint for your future
The creative exercise of writing your own eulogy was popularised by Daniel Harkavy, the author of Living Forward. It has now been used by thousands of executives around the world as a way to make sense of their lives and to plan their next personal and professional steps.
As Daniel Harkavy explains: “When we take the time to write our eulogies, it creates this magnetic pull power that draws us forward, 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.”
Writing their own eulogy has a profound impact on most people. It creates a sense of urgency and clarity. As Steve Jobs said, only the big choices remain meaningful in the face of death. Small embarrassing moments, things that didn’t go exactly as planned, missed dinner parties—all of these fade away, only leaving the big picture and the important decisions.
Imagine your body sitting lifeless in a coffin while your friends and family sit around it. Not matter your religious or philosophical beliefs, it is something hard to contemplate. What will people say? What will they remember? What do you want your life to say about the person you were?
How to write your own eulogy
While you could write a chronological eulogy—going through each of your accomplishments and important steps in your life—I found it more powerful to go about it through common themes weaving a red thread in the narrative of your life. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to writing a eulogy in general, but answering these questions may help you draft an outline.
- Culture. Where were you born? Any interesting anecdotes about your childhood, or aspects of your culture that shaped you?
- Studies. Where did you go to school? Did you ever go back to school? Were you self-taught? What did you study? What kind of student were you?
- Locations. From childhood to retirement, where did you live? Did you stay put or did you explore the world? What kind of places did you enjoy most?
- Work. What did you do for work? What kind of teammate were you? Did you stay at the same company, or did you work at various places? Did you start a company? If so, how did it go? Did you win any awards for your work?
- Relationships. Did you have a small or a large group of friends? Did you ever get married? Did you have kids? What kind of relationship did you have with them? Were you often in touch with your family?
- Hobbies. Did you have any side projects? Hobbies you enjoyed outside of work? Were these solo hobbies or did you invite friends or family to join you? Any noteworthy accomplishments?
- Personality. What did people admire the most about you? What did they enjoy the most when spending time with you? What were some compliments you often received? What are some times you helped people in a way they will remember? What will people miss the most about you?
It’s very important that you don’t rush when answering these questions. Find some place quiet where you won’t get disturbed, and project yourself in the future. Some people find it easier to start with a first version where they imagine they have died today—listing their present accomplishments and characteristics—before moving onto a second version where they imagine dying of old age. It also helps some people to imagine who would be reading the eulogy at their funeral.
Working backwards to take action
When you’re done, give it a read, again in a quiet place. If you don’t feel any emotion while reading it, you may want to give it another pass. Your life’s narrative should feel meaningful and important to you. Once you have a draft that feels right, take a break. Writing your own eulogy can be an intense exercise.
The next step is to take action. Break down the content of your eulogy into chunkable actions you can take towards these goals. What are the everyday habits you can create so this eulogy rings true on the day of your funeral? What are some small things you can change today to bring you closer to bringing this narrative to life?
The idea is not to plan your whole life—this would make no sense. Instead, you should think of tiny wins and small habits you can control today, which will compound over the course of your lifetime. Whenever you feel lost or unsure what to do next, read your own eulogy. It will be a reminder of your North Star.
Your eulogy should be for your eyes only. It’s an intimate exercise and the pressure of showing to someone else may hinder the authenticity. If you know you’ll be the only one reading it, you will feel free to dream high, be ambitious, creative, and to have fun with your life’s blueprint. Try to find some time this week and write your own eulogy.