"How would you like to be remembered?"
It’s said that Alfred Nobel made the decision to establish his famous prize after his brother died in France and a French newspaper, mistakenly believing it was him, published the epitaph: “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.”
Although we all know about the Nobel Prize, what many may not know is that Nobel made his fortune from the invention of dynamite. To Nobel, the epitaph was a harsh reminder of how he would go down in history. Shortly after this eye-opener, he changed his will, donating most of his fortune to the Nobel Foundation. His memory now lives on, not as a merchant of death, but as an advocate of peace and progress.
A tribute to life
An epitaph (meaning literally in ancient Greek “on the grave”) is a memorial statement, most commonly inscribed on a tombstone or read as part of a funeral oration, to pay tribute to a deceased person, or to remember a past event.
Walking through a graveyard recently, I was struck by the often rather generic nature of so many epitaphs. Some of the more typical ones were “rest in peace” “always in our thoughts, forever in our hearts” or “a long life well lived”. Truly memorable ones such as “Excuse my dust” (Dorothy Parker), “I told you I was ill” (Spike Milligan), or “I knew if I stayed around long enough, something like this would happen” (George Bernard Shaw) are few and far between.
The epitaph question
Early in life, reflecting about our epitaph is not something that is top of our minds. But as we get older, thinking about the kind of obituary or epitaph we would like to leave becomes more prominent.
In my experience, the epitaph question is a very enlightening way to obtain a long-term perspective on an individual’s life. It pushes you to think about the kind of person you would like to be. By forcing yourself to focus on the big questions, you may obtain greater clarity about what really matters in your life.
Over the years, as part of career exploration in the various leadership development programmes that I run, I have asked executives what they would like to read on their tombstones. What would they like people to remember them by? And what may be missing from their life?
Not surprisingly, when thinking about their own epitaph, many executives struggled to find a response. But after some hesitation, some of the more recurring answers I received included the following:
What’s clear from these comments is that we’re not going to be remembered for material things such as money or possessions. Our enduring legacy is what we do for others. To quote Albert Einstein: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Executives will do well to keep this observation in mind.
A catalyst for radical change
To have a fitting epitaph, you need to be the best version of yourself. How you want to be remembered is how you ought to live your life. Reflecting now on the kind of epitaph you would like to leave (as was the case with Alfred Nobel) may propel you to make radical changes in your life.
Your time is limited, so don’t live a meaningless life. Live a life worth remembering.
This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2017
INSEAD Knowledge, 2016Read more
"Succession & when it's time to let go"
This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review discusses the three phases of a CEO's lifespan and what happens when leaders outstay their time and performance starts to decline.
Published on 14 Mar, 2014
"The destabilizing effect of CEO retirement"
This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review he discusses the darker side of retirement.
Published on 28 Feb, 2014
"The retirement syndrome & challenges of letting go"
This article analyses a problem that can be described as the retirement syndrome. In exploring the difficulties many leaders face in letting go at the end of a full career, reviews a number of the barriers to exit and provides suggestions as to how individuals and organisations can develop more effective and humane disengagement strategies.
Published on 1 Dec, 2003
"Aging and quality of life"
This working paper deals with a rather taboo subject: the consequences of prolonging life into extreme old age, now possible with advances in medical procedures.
Published on 25 Apr, 2015
"Psycho- dynamic factors & succession in Russia"
This article examines some general psychodynamic factors that influence the succession process in Russian businesses.
Published on 1 Jul, 2008
"Death anxiety and executive mortality"
This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review explores the death anxiety and what happens when we repress our fear of death and refuse to confront it.
Published on 24 Mar, 2014
Manfred Kets de Vries takes readers out of their comfort zone in this book. It intends to focus executives on what really counts in their lives and to shake academics down from their ivory towers and make them more attuned to the real problems of real people, instead of trying to impress each other.
Published on 15 Apr, 2009
"What are the underlying dynamics of succession?"
This article explores the underlying dynamics of succession.
Published on 1 Jan, 1988
"For many executives walking away can be the hardest part of the job"
As a leader you need to focus on your successors early in the game. Doing so will not only underpin the long-term sustainability of your enterprise, it may give you a shot at immortality.
Published on 21 Sep, 2016
In the previous book in this series, Manfred Kets de Vries observed the experiences of leaders on a rollercoaster ride through their professional and personal lives. Now, he follows them down the rabbit hole into the unknown, where, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, they find a dystopian Wonderland in which everyone seems to have gone mad and life functions according to its own crazy logic, throwing up all kinds of obstacles in the search for truth.
Published on 6 Nov, 2018