Alfred came from a long line of Swedish scientists, engineers and inventors. He learned the principles of explosives at a young age from his father who owned a machine tool and weapons factory in Russia in the mid 19th century. He studied chemistry in Paris and the United States and filed his first patent for a gas meter at the age of 24. At the age of 34, Alfred invented dynamite.
By the time he was 55 in 1888, Alfred had been issued over 350 patents internationally, owned 90 armaments factories in over 20 countries and had amassed a great fortune. Although he owned a home in Paris, he was constantly traveling, unmarried, and according to Victor Hugo was “Europe’s richest vagabond.”
1888 was a significant year for Alfred. His older brother Ludwig had just died. When Alfred opened the newspaper, he was startled to read his own obituary instead of Ludwig’s. The Paris newspaper had confused the two brothers.
Worse yet, the headline ran: “Le marchand de la mort est mort” – “The merchant of death is dead.” The article went on to say that Alfred had “made his fortune by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”
That would give anyone pause for reflection! And Alfred had 8 more years to reflect on this before his real death in 1896 … 8 years to do something about it. He made a big decision, and his actions changed the impact of his life and how he would be remembered.
Alfred Nobel established the world’s most famous awards – the Nobel Prizes.
How do you want to be remembered?
What do you want people to say about you after you’re gone?
Most of us are not given the gift of reading our own obituary prematurely. However, you can write your obituary by the way you live your life now.
You will not be remembered for what you owned, the clothes you wore, what kind of car you drove, or how fancy your home was. No one ever put on their tombstone how much time they spent at work.
You will be remembered for the effect you had on others and the contribution you made to the world – either positive or negative.
Create a vision for who you want to be and how you want to live your life.
Are you living the life you want to be remembered for?
Do you have a vision for the life you want? One way to create a vision is to write your own obituary. As morbid as it might sound, there is something powerful about actually writing it out, and not just thinking about it.
If you decide to give it a try, here are some questions to consider:
- What are 5 adjectives you would like people to use to describe you? Rank order them from most important to least important. You might have a longer list, but it’s not possible to be all things to all people all the time. Which are the ones you are not willing to compromise on?
- What do you care deeply about? Is there anything you would be willing to take a public stand for, regardless of whether it felt uncomfortable?
- Who are the most important people in your life? What would you like each of them to say about you, how you treated them and what effect you had on them.
- What would you like your co-workers and boss to say about you?
- What would you like your letter carrier, newspaper delivery person, the grocery clerk or others who serve you to say about you?
- What would you like people who don’t know you well to say about you?
- What would you like to be able to say about yourself?- your personality, physical appearance, health, spiritual life, knowledge, etc.?
- What would be said about your priorities and how you demonstrated what they were. (e.g. yourself, family, friends, communities, work, environment, society, etc.
- In what areas of your life would your two or three greatest accomplishments be? What would be an example that would demonstrate you had achieved your goals in these areas?
Most importantly, for each answer you come up with, ask yourself. “Why do I want that?” — Keep asking why until you get down to what is most fundamentally important to you.
The most difficult and important step in a creating a meaningful vision for who you want to be is to discover what you really desire.
Great post Jesse. I can just imagine what Alfred thought when he saw his name there in the paper. It was awesome that he changed. Many have seen and walked away unchanged. It still happens today. ^Jeff
Thanks, Jeff. It does seem like many walk away unchanged. But some wake up calls just can’t be ignored, which I know from my own personal experience. My career was in full bloom and I was doing a lot of international work when I had my first child. Once when he turned two and was just starting to talk, I called home from Amsterdam and spoke with him on the phone. He asked, “Where are you, mommy?” I replied, “I’m in Amsterdam, honey.” He said, “But I looked and I couldn’t find you.” That was a wake up call I couldn’t ignore. I realized that if I kept up so much travel, I would miss out on too much precious time with my family. I did some serious reflection and made some fundamental changes. I don’t know everything my son will say about me after I’m gone, but I do know that he won’t say, “My mother was gone a lot and I couldn’t find her.”
Jesse, I love the story about Alfred. What a punch line!
Your questions makes one really think about what they want out of their life. The answers will help one discover their passion. Thanks for reminding us the importance of the WHY.
Great post. I’ve clipped it into Evernote so that I can “borrow” your questions in future Life Planning sessions.
Glad you found the questions helpful, Dan. Delighted to hear you want to use them to work on your own LIfe Plan.
Great story. I did not know that about Alfred Nobel. I am very happy where I am now and pretty confident that I will have left a decent legacy….but I will think about these questions and see what more I can do! I still haven’t written my book yet! But I think I make an impact on the people with whom I work.
Thanks, Susan. It is an amazing story, isn’t it? Knowing you, I would agree that you have indeed built a strong legacy. As far as writing a book – what’s the “why” underneath it? You may discover that you have actually already fulfilled the purpose of the book. Thanks for your comments, Susan. Always delighted to hear from you!
Great Post. Alfred Nobel Story is so widely used to send across the message that it would take the all time popular award any given day. Yet it always makes you look back if I am on right track. I loved the ‘What’ question, They are the first step in the process and most people have no idea at this one. But those who are brave enough to go through first step are always hit at step 2 that is ‘Why’ question. I know it seems easy to feel ‘Why’ is an easy question to answer but to reach the real why is one achievement in itself. if one can surpass ‘FEAR’ to go down this journey of ‘WHY’ there are many jewels to be found.
Beautifully said and true. Thank you for your insights, Gurmeet.
I tell this story a lot in my coaching and consulting work.
I feel its poignant and profound.
…..and frankly Jesse you tell it better than anyone I know.
I have much to learn from you.
Lead From Within
Thanks so much, Lolly. I am honored by your kind words.
This is really brilliant, Jesse. Powerful questions that I know I’ll be pondering for some time to come. Thank you for another thought-provoking post!
Thanks so much, Julie. Delighted to hear you will ponder my questions. They are meant for reflection and not quick answers.
Hi Jesse, Great post, as usual. I, too, intend to “borrow” your valuable questions for my own use. Also, loved your comment about your son. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Terry. I’m glad you found my questions helpful.
I’m also happy you liked my own story of one of my wake up calls.
It would be wonderful if others would share some of their stories here. – This is an open invitation to all 🙂
Wow! What an incredible story. That was quite a moment of truth for Alfred Nobel. Thank you for sharing your moment of truth delivered from your son. Comments from our children can have more impact than when we hear the same message delivered in different words from our spouse.
It is helpful if we consider our legacy early. Anything that gives direction in a world of infinite opportunities is a good thing.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom and passion so often and so well. -Jeff
Wise words, Jeff – “we live in a world of infinite opportunities.” Knowing who we are, what we stand for and where we are going gives our lives meaning and direction.
It is nice to see something on taking a critical review of one’s own life at a time of year other than New Year Holiday period. And doing it from the point of what your obituary might say, certainly brings focus to what is truly important. I also like using 5 Whys to help you dig to what are your most basic motivations and desirees.
It will never hurt an individual or business to stop and take perspective about how it is viewed by the people around it. Half the problems many businesses face is that they and their executives never stop and take a look at how they are viewed. Half the reason brand loyalty has died for most companies is that their actions as well as those of their executives result in nothing but a negative greed based image, which much like Nobel doesn’t make you popular.
Your point is well-taken, Robert. It is very very helpful to step outside of yourself and look at yourself from the perspective of others – at a personal and business level. Interestingly, in our research we found that companies who keep that hold a “customer-centric” perspective are generally more profitable in the long-run.
Jesse, I did not know that the name nobly associated with the peace prize has its origins in creating weapons of mass destruction. What a turn around story Alfred’s life is in terms of the legacy aspect.
Looking at your questions, it is clear that being consistent as a person, be you at work or home, or dealing with people whom you would like to do you a favour or dealing with those that “have nothing to offer” you makes for a better story for you. You can’t be everything o everyone, but you can certainly be yourself to everyone.
Great post, thanks!
“You can’t be everything to everyone, but you can certainly be yourself to everyone.” Lovely, Thabo. I’m going to be quoting you. ps. It sounds like integrity is one of your core values.
Jesse. I am smiling as I am not sure what I have been saying that makes you pick up the pattern. It is a very big deal to me, and has got me in many tough positions which for some could have been easy to get through. Let’s just say I like to sleep at night with a clear conscience. Glad you like the line, it was after all inspired by you.
Excellent post. Well written. I blog about sage-ing so I will link to it. thanks
Thanks, Jann. I enjoyed your post about Ada and Robert.
There is a line in the Catholic apostle’s creed that says: “forgive me for the things I have done and the things I have failed to do.” That line, “failed to do” always catches me in the throat. The brilliant questions you pose are really saying ” how do you love a life of no regrets.” Not being home for your son would have been a regret.
Pithy and to the point, as always. Thanks for sharing your wisdom here, Eileen!
Jesse, what a great story! I learned a great deal from it! It’s not too late to change for the better and be remembered for good deeds!
That’s great, Solomon. It’s never too late to change. But one needs to take action and not just think about it. 🙂
Can I add two things to your brilliant idea? Once the task is done, ask yourself, ‘What small steps can I take towards making progress on achieving my vision?’ Also, I recommend that folks write their conclusions and vision in the form of a future biography and immediately start living what the bio says.
That’s excellent suggestion for another way to write one’s vision. In our book Full Steam Ahead, we share both Ken Blanchard’s and my own. Ken’s is in the form of an obituary; mine is a straight description in present tense. I would add that whatever the form is, it should be written in either past or present tense. The problem with future tense is that it tentative. Stating “I am” or “I did” sends a message to your unconscious that it has already happened, is in fact a truth, and supports your acting consistently with it.
In terms of taking steps, I totally agree. Although, again, a reminder that it doesn’t always mean doing something. Sometime a step is to stop doing something, and create space for what’s desired to emerge, as was the case when I stopped traveling so much for work.
As always, much appreciation for sharing your insights and the opportunity to deepen the discussion, Alan.
Great post Jesse. It gives me reason to pause and reflect. I especially like the 9 questions at the end of your piece. It’s one thing to ask you to do something. You provide the tools to get started.
Have a wonderful day!
Thanks so much, Frank. I’m glad you found it helpful.
I loved this, Jesse! I asked myself some similar questions when venturing on my own a few years ago. Every year I have a plan of what I want to accomplish mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, personally & professionally. If we would all take the time to review these questions I imagine we would live in a much different world! Thanks for sharing.
You make an important point, Julie. This is not a one-time activity. Each time we come back to answer these questions, we get more clarity. And as a result, we might change some of our actions. It’s not that the fundamentals have changed, but because the closer we get to what we truly desire, the more deeply we understand what we really want.
Another thought-provoking post, Jesse.
I once recall a friend of mine who works in HR telling me that how we see ourselves is only half of who we are. It was an important point, which your questions reflect. I also believe that living our own vision for our lives does indeed require on-going reflection. Thanks, again, for offering up a framework for further self-inquiry.
How true! “Self-perception” is often “self-deception.” We need feedback from our environment to find out whether we are acting on our good intentions. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Sharon. Nice to see you here!
What a powerfully motivational blog, Jesse, and brilliantly communicated! It speaks to me at many levels: we are not (just) human doings, but human beings; we are human beings in the process of evolving, learning and adapting, so “human becoming”; and we can experience an epiphany, a “eureka” moment, or even a positive, gradual realization that things have just got to change, and there is no time like the present. Reading one’s own obituary is one of the starker wake-up calls. But a wonderfully enlightening thought-experiment! I quite like the idea that our portrait is being painted over the course of a lifetime, and every day offers a new brush-stroke.
Thank you, Lucian. What a lovely way to express the unfolding of our lives – “that our portrait is being painted over the course of a lifetime, and every day offers a new brush-stroke.” Your comment about “human becomings” reminds me that the translation of the Hebrew name for God is “I am becoming what I am becoming” – an eternal unfolding.
Terrific post, Jesse! What a powerful tool, writing one’s own obituary. Clarifying for sure. Your exposition is excellent.
Nicely done, Jesse.
Another compelling story of legacy is that of mobster, Al Capone’s, lawyer who was nicknamed “Easy Eddie.”
What a wonderful story, Lee. Thanks for sharing it here. Your point is so true: “The life we live today affects the generations to come.”
Terrific Post Jesse….It makes me wonder my death bed literature & how would i want feel during my last hour of my last day…Way to go…
Thank you Pratyush. I think it is an interesting thing to contemplate and see what emerges.
Thank you for sharing this post with The Leadership Development Blog Carnival Jesse! I love Alfred’s lesson, how he learned from it, and the powerful questions you’ve asked.
Thank you, Chery. And thanks for including my post in the Feb 2014 Leadership Development Blog Carnival. You did a great job curating and describing a lot of excellent posts.