Last week, three events reminded me that every one of us will eventually cross one particular terrible and terrifying liminal dimension, or threshold. This week I hope to help you deal with death in a way that brings clarity and greater moment-by-moment living in what you do every day.
Last Thursday, my wife Susie and I attended the funeral of the mother of our daughter’s high school classmate. She was even a bit younger than we are. It’s always unnerving to attend a funeral of someone your junior.
As we sat in that church, I felt an eerie sense of being disembodied, taking in the emotions of the hundreds in that building, looking at the woman’s widower and two sons, wondering what’s next for them. Upon leaving the service, Susie and I stood in the parking lot awaiting friends. We asked each other, “What do you think people would say at our funeral?”
That night, while we were sleeping, the most horrific tragedy since the 1999 Columbine shootings erupted across town at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. So far, 12 have been murdered and 58 wounded in that one-man shooting spree.
We spent much of the next morning checking in with friends and family across town. As I left home that Friday for an early appointment, I felt a second shock wave of horror and empathy set in.
At that morning meeting, I attended a talk that began typically. The speaker opened with a PowerPoint presentation, accompanied by emotive background music. He began his talk by saying that we are shaped by our past. On the surface, a platitude. So far, so safe.
But what he did next mesmerized me for the next 40 minutes. He told the story of a life shaped by multiple instances of imminent death at age 18 as well as the seven-year aftershocks he lived through.
That experience with death shaped who he is today. Because he had connected with his own “valley of the shadow of death,” he learned to speak from the heart. He learned how to be his authentic self.
For example, once, during a C-level M&A conversation, he had a spasm of conscience, one that most of us would too easily silence. Instead, true to his sense of honesty and integrity born of those near-death encounters, he chose to speak his truth.
What was his truth? When the CEO asked what he thought, he said, “I don’t think you should do this deal.” One of the irate deal-makers replied, “Why are you saying that? You’re being such a Boy Scout!” He responded, “Actually, I am a scoutmaster and my son is an Eagle Scout. If we break up this company, 100 people would be laid off. Think of what that will do to their families, to this community. Honesty and integrity say we shouldn’t do this. Do you have a problem with that?”
Surprisingly, the CEO agreed with him! That spasm of truthfulness may have tanked a deal, but it led to the CEO’s decision to preserve 100 local jobs and the lives of hundreds of family members.
Too often, we business owners do not know who we are. We are so concerned about projecting an image detached from the core of our being that we can’t hear what we are communicating to our clients and other stakeholders.
Your actions speak louder than your words, your social media presence, or your press releases ever will.
How can you (re)connect with who you are?
The weightiness of death and this most recent national tragedy can be a catalyst for authenticity. (For those of you who are part of the Crankset Group/3to5 Club community, this tool can help you clarify the passion that shapes your “hedgehog”):
1. Honesty begins with oneself. Suppose you were to tell yourself every detail about your life—even the ugly things you’ve told no one. You’ve signed a confidentiality agreement with yourself and no one but you will ever see this.
2. Now that you have this confidentiality agreement in place, imagine you’re writing a true account of your life for your children, for your posterity. Take lined paper and write down everything about your life. (Writing is best because it allows an unvarnished access to emotion. For those of you like me who can’t read your own handwriting, feel free to type).
3. Once you’ve done that, start picking which parts of this story you want to “de-classify” as the foundation for the story you want to share.