This week I’ve been shooting into the fish-stocked barrel that is LinkedIn. There, I’ve found old fools seeking wisdom in young fools. And fools of all ages seeking inspiration in over-caffeinated entrepreneurs who have written more books than they’ve read.
Okay, Mister Smartie, where do you find daily wisdom and inspiration for living?
No matter what else is happening in my life, I read every obituary in The New York Times.
No, that’s not true.
I glance at every one.
I only read about half of them.
What makes me read one obit and not another?
I don’t like reading about scientists or mathematicians, because I’m afraid that the life of a physicist might not help me think better about my life as a writer (though I may be wrong about that). I don’t like reading about “watchdogs,” founders of charities, celebrated social-justice pioneers or other goody two-shoes who I’m supposed to admire. And I don’t usually read about actors, because I never know whether the story is true.
Whose obits do I read?
Writers and editors of all kinds. Sometimes, there’s something to share with my writer buddies. And there’s almost always a great quote at the end.
Photojournalists, because the article always shows some of the best work, and the best work of a notable photojournalist is usually pretty awesome.
Musicians, and other people with exciting and glamorous lives that always seem to lead to drug addiction and alcoholism.
People who made a big difference just by pissing in one spot.
Those who died very young, or very old.
Tortured people who killed themselves, and tortured people who did not.
CEOs of giant companies in the 1980s, who towered over hundreds of thousands of people, but what did it all really amount to in the end?
People who chucked their corporate jobs and made it big. (Always keeping in mind that the Times doesn’t write obits about people who chucked their corporate jobs and died broke.)
People who were the only person in the world who did their job. (Like “global speechwriter wrangler,” for instance.)
Old jocks, and other people who were once famous but became obscure. (How did they handle that?)
Stories of people who were long obscure but became famous late in life. (How did they handle that?)
People who did one notable thing, and were defined by it forever after. (How did they handle that?)
Obituaries remind me not just of how short life is, but how long!
They concretely counteract my claims of “I can’t,” with proof that others did!
They tell me what kinds of earthly contributions get remembered—for ill, and for good.
They affirm that finding meaningful work is one of the best and luckiest things that can happen in any life—and that such work is worth sticking with even when it’s sometimes a drag. (One doesn’t read much in the obits about scratch golfers or karate black belts, who actually might on their deathbed, as they assess their lasting legacy on the planet, wish they’d spent more time at work.)
They remind me that though, yes, lots of marriages “end in divorce” and lots of people’s children “precede them in death,” most people do leave survivors, and sometimes even get to die at home, surrounded by them.
They prove and reprove how unpredictable life is, how incredibly much people can take and still go on living and how weird and wonderful and free it is possible to be—especially when you have useful and agreeable work to do, and other people to do it with.
And most importantly they say, every day: Buster, you’re not here forever. Is what you’re doing today what you ought to be doing tomorrow?
LinkedIn for networking.
Obituaries for career counsel!