Monday, February 1, 2016

Ditch the New Year's Resolutions. Think Epitaphs.

This is, mercifully, the last post in a short series on behavior change.  The first post was Why You Don't Keep New Year's Resolutions is Way More Interesting than How You Do.  
The next one was Want to Change Your Behavior?  First, Change the Odds.  This post said that behavior change is so hard you have to focus first and foremost on changing your odds.  But it also warned that even when you do everything you can to improve your chances, behavior change is still a tough row to hoe.
The third post was Behavior Change and the Minority Report.  There I argued that when you have tried numerous times to change a behavior and you have not been able to, you need to pay attention.  You are not weak.  There is nothing wrong with you. There is a good chance that there is a part of you that does not want to make this change and, if so, I can almost guarantee that that part of you has a message which can, if heard and heeded, dramatically improve your life.
If interested, all three posts can be found on my blog or my LinkedIn homepage.
Let's step back for a minute.  We make NYRs because we want to lead better lives.  And in attempting to do so, we come up with very specific NYRs...lose 7 lbs, quit smoking, get to the gym three times a week.  
If leading a better life is the goal, there may be a more effective way than setting specific behavior change goals and trying to set up the environment to achieve them.  
A recent column in the NY Times by Arthur C Brooks' entitled To Be Happier, Start Thinking More about Your Death caught my eye.  He talked about the Buddhist practice of gazing at skulls or photos of corpses...using reminders of our pending demise to shake us out of our ruts about how we spend our time. Fortunately, he also provided tamer versions such as pretending you had one year left to live and running your choices through that filter.
I think Brooks and those Buddhist are onto something.  I too am suggesting you to think about your death, but I want you to think about your epitaph...what you would like them to engrave on your tombstone.
Some tombstone epitaphs can ramble on but most are quite short, e.g., Loving Mother, Dear Sister.  Here are some other examples from more well-known people:  A Gentle Man and a Gentleman (Jack Dempsey), Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted (Sylvia Plath Hughes), Liberty, Humanity, Justice, Equality (Susan B. Anthony)
I am asking you to think of a short phrase that reflects how you want to be remembered.  In this light, many of our NYRs look, well, rather small.  
I am guessing most of you will not put your NYR results on your headstone:  "Here lies a woman who lived her whole life as a perfect size 2." Or "He still had six pack abs at 65." Or "Finally gave up the cancer sticks at 48."  
How you want to be remembered is likely not in the specifics.  It is wider in scope...a feeling...an attitude.    
Most everyone knows that the boxer Rubin Hurricane Carter (pictured at the top of this post with Nelson Mandela) was wrongly imprisoned for 20 years, falsely accused of killing two white people in New Jersey.  Few know that he spent close to half that time...ten years...in solitary confinement.  
He kept getting sent to solitary…not for fighting…not for stealing…not for contraband.  He got sent to solitary because he would not eat the prison food and not wear prison clothes. Why? Because he knew he was not guilty and he knew he did not belong there.   
He was asked how he would like to be remembered…He was a prize fighter, a soldier, a convict, and after he was released, he was a crusader for the falsely accused.  
“If I had to pick an epitaph for my tombstone it would say “he was just enough.” He was just enough to overcome everything that was laid on him.  He was just enough not to give up on himself.  He was just enough to believe in himself beyond anything else in the world.  He was just enough to have the courage to stand up for his convictions no matter what trouble his actions have caused him.  He was just enough to perform a miracle, to regain his humanity in a place of living death.  He was just enough.”
Ten years.  In solitary confinement.  All he had to do was eat the food and he would have been let out of solitary.  Put on the prison uniform and he could have enjoyed the human contact we all need.  Can you imagine the temptation to give in? A temptation that has to be way beyond what you and I face trying to lose some weight or be more patient with our kids. 
But he would not because he was not...not guilty that is...and he was determined to be just enough to not give in.
A good epitaph is aspirational...it pulls you towards the life you want to live.  It is short and easy to remember.   And when it is remembered at those tough choice-point crossroads, it can help you make choices aligned with who you want to be.
The epitaph I am trying to live into this year is "Remembered through the hearts he touched and for the compassion and support he provided."
What's yours?  
I know you have things to do and you are probably admonishing yourself for "wasting" time reading this.  But I am asking you to spend just one more minute thinking about this...set a timer if you have to...and write as many epitaphs as you can in 60 seconds. How do you want to be remembered and thus how do you want to live?
If one or two of them grab you, please consider writing the phrases out and putting it in some prominent place and see how it feels to live into them for a few months.
And if you’re game, please consider sharing in the comments section.