Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 5, 2018
Drop dead! My current age has two digits and the first one starts with a six, and I read the obituaries on a regular basis. I am going to suggest to all entrepreneurs, young and old, that this is a marvelous way to understand life.
Let’s get a grasp on life and death. In the world, approximately 155,000 people die every day, or approximately 56 million each year. Now the good news is that around 130 million people are born each year. So we are net positive (that may or may not be so good, but that is a discussion for another time.)
My theme is that reading about people’s lives, mostly semi-famous lives, which is what newspapers cover both nationally and locally, will inform your own life in various and significantly meaningful ways.
The lives chosen to be written about are picked because those lives have helped shape the tale of their times. They are iconic in some way and when they were born and when they died — the arc of their personal history — adds to the fabric of our society during that time.
I have often railed against reading and believing too much of the “Tech Crunch” overflow of bloviated crap that comes to us every day about the successes and the fundings and the small actions of the current crop of actors on the stage, but the play never ends, and new replacement actors arrive. It is only in the obits that you have the chance to see both the compression of a life, as well as the mountains that the person scaled. You only get a snapshot, but it is indelible. It forces you to pause and consider. It does not ask you to measure yourself against the person, but rather to find a place to stand for a moment and contemplate. It gives you perspective.
American journalist Pete Hamill says, “All obituaries are journalism, first drafts of history, but not history itself. An obit is made of knowable facts; it is not a eulogy.” I am moved deeply when I read the obituaries, what they did, who they married, their achievements and their failures, but above all else, I am moved by their humanity — they were born, they labored with varying degrees of success or failure and they died — either by natural causes, violence, stupidity or you name it.
I say to my entrepreneurial readers that spending time contemplating another person’s life informs your own. I am always amazed at the turn of events in a life, of who they met, what they did (home runs or the Nobel Prize) or what they didn’t, their misses, their almosts, their failures. Above all else, I am informed by what they have overcome. In the obits, you find that most (maybe many) started out in humble circumstances. They waged war and triumphed over time — not always winning the gold, not always acknowledged, not always venerated, and certainly not always rewarded with power, fame and fortune. But they survived.
“The obits remind us of the role of the accident, chance or luck in the living of any life,” Hamill says. “One lesson for sure is the acceptance of the inevitable.”
And note well, that as you pass from young to old, you will begin to see that some of the obits feature people younger than you — and that always reminds us of the fleeting nature of time.
I am even more enlightened when the person who died wasn’t famous or notorious enough to be well known by all. You discover a new person for a few paragraphs in the reading of that life, and you find a few nuggets of history or wisdom or courage that if properly absorbed, will make you stronger, more resilient, more grateful. “An obit takes the long messy business of life and compresses it into a dozen paragraphs in 8.7-point Imperial and what emerges is a kind of portrait, like a canvas on a frame,” Hamill says.
I strongly encourage young people to take time to read the obits. Life is a truly entrepreneurial adventure, whether or not you start a company or invent a technology.
Reading about the men and women who have come before is valuable as you navigate between your day one and your day end.
Rule No. 550: Sic transit Gloria mundi.