Would you be able to write your own obituary?
It’s sort of a morbid thought. Although when you think about it, the exercise can be an incredible way to understand yourself and the life you lead. So far, I’ve had to put together one for my dad and mom. Honestly, it wasn’t an easy exercise.
I did the best I could to summarize a long life in short paragraphs. Unfortunately, it was an impossible task. I can’t say the same for Lonnie Dillard though. The Austin, Texas native did something truly original.
Instead of doing the normal boring obituary, he wrote his own. Furthermore, he decided it wouldn’t contain the usual fluff. He explains most avoid candor to be nice, mainly because they’re written by someone else.
Lonnie put together a brutally honest collection of advice from 75 years of triumphs and mistakes — well, mostly mistakes. He calls it a “starter kit for life”. In so doing, he didn’t create a memorial to himself, but a quick advice manual for others living life. It’s priceless.
You’ve likely never heard of Lonnie Dillard, but hopefully, you’ll never forget his advice.
Advice On Mom
“A mother’s unwavering love can turn a very ordinary little boy into an extra-ordinary man, if only in his own mind.”
We pay a lot of lip service to mom. You always put more effort into Mother’s Day than Father’s day. Also, you’re always quicker to hug your mom. But when you wrap your mind around it, it’s far from enough.
She’s literally the first face you see. Plus, she can cause you one of the worst pains in your life upon knowing it’ll be the last time you see her face. Although you never quite realize this until you’re attempting to write an obituary.
You also don’t realize the millions of things she gives up for you until you’re older, and how those countless things molded you into the person you are. We all need to hear this piece of advice when we’re much younger. Mom can leave us far too quickly, before we’re able to put the words together for a proper thank you.
Advice On Friendship
“Making and keeping friends, like tending a garden, requires attention and effort. Yet doing so yields greater returns than anything else you will ever do.”
The ancient Roman philosopher Epicurus believed the focus of life should be maximizing happiness and minimizing pain. The best way to do this was to find pleasure in simple things; the simplest being friendship.
He believed friends could act as a cure to the anxiety and stresses of life and surrounded himself with them. As a social animal, this makes sense. It’s also easy for close friendships to evaporate over time without maintenance. It’s a garden we all need to put more effort into.
Advice On Others You Meet
“As Buddhists say: Be kind; everyone you meet is traveling a difficult journey. There is no substitute for a good deed; but simply helping a stranger laugh or smile can lighten a load, too.”
Not only can being kind lighten the load on a stranger, but it can also lighten the load on yourself. Jordan Harbinger in his article in Inc. Magazine explains Dale Carnegie in his iconic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” devoted a whole chapter to smiling.
Harbinger says the simple act can release serotonin and dopamine, which have been shown to lower stress and blood pressure. This can have a cascading effect once others start smiling around you — slowly decreasing a little bit of the load they’re carrying.
The staff of Cedar-Sinai in New York agree, saying “kindness is a chemical” and can be used as a tool to defeat depression. So, being kind can be good for yourself and others.
Advice On What You Say
“If your word is no good, chances are very good, you are not either.”
As you get older, you soon become aware of your financial credit rating. A bad rating can make it impossible to get a loan for a car or house. It can also disqualify you for certain jobs. However, there’s another credit rating many forget about — your personal trustworthiness rating.
People around you generate one for you in their heads. As your actions deviate farther from your words, the score gets lower. When your score tanks, you’ll suddenly notice people around want nothing to do with you.
As a low financial rating makes loans impossible, a bad trustworthiness rating makes social capital impossible. However, if you’re a person of your word, your rating can open doors with the people around you. It’s something we should think about just like our credit score; it’ll follow you around just as long too.
Advice On Money And Want
“Having money is always better than NOT having money. But beyond basic needs and a few luxuries, money is not a requirement for happiness. Enough really is enough; greed can hollow out the heart, even topple civilizations.”
Dillard starts this with a focus on money and eventually hits the main keyword — “enough”. This word is something that can be foreign to every language and civilization. We all push to do better and get more: more money, more love, more success, and more happiness.
But this push can lead us into an endless chase. Epicurus refers to it as kenodoxia or empty desire, and modern psychologists call it the hedonic treadmill. In other words, the more you get, the more you want.
Dillard reminds us that the idea of “enough” must be ever-present in our wants and desires. It’s a counterbalance that prevents our heart from “hollowing out”.
Advice On Learning
“Time spent learning — anything — is never time wasted.”
In an interview on the AOM podcast, astronaut Colonel Terry Virts explains the greatest skill required for his profession is the ability to learn. Even though we may never reach space, the same goes for us.
The random skills and knowledge you learn are like a tool you can add to your box. You never know when it might come in handy. But once you have it, it’s always there, and can be used in conjunction with other tools to do something unique.
It’s never been easier to learn on your own. Dillard reminds us to take advantage of this.
Advice On Saving Things For Special Occasions
“Waste is a sin. Do not ‘save things for nice’. Not the new guest room towels, the good crystal that will surely chip with everyday use, nor that ridiculously expensive jacket you bought on a lark in Florence. ‘Nice’ may never happen; life is lived now.”
My mom once had a windfall and came into a little bit of money. We advised her to save it or use it for bills. However, she took a chunk of it and flew herself, our aunts, uncles, and cousins to Las Vegas. At the time I thought it was a waste of money.
Within a year most of those relatives were too sick to travel. Some died. That outing was the last time our family could ever get together in that way. As Dillard mentions, I’m glad she decided to live her life “now” instead of waiting for “nice”.
Sometimes it pays to make that special occasion in the future happen now.
Advice On Travel
“Travel is dangerous! If you are not careful, you could find yourself questioning whether your culture, country, or religion really does have a monopoly on all the right answers.”
I think this piece of advice is invaluable, not only for physical travel but mental travel. We often see ourselves as having the “correct” view of life. However, everything always looks right from our eyes.
Instead of labeling someone or something as “terrible” or “stupid”, try to look at it from the other’s point of view. Mentally travel into their position. You still may not agree, but suddenly that person isn’t terrible; they just have another point of view.
This advice on travel can heal all sorts of divides and soothe screaming matches on social media. It’s also one of the hardest things to do as a human being. As a result, you’ve likely heard a version of this advice in countless religions.
Advice On Happiness
“Happiness is not the result of what does or does not happen to you in your life as much as your attitude about what does or does not happen.”
Dillard’s advice here mirrors the Stoic idea of the dichotomy of control. The Roman philosopher Epictetus famously said the world is divided into things we can and can’t control. We may not be able to control the world around us but can control our reaction to it.
If we focus on things we can control, science indicates we live much happier lives. Likewise, famous basketball coach George Raveling believes you can choose happiness.
In an interview with Jordan Harbinger, he mentions he gives himself a choice every morning when he wakes up: he can be happy or really happy. He’s done this for the past 40 years and swears by the approach.
So it seems Dillard has company on this idea.
Advice On Following Conventional Norms
“I say trying to do everything “they” say can snuff out whatever genius you have in you, as well as make you miserable in the process. There is no one more you than you. You do have something unique to offer your piece of the world. Damn convention or the critics. Take a chance!”
Japan has 19 businesses that have existed for over 1000 years. Do you know how they pulled this off? Not by copying what everyone is or was doing. A well-worn path only takes you to places others have been before. To be truly unique, you have to make your own way.
The stoic philosopher Paconius Agrippinus once compared humanity to a sweater because we all try to blend in. However, he said he wanted to be the small red thread that stands out and causes the others to look beautiful.
Dillard would likely tell you there’s nothing wrong with being a red thread. In fact, it may lead to genius.
75 Years In 8 Minutes
This is 3/4 of a century’s worth of hard-earned wisdom broken down into a convenient list. Hopefully, you found it as interesting and noteworthy as I did. It’s also a testament to Dillard who spent some of his last precious minutes thinking of others.
The advice doesn't come from a famous philosopher, but from a simple man from Texas who lived a good life. It may not be an answer to every question you and I might have. However, this is an excellent starting kit.
So, let’s review:
- Moms have extraordinary power to make you what you are.
- Friends are like a garden; water them and get great returns.
- Be kind. It’s good for you and others.
- You’re only as good as your word.
- Temper your wants with “enough”.
- Time spent learning is never wasted.
- Don’t save things for “nice”.
- Travel is dangerous, it may change your assumptions for the better.
- You can choose happiness.
- Doing everything “they” say will make you miserable and less creative.