What would my obituary say if my time came tomorrow? What would I change about my life today to edit this two or three paragraph long description of me as a human being? How would that transform the very trajectory of my life?
The remarkable story of Alfred Noble, the founder of the Nobel prize, is a notable example of a dramatic reorientation in life triggered by a change of perspective. This reorientation from a self-centered view of achievements to an others-centered measure of success is essentially the life edit Noble made after reading an obituary of himself.
Alfred Nobel was born into poverty, the third of eight children, became the inventor of dynamite and was worth over $300 million by the time of his death in 1896. We are all recipients of nature + nurture gifts from above for believers in a higher power, serendipitous coincidences for the skeptics. In other words, our highest peaks are gifts, credits, advances if you will. What we do with them to the benefit of people around us are the strands obituaries are weaved from.
In spite of his humble beginnings, and clear disadvantages, young Alfred was propelled to greatness by more than his own efforts. His father Immanuel was an engineer, who had changed his families fortunes by developing the fist naval mines. Later, Alfred Nobel met the inventor of nitroglycerin Ascanio Sobrero, which propelled him to the idea of developing a less hazardous compound that could pack the same explosive power. He called it dynamite. Alfred founded several armament factories and held over 300 patents. Alfred Nobel was a one in a generation genius. He was also the fruit of an exquisite dance of providence. His legacy would be great, even remarkable had he not read his obituary, printed by mistake. It left him appalled and deeply dissatisfied with the legacy he was to leave behind.
Alfred’s brother Ludvig, also an accomplished man died in 1888. The European press mistakenly published obituaries to Alfred Nobel. One French paper entitled the obituary “The Merchant of Death is Dead”, going on to say "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." This is said to have contributed to Nobel’s decision to change his will and leave most of his fortune to celebrate men and women who have contributed to humanity in peace, literature, medicine, chemistry and physics. The Nobel Prize is now considered among the highest honors in the world.
Fun side note. The 1945 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature Gabriela Mistral ( birth name Lucila Godoy Alcayaga), was a cousin of my great great grand father ( Pedro Alcayaga) on my father’s side of the family. Clearly whatever creative DNA was in the family line, if there is such a thing, was greatly diluted by the time it got to me.
Writing your own obituary, perhaps a bit dark on the surface, can be a life giving catalyst for recalibrating the present into a life of meaning and impact.
What would your obituary say? How would contemplating a desired alternative be reverse engineered into dramatic changes today? How motivated would you be to make them?
All important questions to answer in light of the truth that none of us arrive at our highest achievement through our own efforts alone in the first place, therefore a life of impact and service to others seems to be the natural way to respond.