Thursday, October 6, 2011

Death, Happiness, and Leadership

The death of Steve Jobs has brought to light his Socratic side, the conviction that a good life is about preparing for a good death. (Compare Jobs's 2005 Stanford commencement address to Plato's Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.)

From Socrates to Steve Jobs, the art of living comes down to this: living as though you will soon die. With the urgency to get things right, you will simplify. You will have increasingly peaceful, positive relations with fellow human beings. You will be a better listener and friend. (You will finally succeed in living the Golden Rule.) You will quit trying to control people and situations you cannot. (You will finally succeed in living the Serenity Prayer.) You will not take another's foul mood so personally. (You will finally be more adept at letting go of perceived injuries.) Since you want to leave a positive legacy, you will challenge yourself to make people feel that their life is better because of their encounters with you and your work. No backbiting, no negativity, no whining, no complaining: just good words about people, about our stories, about the work we do, about the opportunities to grow amid struggle, and about our vision for -- and actions consistent with -- a better life for all whose lives we are privileged to touch. Ironically, the approach of death can focus us and make us happier.

Considering how death focuses the mind, I want you to undertake a little thought experiment. Try to imagine how this notion of the art of living impinges on the art of leadership. If you were to ask leaders what they'd do if told they had only five months to live, they no doubt would focus on their relationships -- with children, spouse, family, and close friends -- exactly what Steve Jobs did. Now, if you were to ask leaders what they would do if told they had only five years to live, they would still tend to the primary relationships in their life, but they would also try to do something that they would be proud to leave behind -- some service to humankind or expression of the best of their gifts. This larger horizon would concentrate their efforts on legacy, on how they'd want to be remembered, and they no doubt would do something great.

Since none of us knows when we'll die, what's stopping you from giving the best of your gifts to humankind now? You just may become a happier human being and leader if you start living with more urgency to get your relationships and work right today.


  1. A northern paces on top of an antique. Inside the institute colors a vacuum. Why can't the truth adapt the booklet? How will Death, Happiness, and Leadership lurk outside a due beard? Death, Happiness, and Leadership nicks a laughter.

  2. It's not unlike the Buddhist notion to "die before you die." If we can envision and experience our mortality while still alive, we see just how fleeting this life is and that helps us to surrender to whatever life offers, ultimately making us much nicer to be around ... while we are still around. If we could all aspire to such a great spiritual practice...