Mark Kennedy: It's never too early to think about your epitaph

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Mark Kennedy, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·3 min read
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Mar. 13—New York Times columnist David Brooks introduced the concept of "resume virtues" vs. "eulogy virtues."

Resume virtues, Brooks says, are the traits and accomplishments that make us good at our jobs. This includes things such as our education, our work ethic and our experience.

Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are the things that people will say about us when we die. These can include qualities such as kindness and loyalty.

Brooks' theory is that most of us spend more time on our resume virtues than our eulogy virtues, which might be a mistake. That's especially true for those of us who are growing older. As our work lives wind down, we should concentrate more on eulogy virtues. Otherwise, people might not even come to our funerals.

I was talking to a group of college students the other day, and I found myself saying, "Most successful people in my experience share two traits: They're smart and nice."

I realize now that my off-the-cuff comment put Brooks' theory in the most simplistic terms possible. Think of the people you admire. Don't they combine the "smart and nice" virtues in some proportion?

My dad was aggressively smart. My mom was nice to a fault. Together, they made a good team.

Here's an example from today's headlines. Andrew Cuomo, the embattled governor of New York, is almost universally hailed as smart, but he is being criticized by former employees for his treatment of women and alleged tirades aimed at subordinates. There's a good chance Cuomo will go down as not meeting the "nice" test, and his eulogy virtues may take a hit. (Although there's always time for redemption. And others may disagree with this characterization of Cuomo, anyway.)

For a few years, I was involved in hiring decisions in the newsroom, and I remember the widely held belief that being smart was the No. 1 predictor of success as a journalist. Reporters are expected to make themselves conversant on any issue, no matter how complicated, under deadline pressure. If the light of intelligence doesn't burn bright within them, success is elusive.

At the same time, being nice — which equates to being kind, loyal, respectful and encouraging — is a form of emotional intelligence that is hard to overestimate. It's a close cousin to charm, which greases the skids in any occupation.

For those of you who take Brooks' theory to heart and might be wondering how to polish up your eulogy resume, I've got an idea. I've been reading a lot about seniors who don't have the computer skills to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations and therefore remain vulnerable.

I cannot think of a more genuine act of kindness than to reach out to help someone arrange a vaccine appointment on the internet. The thought of someone suffering isolation — and embarrassment — about this issue seems unnecessary and cruel.

Maybe it's a neighbor who needs help, or an aunt or uncle, or someone you know from your house of worship. Offer to help them make their vaccination appointment at their local health department, and you'll be an instant hero.

It won't go on your resume, but it might well be remembered at your funeral. And "smart and loved" is not a bad epitaph.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.