A few years ago, I spent a few days with a friend, John, to help me get perspective on my life and figure out the road ahead. During that time, John shared his story with me and it had a great impact. A number of years prior to our meeting, John had become a workaholic. He worked his way up to executive level positions for several organizations that were doing very positive things. He worked crazy hours pursuing respect and external success—what David Brooks calls “resume virtues” in his book The Road to Character. The hours and the striving took their toll on John’s mind and body.
I have done this as well. In the day-to-day grind, we often pursue resume virtues. Resume virtues, says Brooks, make you competitive in the job market and contribute to external success. They are the measure of success in our culture.
They read something like this:
- Graduated from X prestigious school with a degree in X
- Held prestigious job X from this date to this date
- Certified in X sought-after technology/method
- Led the charge for company X growing X% year over year
Resume virtues stem from the “Adam I” side of our nature according to Brooks, who draws on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 book, The Lonely Man of Faith. Adam I is the driven, career-oriented side of our nature. Adam I wants to build something great, create, discover, innovate, and ultimately climb the external ladder of success. Jonathan Edwards, one of the most prominent theologians of the 18th century, called these “common virtues”—those motivated by fear and pride.
A number of years ago, I pursued a second graduate degree while working full time, seeing clients, and raising two young sons. Like John, I was pursuing positive goals that looked good on my resume. And like John, the hours, the commute, and the stress began to take a toll on my well being and my relationships with family and friends.
Resume virtues aren’t necessarily bad in themselves, but when we step back from the hustle and bustle, when we quiet our mind and soul, we feel a vague sense that something is missing. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, that sense isn’t so vague.
The Cost of Resume Virtues
After a period of years, John became exhausted. No longer experiencing a nagging sense that something was missing, John’s body began to shut down. He ended up in the hospital for several weeks and almost died.
Resume virtues, by themselves, leave us feeling empty, fragmented, disconnected, and sometimes seriously physically compromised. We may achieve external success, but at the cost of a deeply meaningful life and the capacity to thrive.
As for me, I became more disconnected from those around me, and was sick all the time. I used to get colds once every month or two. And sometimes they would last for 3-4 weeks. My mother-in-law used to comment on how often I was sick. It irritated the heck out of me probably because it tapped into my sense that my life was out of balance. I dismissed her comments, thinking this level of sickness was normal. I later realized it wasn’t normal or healthy.
At the end of the day, we want more than a great resume. What we’re really looking for is meaning. But resume virtues don’t provide that. We often look for meaning in all the wrong places.
Beyond Resume Virtues
How, then, do we overcome our inner emptiness and find meaning in a fragmented world? Is there an approach to life and virtue that can help us find our way?
Eulogy virtues, as David Brooks calls them, foster meaning in a fragmented world. These are the virtues that lead to a life well lived—kindness, compassion, love, humility, wisdom, courage, and integrity to name a few.
In her book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington makes an important observation:
“Have you noticed that when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success?”
Resume virtues ignore a fundamental paradox of human nature and growth. Meaning and fulfillment emerge indirectly and paradoxically as a result of pursuing good, not for what we get out of it primarily, but for the simple beauty of promoting the well being of others. Eulogy virtues are linked to meaning and fulfillment in life because they focus on the well being of others. Resume virtues, in contrast, are self-focused.
Tom Rath emphasizes this in his book, Are You Fully Charged. He cites research demonstrating that we should pursue meaning, not happiness. Happiness, or positive mood, is a byproduct of living a meaningful life. Rath describes meaning as doing something that benefits others. This is a simple, yet clear and profound conceptualization of meaning. Meaning ultimately comes from doing good for others and even more directly from relationships. The brain circuits that process the evaluation of meaning are linked to those that process our social experiences. We are wired to connect, and to experience meaning through connection to others.
We are also wired to contribute our unique gifts to the world. Stephen Post, in his book Unlimited Love, says: “In the genuine giving of self lies the unsought discovery of a higher self.” In order to discover a higher version of yourself, you must genuinely give of your true self. This requires that you know how you’re uniquely wired—your core motivations and values. Eulogy virtues have a common foundation that we all inhabit, but they’re expressed in uniquely personal ways. We can all reflect humility in our lives, for example, but we will express it in unique ways that bear our personal signature.
Resume virtues are good when they are pursued with wisdom—in the right way and for the right reasons. But they must be built on a foundation of eulogy virtues. We don’t create resumes with eulogy virtues. We don’t talk about them much, especially when it comes to the work context. If we did create resumes with eulogy virtues, they would read something like this:
- Sacrificed a promotion to spend more time with his kids at a critical stage in their lives.
- Consistently put the interests of his co-workers above his own interests.
- Volunteered in his community.
At the end of the day, people aren’t going to remember you for your titles and roles, as important as those things are. They’re going to remember how you treated them, and your unique gifts to the world.
Cultivating Eulogy Virtues
So then, how do you travel down “The Road to Character” as David Brooks calls it in his book? How do you cultivate eulogy virtues so that on that last day, you have no regrets?
Here are four practices to help you develop eulogy virtues.
1. Surrender the pursuit of resume virtues for their own sake.
Developing eulogy virtues almost always involves surrendering something of external success—a former unhealthy way of life, an obsessive pursuit of control, a resolute avoidance of emotional pain—in order to gain something of internal character. My friend John gave up a consulting position that paid well, but sucked his soul dry. I gave up completing a degree I had worked toward for four years. I spent an enormous amount of time and energy studying and doing research in the area of measurement and psychometrics at UCLA. After four years, I realized the cost to my eulogy virtues was too high. I walked away from adding three more letters after my name on my resume so that I might have a more positive impact on those in my life. To be clear, I’m not saying quitting something is always the wise thing to do, or that it always represents sacrifice. You have to seek wisdom in your unique circumstances. But the road to character will require surrender. That much you can count on. It will be painful and perhaps confusing in the short run, but the meaning you will experience in the long run will be well worth it.
2. Focus on relentlessly creating value for others.
Foster a mindset of promoting others’ well being in your unique way. Our natural inclination is to focus on extracting value from others. What can I get from you, rather than what can I give? To relentlessly create value, however, requires training yourself to focus on others, to think about their specific needs, and to develop habits that involve using your unique gifts to help others. You will benefit in the long run for doing this, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because it’s the right thing to do; you do it because the people in your life whom you emulate hold this value in high esteem and you want to be in relationship with them; you do it because it’s inherently meaningful to help another human being. It turns out that we’re wired for meaning.
3. Find your flow.
Eulogy virtues involve giving of your authentic self—giving your unique gifts to the world. In order to do that, you must find your flow in a broad sense—the way you organize the pieces of your life around a larger purpose and uniquely contribute to that purpose based on your talents, core motivations and core values. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes meaning as a unified experience of flow that results from three factors: 1) a larger purpose, 2) pursued with intention (or resolution), which results in a sense of 3) harmony, which produces a unified flow experience.
Take some time to reflect on your larger purpose. One clue is to think about your values. What are the values for which you’re willing to sacrifice? Awhile back, I asked my wife for an example of an instance in which she did something, despite the fact that it would likely require a sacrifice, because of a personal value. Her answer was immediate. She didn’t have to think about it more than two seconds. When she was on her clinical psychology internship, she was sitting in a mandatory seminar with one of the supervisors. The class included psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers in training. The supervisor said several extremely derogatory things about social workers. It was clear that he held to a hierarchy and looked down on social workers. My wife could not bear to let this go unchallenged. She publicly confronted the supervisor despite the fact that this supervisor had power over her as an intern. This reveals a deep value my wife holds: protecting the vulnerable. Think about your stories of stepping into potential sacrifice and what that reveals about your deepest values. You will find the truest expression of your eulogy virtues at the intersection of your deepest values.
Another important clue about your larger purpose and flow are your unique motivations. What motivations drive you toward your greatest achievements? Why do you do your greatest work? My colleagues and I have been studying motivations as we continue to develop the MCORE assessment of “core motivation.” We have found that understanding people’s unique combination of core motivations and their motivational identities lends great insight into their larger purpose and the specific job roles that best express that. Think about your success stories—instances in which you did something really well and thoroughly enjoyed it. What were the underlying motives? What moved you to pursue these achievements? Capture it in a phrase and think about how these inform your larger purpose and your unique contribution to the world.
As you make your unique contribution to a larger purpose—as you find your flow—you will develop eulogy virtues. You will focus on promoting others’ well being in a sustained way because your unique motivators and larger purpose will drive you to stick with it even when the going gets rough.
4. Find companions to travel with you on the road to character.
When you take a step back from the deadlines that need to be met, emails that need to be answered, and projects that need to be completed, what is most meaningful to you in your work life? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that somewhere near the top of the list are the relationships you’ve developed along the way, and the accomplishments that benefited others. So don’t wait until the end of your career to start building meaningful relationships—start now. Developing eulogy virtues requires a great deal of input and support from others. We need others to speak into our lives when we’re down and when we lose our way. These relationships require work and sacrifice like all good things in life.
The road to character can be hard, but in the end, it’s the only road worth traveling.
Brooks, D. (2015). The Road to Character. New York: Random House.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
Huffington, A. (2014). Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. New York: Harmony Books.
Rath, T. (2015). Are You Fully Charged: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life. New York: Silicon Guild.
Post, S. (2003). Unlimited Love: Unlimited Love: Altruism, Compassion, and Service. Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.
More From Dr. Todd Hall
Todd Hall, Ph.D. is Chief Scientist and cofounder of Connection Culture Group. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall's work at drtoddhall.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.