THE recent death of a loved one and the subsequent outpouring of condolences, warmth and support was, paradoxically, a life-affirming experience. It brought to mind the stark though mostly overlooked realisation that, when people die, their eulogies celebrate life very differently from the way we define success in daily terms. Waxing lyrical about an individual’s resume virtues — productivity, efficiency, output — is often missing from the eulogy.
In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks describes résumé virtues as the skills and selling points you bring to the marketplace — work ethic, competence, academic achievements, etc. Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are values and traits people recall and deeply cherish at your funeral and long after; acts of kindness, humorous instances, humility, deep love, generosity of spirit — those
memories linger and sustain. Résumé virtues are self-focused whereas eulogy virtues are built on the foundation of giving to others.
This dichotomy highlights a psychological crisis in today’s society; while most people understand that eulogy virtues are more important, our lives — from early education to retirement — are structured in a way that encourages us to focus almost exclusively on building résumé virtues. Schools, universities and workplaces contribute to favouring the production of the perfect professional pitch. Our social lives, too, are dictated by the yearning and attainment of quantifiable milestones, both for our children and ourselves. Even when we consider strengthening eulogy virtues, such as resilience, it is aimed towards increasing résumé value.
Our social lives are dictated by quantifiable milestones.
The pursuit of professional ambitions isn’t condemnable; in fact, succeeding by dint of hard work, reliability and smarts deserves pride and recognition. However, singularly and obsessively chasing résumé virtues, seeking external validation, at the expense of living a meaningful life is akin to what writer Johann Hari refers to as junk values, “KFC for our souls”.
Whilst human beings have always craved tokens of admiration, today’s technology-driven societal structure has significantly exacerbated this trend. An exaggerated emphasis gets placed on work, deprioritising human connections. We are intrinsically aware that this is problematic, yet do not seem to apply the emotional and physical bandwidth to course-correct. Amidst such a puzzling scenario, is there a way to strike a balance — for résumé and eulogy virtues to coexist?
A useful starting point is to try making the transition from chasing a career to discovering one’s calling rather than making career choices within the confines of conventional thinking. This has deeper consequences than it might seem. Our working lives and personal lives can never be fully disentangled; the effects of one are likely to flow into the other. Feeling unhappy in a career gives rise to strained relationships in our personal lives, and creates a greater yearning for external validation and toxic pursuits of success. In contrast, challenging and fulfilling work can offer a powerful sense of vitality and satisfaction, which in turn yields positive effects on the quality of our interactions with family and friends. It enables us to strive for work-life harmony, which is a more sustainable endeavour than work-life balance.
The work-life harmony approach shapes our behaviour around the ‘inner scorecard’ that is about being true to ourselves. In contrast, focusing on the ‘outer scorecard’ — an external measure of success — leads to the usual issues; an urgency to keep up with the Joneses, internalising the conviction that material possessions provide lasting happiness, and nurturing habits of envy and resentment.
So how practical is it to pursue a career as a calling? Today, this is no longer a naïve ambition, as the opportunities to follow one’s passion in profitable streams are numerous. Digital platforms have levelled the playing field by eliminating hurdles posed by unaffordable advertising budgets. In fact, creative digital forces appear to be at the least risk of becoming redundant in a technology-driven future.
By balancing our eulogy and résumé virtues in a way that they complement each other, we give power to the small moments that eventually make up our lives. Such moments rarely occur by design.
However, the key to experiencing such instances of profound connection is: be open, be present and be immersive. Mindfully opt in to spend time around energy that emanates an inner light, opt out of the rat race to chase toxic pursuits of success.
Saba Karim Khan works at New York University’s global campus in the UAE.
Farrukh Karim Khan works in Pakistan’s capital markets as a portfolio manager.
Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2020