A how-to guide to have the most important conversation of your life

Photo: Corbis

Photo: Corbis

Even in this age of hyper-communication, where people are willingly sharing all kinds of things with each other on social networks, there is one area of our lives where we quiet down completely. On the one hand, it’s not surprising. The topic is uncomfortable and the potential for misunderstanding is large. On the other hand, it’s shocking, because this is one of the areas that almost everyone agrees that more conversation is absolutely necessary. The topic is end of life care.

If we honestly assess ourselves, I’m guessing your reaction to the topic was to immediately think about other ways to spend the next few minutes. But hang in there, stay with me: I’m going to give you the tools to make this as easy as discussing any other important issue.

First, some context. If you haven’t yet had to deal with a serious illness– yours or someone you love– it may be hard to understand why this issue is so important. If you have, then you’re likely among the 60% of people who think it’s “extremely important” that their family members aren’t burdened by tough decisions (yet 60% have not communicated their end of life wishes.) Or consider this: 80% of people say that if seriously ill, they would want to talk to their doctor about end-of-life care, but only 7% report having had an end-of-life conversation with their doctor. Finally, 82% of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing, yet only 23% have done it. In other words, you too have probably avoided this tough issue and you’re definitely not alone.

Most people, it seems, have trouble knowing where to start. We’re concerned that our loved ones won’t agree or even understand how we could feel a certain way. The key, says Ellen Goodman, co-Founder of The Conversation Project, is simply talking about it. And the best place to begin is at your kitchen table– not an intensive care unit– with people you love, before it’s too late.

Why is this important?

Imagine, for a moment, being seriously injured or ill, unable to speak for yourself, or facing the end of your life. Who do you want standing at your bedside, speaking for you, making tough decisions about your care– perhaps even disagreeing with other family members or medical professionals about how you should be treated? Now that you have that person in mind, do they know how you feel? Do they know what’s important to you, how you want to be treated?

Or maybe you’re in a position to make these decisions for someone else… do you know their wishes?

In either case, The Conversation Project believes that the key is communication. They’ve put together a ‘starter kit’ with a list of questions to first ask yourself to be sure that you understand your own feelings on the issue. The starter kit is available online and as a downloadable file. The questions are simple but thought-provoking.

Once you’ve completed the preparation, the next step can be the hardest: you have to talk with someone, tell them what you think, how you feel, and ensure that they are brave enough to adhere to your wishes in the midst of a challenging, emotionally-charged situation. Starting this conversation will be the most difficult step. It’s hard to bring these issues up (I’ve found that it’s tough writing about it, even in an abstract sense.) But having this conversation can be liberating for you both. It will give you the peace of mind that someone will be prepared to make your wishes known, and you will have the information you need to reciprocate. What could be better than having full confidence that you’re doing exactly what your loved one would prefer at that crucial juncture?

The starter kit is really the crux of The Conversation Project. This 10-page document will equip you to have this conversation with all of the important people in your life and will prepare each of you for the acceptance necessary to make it work. Following the conversation, the starter kit provides some valuable next steps: documents you should have on hand, further clarifying questions to deal with specific cases, and more.

If you’re still on the fence about whether this is important, consider one more item: 70% of people would prefer to die in their homes. The reality is the exact opposite: 70% die in a hospital, nursing home, or long-term care facility. Wherever you are on the spectrum, whatever your wishes for your own care, however you’d like to be treated, make your wishes known. The Conversation Project can help you do just that.

[Note: I realize this isn’t something that rises to the top of your mind when you think of things that need to be done, especially if you’re ranking them by magnitude of enjoyment. It’s tough; I get it. But it truly is important. If you still need convincing, spend a few minutes with Judy MacDonald Johnson as she tells her story.]

Teacher tells graduates: “You are not special.”

McCullough tells students: "You are not special."

There are some messages that need to be said, and some that people don’t want to hear. Often, a single message is both. When Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough stepped up to the mic to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2012, he delivered one of those messages. He told them:

“You are not special. You are not exceptional.”

With his reading glasses and his slightly unkempt hair, he looked every bit the part of English teacher and strikingly resonated the message he was about to deliver. He told the students, “…your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.”

Now, before you begin leaping to conclusions and shouting things like “how dare he tell my little pumpkin that she is anything less than amazing!” allow me to add some additional context. McCullough continued:

“The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Needham, that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood numbers. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.”

He wasn’t beating them up to be mean or belittling. The truth is he was a teacher, through and through and to the end. Though they sat before him at commencement, the end of one era and the beginning of the next, he was taking one final moment to teach:

“As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.”

“Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.”

“The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.”

Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.

Personally, I can think of no better message to deliver to our kids, at commencement and minute-by-minute as they work through school to reach that milestone. You see, part of the problem– maybe the biggest part– is us. Parents of our generation are creating such coddling environments that our kids have very little self-sufficiency. McCullough says that, “we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.” He’s right. And when he points this out to the graduating class he places the blame exactly where it belongs: with us.

“You’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”

I admire him for his insight. I applaud him for his courage. I will honor him by doing all I can to remember these words with each interaction with kids, both mine and others, to encourage them to live their lives not to garnish the accolades, but the for sake of actually living their lives. I will encourage them, at all times, to “climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

I’ve presented you with the Cliff Notes version. For the full effect, watch David McCullough deliver the address himself:

Of letter spacing and love: why the little things matter

Of letter spacing and love: why little things matterMichael and Ashley will be having their first baby in a few weeks. Like anyone in their position, they’re dealing with all anxieties that come with that event. Michael, for his part, has been concerned with kerning.

Kerning is a typography term that relates to the space between letters. Most of the time, if it’s done well, you don’t really notice it. Things (words, signs, sentences) just look right; like they belong together. When kerning is bad, though, it’s really bad. Things look clunky, unkempt, and careless.

Michael, as a programmer who works with designers, knows kerning is important, but isn’t all that comfortable making the call himself. So he sent a picture to all the designers and asked for help to get the kerning right on the letters he’s hanging on the wall of the nursery. He wants “ELLIE” to look just right.

We have all been coached to spend a lot of time and energy making the big decisions, and they are certainly important. And you might think that there are other things– more important things– that Michael should be focusing on right now. But the truth is, he knows these little things matter.

Parenting, it turns out, isn’t so much about the big things that need to be decided and done. Rather, it’s all about the little things. How you react when she asks to sit on your lap and read a book. What you say when you’re frustrated from driving in snarled traffic. How you answer when she asks for something she really wants, but doesn’t need. And maybe most importantly, how you treat her mother; both when you’re happy and when you’re not.

It’s in these little things that our children learn to get along with each other. It’s how they learn to cope with things when they don’t go quite as well as they’d hoped. In these little things, our little ones find out that words can hurt, but they also heal. It’s how they learn to forgive and to put the needs of others before themselves. These little things, without a doubt, are how they learn to love, along with countless multitudes of other things.

I often hear parenting experts talk about teaching moments as if they only come along every so often. They couldn’t be more wrong… These moments happen every minute of every day, whether you’re aware of it or not. Kids watch. They listen. They learn. The good, the bad, and the ugly, all together, all the time.

So with a few weeks left until delivery, Michael busies himself with letter spacing. There may be many reasons for this, but it isn’t trivial. Instead, it shows that Michael has already learned one the key lessons of being a parent: Little things matter. A lot.

Ellie, when she gets here, will be in good hands.

Caine’s Arcade: Recognizing the incredible potential of great imagination

Every once in a while I come across a story where all the planets align, the good people come out on top, and I’m afforded an opportunity to sit back and truly appreciate how powerful a tool the Internet can be. This is one of those stories.

The summary is this: a 9-year-old boy named Caine built an elaborate arcade out of cardboard boxes at his father’s auto parts store. And then he waited for the customers. Eventually, one showed up. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll let you watch this video and see how it unfolds.

One final thought: There is power, to be sure, in this new inter-connected world. But it pales in comparison to the power of a great imagination.

I’d love to hear what you think…

[Note: I first saw this video about 5pm today. At the time, Caine’s crowd-sourced scholarship fund was at $88,000. Five hours later, it’s grown to nearly $103,000. Further proof, I think, that creativity still matters. I tip my hat to Nirvan Mullick for recognizing a great story when he saw it and thank him warmly for telling it. Here’s a link to Caine’s Arcade’s Facebook page.]