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Write Your Epitaph and Create a Life of Purpose

Seeing your epitaph unfold while you’re alive is a recipe for joy and meaning.

Key points

  • The pandemic has raised the specter of our mortality, which is why writing our epitaph, and living accordingly, can be so powerful.
  • Schools that bring real-world issues to young people and prepare them to be problem-solvers for a better future are taking hold.
  • Living a life of meaning, in alignment with our values, brings both purpose and joy.
'Photo taken by Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Photo taken by Zoe Weil'

Last week, I had the opportunity to experience the power of my epitaph. How is that possible given that I’m not dead yet? It happened because I deliberately wrote my epitaph 10 years ago.

Writing one’s own epitaph isn’t something people typically do. If we’re lucky, someone else sums up our life through a meaningful epitaph after we die. But writing our own epitaph long before the end of our life can be a powerful thing to do. If we consciously decide how we’d like our life to be described at its end, we then have the opportunity to live accordingly now.

The epitaph I wrote read: “Zoe Weil played a significant role in transforming education so that its purpose became to educate a solutionary generation, ready and able to address and solve the world’s challenges.” This epitaph stemmed from my belief that a just, humane, and healthy world is possible if only we learn how to become skilled critical, systems, and strategic thinkers who eagerly and compassionately collaborate to solve the problems we face.

Watching my epitaph unfold

Last week, at an educational conference streamed from India, which reached nearly 2,000 teachers across India and in other countries, I was able to witness my work taking hold. The creator of the event, Sayyid Duja, is the founder of the Springs Continental School — a solutionary school based on the principle of doing the most good and least harm for all people, animals, and the environment. Springs Continental School offers itself and its curriculum as a model for other schools across India and beyond.

Student after student spoke about their solutionary work. They talked lovingly about their school and its founder. They erupted in applause during my keynote every time I mentioned their school and its mission. And their words were reinforced by Indian leaders who also keynoted the event. I realized I was witnessing the unfolding of my epitaph, and it felt pretty great.

Crafting my epitaph provided a goal from which to work, day after day, month after month, year after year. Periodically, I have been able to see examples of my goal coming to fruition. This doesn’t mean I may not modify my epitaph — add to it, change it, craft an entirely different epitaph, or write more than one — but if I were to die tomorrow, I know I will have achieved a portion of my life’s biggest goals.

What do you want your epitaph to be?

Writing your epitaph helps you realize what’s most important to you. So what do you want your epitaph to be? This may be one of the most powerful questions you ask yourself, and I invite you to set aside time to deeply reflect upon it. You do not have to answer it perfectly, or for all eternity (pun intended). You can always change it. In fact, you may want to set a reminder each year to review your epitaph, perhaps on your birthday, so that you can lead your life ever more closely aligned with your values and goals as the years go by.

Your epitaph doesn’t have to be big, bold, or world-changing. It can be simple yet meaningful. Perhaps it may be something along the lines of Melissa Feldman, a friend whom I interviewed for my book Most Good, Least Harm. Her epitaph at the time was this: “Melissa did some good and had some fun along the way.” Note that Melissa set herself up for success. Knowing her well, I can state categorically that she has contributed more than her share of good, but she didn’t set the bar so high in her epitaph that she would feel like she failed if she didn’t achieve it. She also looked forward to some fun — neither an abundance of fun by living hedonistically, nor no fun by being so focused on doing good for others that she neglected her own happiness. Her epitaph offers not only achievable goals but also balance.

Perhaps your epitaph will be deeply aspirational like Khalif Williams’, another friend whom I interviewed for my book. He wrote: “Khalif gave all he had, took only what he needed, and would have loved you with all his heart.” Such aspiration can be helpful to those for whom a big vision of a deeply loving and generous life provides the spark to do better each day.

Or perhaps your epitaph might be like Kim Korona’s, another friend whom I interviewed, who wrote: “Kimberly Korona believed that if we wanted to, we could create a humane world for all people, all species, and the entire planet, and so she strived to contribute her part in creating such a world and to inspire others to do the same.” Such a world-changing vision can help lift us beyond the minutiae of our lives, expand our vision and our horizons, and ennoble our efforts.

Should you decide to write your epitaph, you will be helping yourself lead a life of ever-increasing meaning, purpose, and joy, because living according to your deepest purpose is likely to be quite rewarding. You may also become better able to resist the temptation to compare yourself to others, which so often creates unhappiness, envy, and self-criticism. When we write our epitaph, the only person we need to live up to is our own highest vision of ourselves.