Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Résumé Virtues, Eulogy Virtues, and the Impact of Small Moments

Thoughts About Building Character in the Modern Era

When you die, who will attend the funeral? And what — if anything, will they have to say during your eulogy?

In his best-selling book The Road to Character, David Brooks discusses two kinds of things that we self-help consumers are trying to improve upon:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

Brooks’s point is not to be overlooked. In this world of fast-paced innovation, disruption, and self-improvement crazes, we often end up merely paying lip service to character, rather than focusing on it. Self-improvement tends to be thought of in terms of productivity, resilience, and the classic résumé virtues. Even when we talk about something almost in the realm of the eulogy virtues — like emotional intelligence — it tends to be in the context of beefing up our résumé virtues. It’s not that we don’t mean well, we just get distracted by the constant call to be better workers in the marketplace.

So here’s a suggestion to help ensure that you stay focused on your eulogy virtues — on building and maintaining the kind of character that you can be proud of: focus on the small moments.

The Big Power of Small Things

The things that have the biggest impact on our lives are often very small. The human mind doesn’t remember — can’t remember — a whole year, week, day, or month at once. And that makes sense, because we don’t experience those things all at once.

Though we may talk about people we love and admire in terms of their abstract character traits, the most powerful and moving memories we have about people are specific and concrete. Though we may aim for the grand and grandiose trips and destinations, it is the small memory of having coffee on the balcony of somewhere as the sun rises — with someone close — that we recall with the most fondness.

All we have are moments, because that’s all we live — moments. A life is made up of moments.

A person’s character, then, is also made up of moments. How they acted at some moment, what they did for others at some moment, how they made others feel at some moment.

Our emotions about people are wrapped up not in abstract traits, but in specific emotions — felt at specific times. When we talk about those we admire, or those who we really miss, we talk about specific memories, specific moments and the emotions that we felt — and still feel. A legacy is built in moments.

So while it is helpful to think about your eulogy virtues, and to try to develop traits like compassion and mindfulness — it’s more helpful to focus on the power of small moments. The great thing is that the next moment — your next chance to have a great impact on someone— is right around the corner. Even if you haven’t been working on bettering yourself for the past year, you can do something small in the moment — not too long from now! It’s not a lofty goal where you have to plan and enact steps and discipline.

Two Traits

Of course, that sounds poetic and motivating, but how do you make it happen? How do you get more of those small moments? First of all, there’s no need for more of those moments; it’s not about quantity. Secondly, you can’t really create those moments.

Think about some of the most impactful moments that you had with someone else — where you felt a deep sense of connection to them, and felt like they were showing you genuine goodness. Were any of those moments meticulously planned and choreographed? I doubt it. What most likely happened was that you and that person found yourselves in a candid moment — when there was no plan or script — when hearts were bared to one another, and vulnerability and humanity was revealed. That’s when the most genuine of smiles and laughs, and the most cathartic of tears come out. And those times cannot be prepared and practiced.

If there’s any trick to having more of those small impactful moments, it would probably be this: be open and be present. 
Be open to whatever comes along, and be open to whoever comes along. And whatever or whoever does come along, be present for it.

It is really those two attitudes, or ways of operating, that make it possible to cultivate the whole range of eulogy virtues. If you live with an open mind and open heart, and you are truly and fully present for the moments that come along in life, you create fertile ground for all sorts of great memories and connections to grow.

“He lived with an open heart and kept an open mind, and offered them both up as present for others in the moment” — that’s not a bad start to a damned good eulogy.