The second habit Stephen Covey covers in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Begin With the End in Mind.” To understand what he means by this maxim, you need to do a little thought experiment that he suggests in the book.
Don’t just nod and continue skimming. Really try it.
Imagine a funeral. It’s at a nondescript funeral parlor that looks like every other funeral parlor in America. All the seats are filled with a blur of people dressed in black. Sniffles can be heard, and shiny, tear-soaked cheeks dot the room.
Soft organ music plays in the background. “Nearer My God to Thee.” Classic.
A casket sits at the front of the room. Flowers surround it.
A man steps up to the podium to deliver the eulogy. He’s got a hankie in his hand, just in case he gets teary-eyed.
He opens his mouth to speak . . .
Got that picture in your mind? It’s pretty much like every funeral you’ve ever attended or seen on TV. Yes? Okay good. You’re with me.
Now I want you to imagine that the body in that casket is your dead carcass.
Welcome to your funeral, baby.
The undistinguished people that you imagined in the funeral home should now be morphing into people you know. When I imagine this, it sort of looks like the agents in the Matrix shapeshifting into other people. Who do you see? Who’s at your funeral? More insightful question, who’s not at your funeral? Is it a packed house or are there only a few people there?
Take a look at the guy giving your eulogy. The guy we left with his mouth open when we did a Zack Attack Timeout. Who did he morph into?
Let’s see what he has to say about you.
What do you hear? What do you imagine him saying?
This is what Covey means by “Begin with the End in Mind.” The END. Death.
Why does Covey want you vividly imagining your death and funeral?
Because it distills what you ultimately value in life — or at least what you want to value — and what you hope it all adds up to in the end.
Résumé Virtues Vs. Eulogy Virtues
Writer David Brooks insightfully observes that there are two types of virtues: résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. In The Road to Character, he explains the difference between them:
“The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”
When you imagined someone giving your eulogy, did you imagine him talking about your résumé virtues? Did he talk about how much money you made? Your job titles? How big your house was? How many cars you owned? That you kicked major ass at Fortnite? That you made Dean’s Roll every semester? That you not once, not twice, but three times had a clever tweet go viral? That you had thousands of Instagram followers?
If you’re like most decent human beings, that’s probably not what you pictured. You probably imagined him talking up your eulogy virtues.
You likely imagined him talking about your character and your relationships. The kind of husband, father, and friend you were. How hard you worked to give your kids not only a good life, but a sense of purpose and a sound moral compass. How you still did little romantic gestures for your wife, even though you’d been hitched for decades. How you’d give the shirt off your back to your buddies. You probably imagined him sharing stories both funny and sad that highlighted your integrity, kindness, and curiosity. The effect you had on the lives of others.
According to Covey, before you can live a good, meaningful life, you’ve got to know what that looks like. When we know how we want people to talk about us at the end of our life, we can start taking action now to make that scenario a reality later. With the end in mind, we’ll know what we need to do day to day and week to week to get there.
What Script Are You Following?
Most of us want the eulogy virtues to drive our actions, not because of what people will say about us at our funeral — it’s too late to enjoy it then! — but because we know that striving to attain those virtues is what will give us a sense of real meaning and fulfillment over the course of our lifetime.
We know that, yet we typically don’t do anything about it. Why?
Brooks argues that we live in a culture that primarily focuses on external markers of success over the internal state of the soul:
“Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too—the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.”
Covey would agree with Brooks. He argues that the reason — our many good intentions aside — that we spend the cream of our energy striving after résumé virtues, is that we get diverted from the truly meaningful by what he calls scripts.
Scripts are default goals and values handed to us by our social system — they arise from family, peers, school, advertisements, pop culture, and more. Everywhere we look there are people or organizations trying to influence us on how we should live and what we should value. These scripts are what causes us to “should on ourselves” and to participate in status competitions that deep down we don’t even care about. It’s what leads us to accomplish a lot, but feel like we’ve lived a life devoid of significance.
Here’s an example of a script that most of us have experienced: You need to get good grades in school.
Why? Well, we’re going to say it’s so we learn things and become better humans, but we know the real reason we want to get good grades is so we can get into a good college. And you get into a good college so you can get a good job that pays well and has health insurance and a 401K so you can buy a house and a car and take nice vacations with your family.
Those goals aren’t “bad,” but you’ve probably adopted them mindlessly, and you’ll end up pursuing them merely as things to knock off on a checklist, without thought as to whether they’re what you want, and what difference they’ll make in your character — in who you want to be. Your “why” for getting good grades covers the attainment of externalities, but has no deeper purpose, no connection to your inner world. Consequently, school isn’t very satisfying, and even if your success with it leads to a good job, and a nice family, and a house in the burbs, none of those things will feel particularly fulfilling either.
If you’ve found yourself living life by a script you didn’t choose and you’re only discovering it now in midlife, don’t get too down on yourself. It happens to the best of us.
Exhibit A: Leo Tolstoy.
At age 51 he looked back on his life and saw an abundance of worldly success. The great Russian novelist had published War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He was wealthy and renowned and able to comfortably support his family. And yet . . .
Tolstoy still felt hollow. Thinking about his coming death (51 was old for a 19th-century Russian guy), he realized that he hadn’t been living life by his own values and more importantly for him, by God’s. He had merely followed the scripts that society had fed to him.
His life mirrored a character in one of his books, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ilyich had always played by the rules and followed society’s scripts; he was “capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable, though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered to be his duty: and he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority.” He lives a fairly untroubled life that is “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”
Ilyich has a loveless marriage and allows his work to keep him from his family; he had been keenly concerned about money and his position on the social ladder, and ultimately achieved professional admiration and success. But with death at the door, such consolations seemed absolutely meaningless. He began to wonder, “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done?” He wishes he had made more room for selfless virtues, and ultimately comes to the sinking realization that:
“his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend those things to himself and suddenly he felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.”
All his life Tolstoy, like Ilyich, strived for status, money, and security — résumé virtues — but it was only when he faced the specter of his death that he realized his great existential mistake. If a guy like Tolstoy can screw up on this, maybe we can cut ourselves some slack for doing the same.
Luckily, even if we’re currently living out someone’s else’s script, it’s never too late to change course. Shortly before Ilyich crosses over into the great beyond, he sees a bright light and receives the following revelation:
“that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, ‘What *is* the right thing?’ and grew still, listening.”
Living Life by Your Own Script: Writing Your Personal Constitution
We know that what we want most in life is to focus our time and energy on living the eulogy virtues. But because of scripts we’re bombarded with since childhood, we end up centering our lives on résumé virtues and external markers of success instead.
What to do?
Covey argues that if you want to avoid this fate (or get out of it), you have to intentionally, or in Covey-speak, proactively (remember that habit?), re-write the script in your life. You have to replace what you’ve been told to center your life on with timeless and unchanging principles and virtues that you want to embody.
You do that, Covey suggests, by formulating a mission statement.
Yes. I know. I too like to roll my eyes at the very idea of mission statements. It smacks of shallow, insincere corporatese. You see them on the wall behind the hotel desk as the clerk flagrantly violates every single one of its tenets. “Ha!” you tell yourself. “Look at how stupid this mission statement thing is. It’s just gilding on a rotten reality.”
Covey would argue that the problem isn’t the mission statement itself. It likely concretely lays out the ideals of that company. The problem is that the leadership of the company probably didn’t proactively (there’s that word again) make the mission statement a part of its culture. The hotel clerk giving you crappy customer service perhaps only heard it talked about once during her onboarding orientation, and that was it.
For mission statements to be useful, they have to be something you turn to over and over again. Every time you make a decision, you review your mission statement to see if your decision lines up with it.
Instead of thinking of mission statements as just a list of ideals, Covey suggests thinking of them like a constitution for a government. Back in my law school days when I wrote legal memos for attorneys, I’d have to lay out the law that governed the case I was writing about. Every time I did so, I had to make, at least in passing, a reference to the U.S. Constitution because the Constitution is the source of all law in the United States. Even if it was a state issue, I referenced the U.S. Constitution (Article 10, baby). With every legal decision, I turned to the Constitution first.
Imagine if companies treated their mission statements like that. It’d be a game changer. Treating a mission statement like a constitution turns it from slick corporate whitewash into something transformational.
So instead of thinking about writing a personal mission statement, think about writing a personal constitution.
Here’s how to do it.
Before You Start: Understand the Process Is More Important Than the End Product
I hit on this point before when I wrote about family mission statements. But here it is again: the end product isn’t as important as the process. As Covey explains, “writing a mission statement changes you because it forces you to think through your priorities deeply, carefully, and to align your behavior with your beliefs.”
So as you work through the steps outlined below, don’t get discouraged if you think it’s taking too long or isn’t going exactly how you wanted. In those moments when you feel like giving up, just focus on the process. Remember, the important thing is that you’re intentionally thinking about what it means to live the good life. This is a lifelong, internal discussion you’ll be having with yourself.
Step 1: Block off uninterrupted time.
The Constitutional Convention lasted 116 days. While you don’t need to hole yourself up for that long, you do need to block off a significant amount of uninterrupted time so you can go deep with yourself. A few hours on a weekend will work. Go to a coffee shop or library. If you’re a Romantic, get out into nature so you can become a transparent Emersonian eyeball. If you really want some extended alone time, rent a hotel room. Comfort Inn is cheap and has a great free breakfast.
Have a notebook handy so you can start working through the process of crafting your personal constitution.
Understand you might not knock out your constitution in those few hours. It may take a few weekends to get it done. That’s okay. Don’t rush the process.
Step 2: Prioritize your roles in life.
Thinking about your general values can be a little abstract; they’re easier to grasp if you think about how you want them to influence the specific actions and spheres of your life. Covey thus suggests that you organize your personal constitution by the roles you embody. This is sort of how the U.S. Constitution is organized. The first three Articles define the three roles of the government: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial.
Here’s a list of roles to help get you started:
At the end of this exercise, you might have a giant list. That’s okay. Now it’s time to ruthlessly prioritize these roles, and perhaps eliminate some. Are there some that are causing you a lot of unneeded stress? Perhaps you have taken on a few that don’t provide any fulfillment and take away time from the roles that are truly important to you. You might then consider pruning those “dead” roles away to strengthen your core responsibilities. This can be tough to do, especially if what you’re eliminating is a “good” thing. But you don’t want the good to become the enemy of the best.
Aim for, at most, five roles that you’re going to focus on as your top priorities and include in your mission statement.
Step 3: Define the purpose of each role.
Now that you’ve got a handle on your most important roles, it’s time to figure out what your high-level purpose is for each one. Write down each of your roles on paper, leaving some space in-between so that you can write a paragraph or two underneath each role.
To guide your writing, think back to that funeral thought experiment we did earlier. Write out what values you want to embody in that role and what you want the people you affect in that role to say about you when you’re dead. Be as idealistic as you want.
Here’s an example purpose for the Father role:
I want my kids to remember me as a caring and involved dad. I want them to say that I’ve inspired them to suck the marrow out of life and to live for something bigger beyond external markers of success. I want them to say I was an example of leadership, courage, and resilience.
Do that with each of your roles.
Refine. Pare down. The simpler the better.
Put your roles and their purposes together in a single document.
Boom. You’ve got a personal constitution.
Review Frequently. Amend When Necessary.
Just as lawmakers and judges (ideally) turn to the U.S. Constitution first when making decisions, you should turn to your personal constitution before you make big decisions in your life. Review it daily. When you plan out your week, begin your planning session by reviewing your personal constitution. Keep it with you in your pocket like some patriotic Americans keep a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution on them at all times. It will serve as a tangible reminder of what’s truly important to you.
While your personal constitution is based in timeless principles, values, and virtues, like the U.S. Constitution it’s something that can be amended when needed. Your circumstances change. You’ll go through different seasons of your life. Roles that were a high priority in your 20s might not be in your 40s. You’ll even gain some new roles as you age. As you make reviewing your personal constitution a habit, you’ll be attuned to how it should change as you hit different milestones in your life.
Unlike résumé virtues that are sort of a one-and-done checklist of items, developing eulogy virtues is a lifelong endeavor. It’s a process of becoming. You’re not done until your imaginary funeral becomes a reality.
Be sure to listen to my podcast with Stephen’s son about his father’s famous principles:
Read the Whole Series
- Be Proactive, Not Reactive
- Begin With the End in Mind
- Put First Things First
- Think Win/Win
- Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
- Synergy (Beyond the Eye-Rolling Buzzword)
- Sharpen the Saw