Historian Ramsay Cook’s obituary clinched it for me – I decided I would start with the obituaries first when I read the newspaper, in paper or online. Though I’ve become more interested in history, I didn’t study it and hadn’t heard of Ramsay Cook. Then this: “we see Canada today through Ramsay Cook’s eyes,” John Ibbitson wrote in the Globe and Mail feature obituary (July 21, 2016). “More than any other historian of the last half of the 20th century, he defined Canada as we now live it.”

You’d think such an important historian would have a solid career story where you could connect the dots from a childhood interest in history, or at least from high school.

But no. His school interest? Chemistry.

Ibbitson wrote, “School was both effortless and boring, and it took a stern parental command to convince him to attend United College (today the University of Winnipeg), where he slotted in a first-year history course only because his much-preferred chemistry class was in a far-away building and he was too lazy to make the commute.”

What? The spark that ignited the career of Canada’s most famous historian was… that he was too lazy? I love stories like this, that reveal the secret turning point. Reading or hearing dramatic career change stories helps normalize these kind of small inputs that create big career changes. It’s chaos theory’s flap of a butterfly wing that results in a hurricane half a planet away. And having interviewed hundreds of people on Career Buzz radio about their career stories and counselled thousands more at two big universities and at CareerCycles, I can assure you, these kind of happenstance stories are surprisingly common.

I’m grateful for Ramsay Cook’s story as written by John Ibbitson, which gave me this idea to share six reasons why you should read obituaries first. They help you:

  1. Believe that small moments can lead to big and meaningful changes in career and life. Rather than trying to fill in the blank, ‘In my career I will be a ___,’ it’s more likely your career won’t follow such an organized trajectory. Better to be ready for career surprises and embrace that next small moment – like a newfound interest in a course you take. Our team of Associates likes to prepare clients for career surprises by priming them with a fund of self-awareness through a narrative assessment – we call that fund a Career Statement. With Career Statement in hand we encourage clients to: a) watch for clues related to your Career Statement, b) take inspired action to explore those clues, and c) welcome opportunities. To learn more about this approach and evidence of its effectiveness, see Franklin, Yanar & Feller (2015).
  2. Be inspired by the long view of career stories. When you read an obituary you get both the long view and the highlights of that person’s career. You begin to see that one chapter follows another, and we can create many chapters in a lifetime. Celebrate the good chapters. And when a chapter, or even a page, isn’t working out, tell yourself, ‘this too shall pass.’ The long view helps put current career crises in perspective.
  3. Feel relief in your own career drama. I teach a career management course at the University of Toronto (scroll to APS1030 here), and in it, I have groups of students interview business leaders in the community. One of the most useful insights the students reported, was realizing that even these leaders were still asking themselves, ‘What am I going to do when I grow up?’ If these leaders are still evolving in their careers, the students realized, ‘then maybe it’s okay for me not to be sure what I’ll do when I grow up.’ In other words, it’s normal not to know what to do next. The best we can do is make well-informed choices funded by a wealth of self-awareness, and then be ready to ‘error-correct’ as the need arises.
  4. Avoid being dragged down by daily bad news and instead, be uplifted by a positive story. I don’t know about you but when I read or hear the news, I think it would be more descriptive to call it the ‘bad news.’ Let’s face it, there are many problems in the world, and they show up first in the news. Even though 99.9999% of people were safe yesterday, safety is boring; the news tells us the terrible things that happened to the one in a million people. So start your day with a dose of good news. Yes, the person in the obituary has died, but their career and life highlights infuse your day with themes of overcoming adversity, making a difference, and lives well lived.
  5. Appreciate lives well lived and making a positive impact on others. Obituary writers seek comment from those whose lives were touched by this person. These quotes often support the accomplishments and impact of the career and life story. Of Ramsay Cook, Ibbitson wrote, ‘“He was a giant,’ his friend and fellow historian John English concludes.” Then we get this accomplishment: “At a critical moment in the life of the nation, when Canada seemed on the brink of dissolution, Prof. Cook succeeded in explaining French Canada to the English and English Canada to the French…” Pretty impressive impact!
  6. Be your best self. In Youree Harris’s obituary, The Associated Press quoted Harris’s colleague, “he found her to be ‘warm and welcoming and bigger than life. …She was smart as a whip and very intuitive.’” No matter what has come before, we all have it in us to be more of our ‘best selves.’ Laura Morgan Roberts et al (2005) define ‘reflected best self’ as “a person’s cognitive representation of the qualities and characteristics that a person displays when one is at his or her best.” Wouldn’t it be great to experience more moments of being our best self? Wouldn’t we all want to be remembered when we were at our best?

Read obituaries first, and watch for clues of inspiring people at their best. Then take inspired action, and welcome opportunities.

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