Robert Fulghum is our best candidate for contemporary Ben Franklinesque wisdom. The author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” has spun many aphorisms to guide us through an overly complex world.
His wisdom is observational. He truly sees humanity, then summarizes truths of life so we all remember what’s really important.
One of his jewels is the notion of the importance of memories. Fulghum says that the census bureau doesn’t count them, but nothing counts without them. At the end of our lives, all we have left are our memories, if we’re lucky enough to have a functioning mind.
A close friend and colleague today sent me a picture of his mother, celebrating her 99th circle of the sun. Nearly blind, with limited mobility and a litany of body infirmities, her laughing face leapt from the photograph like a child bursting onto the playground. This wonderful woman, I thought to myself, is clearly chock full of rich memories. Why else would she be so clearly delighted at this point in her journey on Earth?
My father-in-law passed nearly two years ago, at age 84. As I sat with him in the convalescent facility where he was recovering from a fall, he looked at me in the afternoon sunlight and said, “You know, I’ve received all the joys I’ve sought in life. I became a psychologist, helped many people over many years. I traveled the world in retirement for over 15 years. I fathered five beautiful, authentic women. I’ve enjoyed so many sunrises and sunsets. There’s nothing more I could want from life.”
I thanked him for one specific daughter, and then said, “I hope to be able to say the same when my time comes”.
One of our company values is “Positive lasting memories.” When people first hear it, they think, “Oh, they want everybody to be nice. Sounds good on paper. Can’t really work, I’ll bet.”
In reality, this value has both a business objective and a quality of life goal. No one will buy your products if they don’t have a positive experience with it. Shareholders won’t support your stock price if they don’t receive positive returns. Vendors and partners won’t want to work with you if they don’t have positive experiences working with you. And employees will bail quickly if every day is a negative grind.
Positive memories are the basis for economic advancement. The quality of life factor is, hopefully, painfully obvious.
But creating a positive memory isn’t necessarily comfortable. In fact, the most positive memories I have resulted from successfully navigating very troubled waters.
One example is the time I was lost on the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska, during a salmon roe buying expedition among the Inuit villages. Running out of gas, driving through the maze of tributaries, looking for the main channel of the river and a landmark to guide me back to Bethel’s docks, I shivered in the cold August wind. I had little additional clothing, no food or water. The plan had been a quick run to Kwethluk and back. I’d been lost for 12 hours. Out of radio range, and no GPS. It was 1977.
I turned one more corner, a random selection among many, and there was the main river, with the comforting, familiar wrecked barge that marked the lower limit of the Bethel waterfront. I got back to the dock with one ounce of gas to spare, went into the bunkhouse kitchen and had the most delicious leftover pizza dinner ever.
We all have such memories. The joy and terror of our child’s birth. The narrow miss on the highway. The surprise party where all your friends show their love for you. The time you cheated the auto mechanic and turned a quoted $4,000 repair job into a $2 spark plug. The time you saw your wife jumping out of the Croatian lake like a happy dolphin finally at home in the warm October lake, after so many hard work weeks to get there.
Fulghum’s memorable quote about the pristine gems which are our memories is such a fundamental truth. We spend our lives counting this and that, far too often focusing seriously on the measurements that have no meaning of themselves. They are symbols and tools, that describe relative values. You can’t drive a car without a dashboard (so far), so we need to keep track of various things in our life. We need to be able to drive through it all. But we give those metrics far more importance than they warrant.
At dinner tonight with two college friends, rejoined after years of separate paths, we raised our glass to Mike’s still being on this side of the grass -- as they say. Six rounds of chemotherapy and two of radiation later, his hair is growing back and he’s planning his next trip. We shared our bucket lists.
The memories we want to count next.
Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at email@example.com