In this business, we focus a ton on numbers… ROI, Exits, Carry, Bonuses, Cash Valuations … and on and on. I’ve been really focused recently on one particular question with my clients … What’s your number?
Most of them think I’m asking about the number they need socked away to retire. The number I’m talking about is even more important … it’s the age at which you think you’ll die. I know, not the most uplifting of cocktail party questions, but one that makes all the difference in how we run the rest of the numbers, isn’t it?
This has been on my mind a lot lately. On Friday, someone close to me is having surgery. She’s 42. That number is too little for it to be her number. In the past month, since she knew her upcoming surgery date, she’s been busy doing the things that suddenly seem too important to put off anymore. Earlier this week, an announcement came in my inbox about the death of Gerald Houghton following a brief illness. A client asked me to come to his son’s funeral; his son, Andy, was 39.
We say things like, “She was so young” or “He still had a lot of life ahead of him”. But, do we?
When I turned 50, I announced that it was the end of the first third of my life. Yep, my plan is to live to be 150 (I’ve got a lot of columns still left to write, adventures to explore and lives to impact). Most often, when I say my number to people, they groan and say they don’t want to live to be old and decrepit. Others say they want to make sure they’ve done something with their lives, to leave their mark behind.
Most of us worry about what will happen if we outlive our retirement savings. I hear it every day – the fear that you’ll wind up living in a van down by the river, eating cat food. Thanks to Chris Farley from Saturday Night Live for letting that little gem roam around in our heads!
But, what if you’ve hedged your bets in the wrong direction, thinking that you have so much time ahead of you, and it turns out that you’re wrong? What is the impact of putting all your focus on having enough money for the long haul, if your time (or that of someone you love) is suddenly cut short? Of course, you want to make sure your family has enough to live on. But, other than money, what will sustain them when you’re gone? And, what if your estimate is off? By a year? By a decade? By three decades?
Here’s what I learned at Andy’s funeral, 39 was too small a number and no one expected it. Neither Andy nor his dad, Jerry, my client. In advance of the funeral, Jerry and I went for a walk. Most of the walk, we talked about how damned unfair it was, how they had so much more they wanted to do together.
We talked about Andy’s obsession with baseball caps, he had quite a collection. We decided to bring all of the caps to the memorial service and the luncheon that followed, and ask those in attendance to choose a cap that reminded them of a story or memory of Andy and to share it. The stories were moving and funny and brought the colors of Andy’s life into the room, lighting up faces, melting hearts, alternating us between belly laughs and tears.
Each of those memories were like colors in the canvas of his life and the shades were amazing as they all poured into the room, each of us in rapt attention to the bits of Andy that we each had shared or were learning about for the first time. I had my own small dot of color to share from an experience Jerry and Andy and I had shared when I first did a piece of work with Jerry six years ago.
Jerry was 58 at the time and looking ahead toward retirement in ten years. He was trying to figure out what he would do with this next decade to maximize his earnings and set himself up for the long haul and a comfortable retirement. My role was to help Jerry bring additional perspectives to his decision making. I asked Jerry to write himself a letter, as if he was 68 and on the verge of retirement and to write what he thought each important person (his wife and each of his children and his two best friends) would say was their best memory from the decade leading up to his retirement. Then I asked him to share his letter with each of those people and ask them what they would change or how they could work together to make those memories come true over the next decade.
Andy heard his dad’s letter and said that what he wanted most was to be able to look back on a decade of baseball games together. Jerry and I set out a plan to make sure that happened. I met Andy when he and Jerry were in Arizona for their first Spring Training game together six years ago. We had made it a tradition to get together each year when they came out, Andy always shaking my hand vigorously and thanking me for the pleasure he was getting with his dad in this simple pastime they shared. They made five trips to Arizona together. This year, Andy died three weeks before Spring Training opened. Jerry didn’t know what he would do with the tickets this year. He couldn’t imagine going without Andy. I suggested that he invite someone else who was having trouble remembering which numbers really matter in their life.
What I saw at Andy’s funeral and the luncheon afterward was this – the number that really mattered in the room that day was the number of memories each person had of Andy that brought him to life for them when they missed him the most. Some people voiced how they wished they had just one more memory to hold on to or a little time to make just one more with him.
I’m certain that the people who will fill the aisles at Gerald Houghton’s service soon, or the one that will be held for me when my day comes, will be comforted most by the number of memories that we created of tender times, raucous laughter and simple shared pleasures. The number we put aside for retirement is important. Of course it is. But does it warrant that much more of your time and attention than the number of memories you are creating with those you leave behind? Or who might, unexpectedly, leave you? Jerry wouldn’t sacrifice one single memory of those five Spring Training trips he had with Andy and he’s cursing himself he didn’t start earlier. He always assumed he’d have more time.
Who are the five people who would miss you most if your number was up? What is the number of really rich memories they are presently holding onto that would sustain them when you are gone? Ask them to tell you what those memories are. Get specific. Are you satisfied – with either the number or the substance of those memories? If not, as you review your quarterly numbers in your business or in your retirement plan, perhaps this is the number you should be focused on improving most. I would be honored if you would read this poem below, call your best friend, and then send me a note about the plan the two of you made to make a memory together this coming quarter.
Around the corner I have a friend,
In this great city that has no end,
Yet the days go by and weeks rush on,
And before I know it, a year is gone.
And I never see my old friend’s face,
For life is a swift and terrible race,
He knows I like him just as well,
As in the days when I rang his bell.
And he rang mine but we were younger then,
And now we are busy, tired men.
Tired of playing a foolish game,
Tired of trying to make a name.
“Tomorrow” I say! “I will call on Jim
Just to show that I’m thinking of him”,
But tomorrow comes and tomorrow goes,
And distance between us grows and grows.
Around the corner, yet miles away,
“Here’s a telegram sir,” “Jim died today.”
And that’s what we get and deserve in the end.
Around the corner, a vanished friend.
By Charles Hanson Towne