Write Your Tombstone to Solidify Your Identity


That’s morbid, I know.

But I’m only [your age here] years old!

Still… don’t discard this dark idea like a salmon bone. Rather, consider this how this imaginative experiment can solidify your identity!

Imagine This…

You’ve entered an imaginary world in another dimension. In your pink bathrobe and bunny slippers (sorry guys), you stand on lush green grass that needs mowing. The grassy field stretches back for what seems like miles, gentle hills and valleys giving it a pleasing shape. This is no regular field though. Tombstones are everywhere! Thousands of people who have lived and died are at rest before you. Immediately in front of you, you see a slightly different tombstone. It’s blank!

You look at the concrete slab and [your name] magically appears at the top. Then comes [your birth date]. Creepy. And then… nothing. It’s as if the tombstone is waiting for your instructions.

Don’t worry about what your death date will be. You’ll figure that out later. Focus on the rest of the tombstone. What will it say? Sure, it could be something cheeky like, “I knew this would happen” or Leslie Neilsen’s classic “Let ‘er rip,” but for the sake of this exercise, make it a serious one. You might write about being a husband, wife, father, mother, daughter, son, or friend. You might write about your career. You might write about a certain cause that you were dedicated to.

Those are personal and they describe your status, but there’s something else that really defines YOU. It’s your virtues.

Virtues: The Hidden Driver of Everything

Virtues are interesting because they are extremely important, and yet, they are rarely noticed or talked about. I can’t remember the last time I was at a bar and heard, “Yeah bro, Jeff is courageous and patient.” More commonly, we talk about immediate things like the weather, sports games, and current events.

Beneath our surface level conversations and activities are virtues that we operate by, and whether or not we recognize it, they mean the world to us.

Kindness to others. Patience in calamity. Reliability in a chaotic world. Integrity in tempting spots. Boldness for fleeting opportunities. Courage to fight when afraid. Perseverance to carry your battle wounds to victory.

Pick Your Virtues!

Virtues are the core part of any person’s identity. What are the ones that connect the most with you? For the sake of simplicity, try to pick out five that best describe you. I think it will give you an increased sense of identity, and you’ll know who you are just a little bit better (which is helpful in a number of ways!).

Use this list of 70 virtues to choose your virtues. You may identify with multiple virtues, but think about which ones identify you. Aim to pick five that you are and three others you’d most like to be. It’s not important to pick exactly five and three, it’s important to aim for five and three so that you’re not overwhelmed by a list of 70! (You’ll see that I picked more in both cases because some of them tied.)

By picking five virtues you are right now, you’ve identified your life defense strategy. These are the virtues that you uphold at almost any cost. Life has a way of trying to make us into people we’re not, and we resist that in specific areas that matter to us. For example, one of my virtues is moderation, and as a result, throughout my life, I’ve resisted society’s messages telling me I need to own a bunch of stuff and get drunk all the time. By making myself aware that this is a virtue, I can defend it even better than before.

By picking three virtues you want to be, you’ve identified your life offense strategy. These are the traits that you would like to identify as before you die, but don’t currently feel like you uphold (to your acceptable standard). One of the virtues I’d like is assertiveness. It could really help me in business, in relationships, and in asserting some of the virtues I already have!

Note: when you’re choosing, don’t feel bad about picking one that makes you look good. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s healthy to know your self-perceived strengths! Do I feel weird about selecting “wisdom” for myself? Of course, but that’s my self-perception (for better or worse). Just be honest with yourself. Also, listing your desired virtues doesn’t mean you aren’t partly there! Here is my short list. 

My Current virtues: Flexibility, Sincerity, Imaginative, Moderation, Wisdom, Perseverance   

My Desired virtues: Assertiveness, Compassion, Peace, Preparedness, Tenacity

Write yours down on paper or in a word processor. Then, you’ll know a bit more about who you are and who you want to be.

(photo by Rick Payette)

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