Lessons on Leading a Good Life from the Obituary Pages

We look at what death can teach us about living a good life, as per the findings of one inquisitive data analyst who scoured the obituary pages for clues.

Lessons on Leading a Good Life from the Obituary Pages

Data analyst and TED Talker, Lux Narayan, has uncovered many lessons from lives well-led by taking a closer look at the obituary sections of the newspaper. Narayan was struck by the fact that the death notices highlight some pretty crazy, offbeat and interesting things that people do. In a lot of cases, the things these people did in life made a difference in the world. So, while some people find the obituaries morbid, Narayan sees them as pages that celebrate the successes of humanity.

After compiling 2,000 obituaries from a 20-month period between 2015 and 2016, Narayan and his team crunched the data to distil some enlightening insights and lessons for others.

One way to achieve success: help other people succeed.

In conducting his rear-view mirror analysis of the obituaries, Narayan noticed that both famous and non-famous people were featured (the fame benchmark being whether or not someone had a regularly updated Wikipedia page). Splitting the two groups exposed a greater diversity in the professions and accomplishments of the non-famous, but what the two groups had in common is that almost everyone - famous or not - helped people in some way. In this sense, the obituaries showcased the many ways it’s possible to make an impact. 

Some of the people who became recognised through their own efforts to help others succeed include the late Reverend Rick Curry - a Catholic priest who ran writing and acting workshops for veterans and disabled people. Similarly, little known designer and urban planner, Jane Thompson, helped to revitalise derelict urban areas and preserve them by turning them into buzzing social and commercial hubs where people could congregate and do business.

It takes time to make a mark.

For the 2,000 obituaries analysed by Narayan’s team, the average age of an individual’s first major accomplishment was 37. This is despite the seemingly long list of dot-com success stories and people who became millionaires in their twenties, who tend to be the type of prodigies that fascinate humans most. Leo Beranek, for example, was an acoustic engineer who co-founded an R&D firm (Bolt, Beranek and Newman) that won a US government contract to build the first computer-based network: Arpanet. He was 55 at the time, and Arpanet just so happens to be the foundation of modern-day internet.

The age of noteworthy accomplishments varies from field to field. Athletes, for example, usually reach their peak in their twenties (or even earlier). Less the sportspeople, the average age for a first achievement from the obituaries is closer to 40. The lesson here is in the value of patience in an era of instant gratification (ironically, the internet may be to blame for this). That patience is not passive by any means, either. The men and women in the obituaries demonstrate decades filled with learning, trying, failing and persevering in the lead up to their breakthrough later in life. They got really good at something by achieving a certain level of proficiency in it, and in time, made the difference they became recognised for.

Note to parents: being an artist can be a worthy profession.

The New York Times obituaries - that are the subject of this analysis - include headlines which state a person’s name and age at the time of death. They also contain a descriptor which is a phrase that attempts to succinctly capture the achievements of the deceased in a handful of words. After examining the obituary descriptors using language processing software, the analysts found that the arts - film, theatre, literature, music, dance and fine arts - accounted for 40% of the people in the obits. This provides another perspective on what we value, and suggests that it may not all be about channelling talents into being doctors, lawyers, engineers or business executives. We might instead strive to be more like Prince who was “an artist who defied genre” or Merl Reagle “whose crossword puzzles delighted clued-in solvers”.

Our lives can have great meaning without great recognition.

Since the NYT obituaries don’t exclusively cover individuals who are in the public eye, we can learn that it is possible to do things that deserve to be remembered, even without the fanfare. For example, we may have never heard of Daniel Thompson during his lifetime, but bagel lovers have him to thank for automating the process of making the beloved dough rings.

The most fundamental lesson: humility.

The work of Narayan and his team was ultimately a fascinating testament to the kaleidoscope that is life. Reviewing the obituaries gives us a chance to learn about people whose names are not familiar, yet have made beautiful and colourful contributions to the world, showcasing the breathtaking variety of human existence. It is humbling to know that we are little cogs in the vast, diverse scheme of things.

Wrap up

There is a lot that the people immortalised in print can teach us about making a positive dent in the fabric of life. In fact, if more people lived their life trying to be famous in death, the world would be a much better place! You can start setting intentions for how you’d like to be remembered in your online Will.

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