Thinking Out Loud: What really matters

To the Case Western Reserve University Community:

During my first year of grad school in the fall of 1972, I remember attending the first session of an organizational behavior course. When the class started, I was immediately caught off guard. Instead of giving us an introduction to the course, the professor asked me and my fellow students to write our obituaries. After a moment of utter confusion, I quickly realized that the request wasn’t a morbid joke, but that my professor was rather encouraging a moment of deep self-reflection that would help guide our professional and personal endeavors for the rest of our lives.

What do we hope to accomplish and what do we want to be remembered for? What matters when it’s all said and done? While I don’t remember what I wrote all those years ago for my premature obituary, these questions have stayed with me throughout my life. They seemed poignant back then—I had just finished three years in the military as an infantry officer and lost many friends in the Vietnam War—and they feel even more pertinent now that I’m of an age that makes thinking of the end much less abstract. I would go so far as to say that they hold significance for us all during a time when a devastating pandemic is forcing us to constantly confront our mortality. 

I have tried to answer the question of what really matters to me at different points in my life. Naturally, the response changed over time along with my shifting circumstances and priorities. But there were common themes: to love and be loved, to make a difference in people’s lives, to make the world a better place, to give back more than I received, to be a mentor and role model for my children and grandchildren, and to help those who can’t help themselves. It’s those steady values that have motivated me from a young age up until now. Of course, only time and others will determine whether I have achieved these goals.

The one thing I am sure of is that my business professor would have been pleased to know that I now like to give an exercise to my students that asks them to develop a personal statement of purpose. Beginning with the end in mind, students respond to a series of questions (adapted from Stephen R. Covey’s book First Things First) before they write a concise sentence about what they value most and see as their mission in life. The first prompt on the worksheet is this: Flash forward to your 80th birthday and think about what you would like said about you toward the end of your life. How would you want people to remember what you contributed to the world?

Whether we tap into the power of self-reflection from the vantage point of our own obituary or an 80th birthday party speech, what really matters to each of us is worth contemplating—no matter how old we are.  

Keep thinking, take care, and enjoy your weekend,

Cursive signature that reads "Scott" for Case Western Reserve Interim President Scott Cowen

Scott Cowen
Interim President