Understanding Your Panic Button

September 21, 2016 Leave a comment

I have more terms of endearment for my wife than there are waves headed for the beach. And like waves, they just keep on coming.

Turn-of-the-century anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) first identified this phenomenon. People have more words for things that are most important to them. Snow is vitally important to those living within the Arctic Circle. North Alaskan Inuits have over 50 words for snow, and the Samis of northern Scandinavia have a thousand terms for reindeer.

In today’s advanced cultures, life is so complex that many of us seem to live under constant stress. So long as all of our balls remain juggled in the air, we are fine. But often they fall crashing to the ground, and we have to address the crisis. Stress is important because we can’t avoid it and we have to figure out how to alleviate it. Because stress is so important to us, we have developed quite a vocabulary to refer to these dropped balls, just as the Sami speak of reindeer:

  • The sky is falling
  • Everything has come crashing down
  • I’ve just used one of my nine lives
  • The s*** has hit the fan
  • All hell has broken loose
  • The end is near
  • I’m packed in snowball that is rolling downhill gathering more snow
  • Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket
  • SNAFU (Situation normal—all fouled up!)
  • The bottom fell out
  • My life is like a three-ring circus without a circus master
  • Everything is turned upside down
  • I’m living in a whirlwind
  • I’m feeling topsy-turvy
  • The props have fallen out from under me/us

And there are more. I’ll bet you can add to this list by posting a comment below.


Paris–Musee Rodin: La Porte de l’Enfer, photo by Wally Gobetz, 2007, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I recently wrote about “When You’re Not You.” Most people are not themselves when the bottom falls out. Those who are low in Big Five Need for Stability, or Neuroticism, are typically unaffected by life’s major stressors. It takes a prodigious amount of stress for these serene people to change behavior. That’s a minority of the population—about one in three. Good for them! But the rest of us—two out of every three—writhe as though someone were controlling us with an equalizer board turning our knobs to make us more intense in various ways. I am reminded of Auguste Rodin’s early 20th century sculpture La Porte de l’Enfer (The Gates of Hell). It depicts the Thinker posed before over 100+ figures in hell from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. The thinker represents those unaffected by turmoil—the calm one in three, while the characters in the background represent the rest of us who are affected by stress.

Most of us undergo a quantitative change under stress. We become more of what we have more of already. Each of us has traits that are stronger than others. For example, my imagination is stronger than my sociability, and my trust is stronger than my methodicalness. Under stress, being someone who is higher on Need for Stability, I become even stronger in imagination and trust. I will dream up wild escape plans and trust strangers whom I would normally keep at a distance.

To say we’re not our normal selves under major stress, I mean it in a quantitative sense, not a qualitative one. We are more intense in our salient traits[1].

  • If we are normally trusting, we become more trusting under stress.
  • If we tend towards perfectionism, under stress we become more perfectionistic.
  • If we tend to have a temper, under stress we have an even quicker trigger.
  • If sociable, more sociable.
  • If solitary, even more solitary.
  • If comfortable with the details, we wallow in them even more.
  • If competitive, then even more so.
  • If deferential, then we can become a doormat.
  • If optimistic, then we become Pollyannaish.
  • If pessimistic, then we become a doomsdayer.

So, the way we change under stress is that we become more of who we are, like a salty dish becoming more salty, a sweet dish more sugary, or a sour dish downright pungent. We change, but quantitatively, not qualitatively. In intensity, not in kind. Under stress it is as though our personality were a tongue that lost half of its taste buds and needs stronger flavors just to taste anything. Sock it to me, sock it to me. Turn up the volume.

A word to the wise: Perhaps this ramping up of who we are under stress has survival value, in an evolutionary sense. Perhaps it has worked to some creatures’ advantage to become more intense rather than different—to change how many stripes, not the kinds of stripes. Maybe fast gazelles ran even faster, clever creatures became even sneakier, when under attack. But we moderns are not always best served under stress by turning up the volume on our strengths. We need to question whether these natural tendencies serve our best interests. It might pay for us to consider not being more intense in who we are under stress, but the opposite. Maybe your sociability should yield to solitary reflection, my trust become more skeptical, and my imagination take back seat to being more practical and appreciative of the tried and true and what is known to work.

We are not gazelles who always need to run faster to escape the leopard. We are humans who can pause to reflect and consider our options. We don’t have to do it alone. Partners make great stress busters. In lieu of a partner, try aerobic exercise to find your calm spot that is conducive to problem solving.

[1] For a summary of the exploratory research that supports this statement, email me (pjhoward@centacs.com) for “State of Trait Levels under Stress”, by Bennett, Ey, and Howard, CentACS, 2015.

What Does Meaning Mean?

September 16, 2016 3 comments

Give me a break! That was my first thought when I read these passages in a scholarly article:

  • “How do students make meaning when they explore their strengths?”
  • “Does their meaning-making influence their daily lives?”
  • “Identify your strengths and give them meaning.”
  • “Enabling a deep analysis of personal meaning-making…”
  • “Depending on individual meaning-making, etc….”
  • “…reflection and other meaning-making processes.”
  • “…which leads to a more meaningful
  • “This can be a complex meaning-making experience.”

Labyrinth, by brainwise, 2005, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Labyrinth at Columcille Megalith Park, Bangor, PA)


What do all these uses of “meaning” mean? For me, they are undefined jargon—terms used by a writer who cannot find a more concrete way to say what is on their mind. But “mean” and “meaning” are perfectly good, simple, and concrete words until they get elevated to the clouds and semantic obscurity. “Mean” comes from the Old English “mænan,” which is defined as to intend, to have in one’s mind. When we ask the meaning of something, we are saying we don’t know the definition of a word someone has used (What does expialidocious mean?), the purpose of a behavior (What is the meaning of that glare?), or what a written or spoken message was supposed to communicate (I heard/read what you said/wrote, but I don’t know what you mean!).

I suppose that the writer of the above bullets was referring to the degree to which an individual derived value from an experience, or how they reacted to it. What were they feeling inside? What do they know now that they didn’t know before? What did it make them think of? I am reminded of “Sentence Completions”–a facilitator’s guide to helping participants report to one another how they reacted to a shared experience. Let us say that you show a film about prejudice to a group. As a way of helping the individuals evaluate that experience and speak about it with the others, the facilitator might ask them to complete one or more of these sentence stems:

  • I learned that I…
  • I realized that I…
  • I was pleased that I…
  • I was displeased that I…
  • I was surprised that I…
  • I rediscovered that I…
  • I noticed that I…
  • I re-learned that I…
  • I was amused that I…
  • I was saddened that I…
  • I regret that I…
  • I look forward to…
  • I wish I had more…
  • I wonder if…
  • I wonder why…
  • I wonder about…
  • I wonder whether…
  • I wonder when…
  • I wonder how…
  • I plan to…
  • I am optimistic that I…
  • I am pessimistic about…
  • I wish I could change…
  • I wish I had…
  • I need to…
  • I want to…
  • I was perplexed about…
  • I’m planning to contact…
  • I need more…
  • I need less…
  • I will never…

values-toolkitIf someone is unable to fill in any of these incomplete sentences, then it is probably safe to conclude that they did not find the film experience “meaningful.” This list, incidentally, is taken from my book The Values Toolkit: Application Manual for The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work (Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, 2016). It is an activity called “Sentence Completions” and is based on a similar activity popular in the Values Clarification literature in the 1970s.

values-at-workSo when we think about asking someone whether or not they had a meaningful vacation, date, interview, trip, worship, or some other kind of experience, what we really mean (i.e., intend) is to ask them what they enjoyed, learned, hated, what was the high point/low point, and so forth. Did they have an emotional reaction or a cognitive gain? Or both?

Rather than ask whether something is meaningful to someone, try getting more specific. As in, now that you have read this blog, rather than my asking you whether or not it was meaningful for you, I will ask you: Was it worth your time to read this blog? If so, in what way? If you have trouble answering, refer to the sentence stems above!

Driving Happiness

August 31, 2016 Leave a comment

Happiness is more like a car, less like a building.

I have written elsewhere that five modes of positive being are as good or better than happiness itself—

  • Goals—making progress towards a goal
  • Fit—having goals that build on who you are, not who you are not
  • Flow—having goals that are challenging, but not too much so
  • Altruism—having goals that entail service to others
  • Relationships—pursuing goals in a way that builds high quality relationships

Some would put these five elements, or some other similar assortment of happiness “ingredients,” into a hierarchical arrangement, much like a building with floors. According to these theorists, you must satisfy one element before you can proceed to the next, and so on, until you reach the highest element—the pinnacle of happiness.

This is not my approach. I consider each of the five elements effective at achieving a sense of subjective well-being in and of itself. Of course, if one engages in all five, or a combination of the five, the payoff would be greater.

Destination Management, 2008 CC BY 2.0

Destination Management, 2008, DD BY 2.0

Rather than thinking of these elements hierarchically, like a building with five floors, I suggest we think of them as a vehicle—car, train, bicycle, bus, airplane…. Every vehicle needs a destination—a goal. Without a destination, the vehicle lacks a purpose. Unless one uses the vehicle to make progress towards a goal, why have the vehicle?

Every vehicle needs fuel to power it to its destination. For me, the equivalent of fuel in this analogy is the degree to which a person’s strengths are engaged in pursuit of their goal—their “fit.” To the degree that one’s salient traits, abilities, values, experiences, and physical experiences are engaged, a person will be more motivated, more energized, in pursuit of their goal.

The other three elements are like adjustments we can make in pursuit of our goals. We achieve flow—that sense of being totally absorbed in the moment—by taking on goals that are neither too easy nor too difficult. If bored, increase the challenge of the goal. If frustrated, decrease the challenge or increase your skill. We achieve service in goal pursuit by choosing goals that have a positive impact on others. This could be achieved by a wide range of emphases—from relieving misery to entertaining others. We achieve relationship quality in goal pursuit by involving others in our goals in a way that allows others to be fulfilled by our goal pursuit as much as we are—sharing, intimacy, interdependence, and all that.

Where are you going? What fuel will you use to get there? How will it positively impact family, friends, customers, co-workers, and citizens at large? How will you avoid frustration and boredom? How will you build high quality relationships during the journey?

A Note on Chilling: One of my teammates vetted this piece yesterday, saying “Excellent blog. However, there’s nothing like just chilling out and not worrying about goals and such.” I agree. On the other hand, there’s no chilling out like an activity that is characterized by fit, flow, relationships, or altruism. Chill by engaging one of your salient strengths—for me, that would be something that employed my imagination, love of complexity and analysis, or passion for beauty, especially music. Chill by doing something that is neither boring nor frustrating, but in flow. I chill by reading, so don’t read boring and don’t read excess complexity. Chill by hanging with a friend or pet and furthering the relationship. Chill by visiting someone who needs attention—take a bucket of whiskey sours to someone who’s moving into a new house and have a drink with them. Fit, flow, relationships, and altruism are fine ways to chill!

Managing Micromanagers

August 24, 2016 1 comment

“Get off my back—I can’t fly when you are weighing me down!”

Such is the lament of the underling suffering from micromanagement—the uninvited incursion by a manager into the how to’s and wherefores of a subordinate’s day. Just last week a client asked me, “How do I get her off my back? I’ve about had it.”

The problem with managing micromanagers is that their motives—the needs they are satisfying by micromanaging—vary among individuals. I call this a “multi-source behavior”—a phenomenon I did a series on recently (“Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” or, “What You See Isn’t Always What You Get”). Just as smiles don’t always convey liking, micromanaging doesn’t always convey judgment on the employee’s work. Hence, one needs to address micromanaging based on the trait, or combination of traits, that drive the manager to take over your wheel while driving.

You begin the process by understanding their trait profile. We use the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0, which provides information on 23 subtraits of the Five-Factor Model. Here I highlight the traits that, in my experience, tend to lead a manager into pastures best left alone (names of the actual WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0 dimensions are italicized):

The Micromanager spaceship, Software Testing Club, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,

The Micromanager Spaceship, Software Test Club, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

  • High anxiety (N1+, high worry). Some individuals live out their days in perpetual fear of less than desirable results. This was true before they were promoted into management, and it continues after their elevation. An effective way to manage one’s boss’s anxiety is through active listening—as in, “You feel doubtful that my approach will lead to the right results—is that right?” And keep listening, paraphrasing, asking narrative questions (Where, How, When, What, Who, Which…). Anxiety is often calmed by talking it out, as discovered through brain research.
  • Low trust (E5-, low trust of others). Some are born skeptical of others, and it isn’t going to change…much. The key to avoiding the crushing feeling of being mistrusted is to understand that it is not personally directed at you—micromanagers typically mistrust everyone! I know that doesn’t excuse it, and it doesn’t make it hurt any less when you hear their mistrust of you, but in your rational self you can tell yourself that you’re not being singled out for special treatment of the mistrust variety. Internally laugh it off and say (silently) to yourself, “Yeah, this is just Barb being Barb” (or Barb sending barbs!)
  • Detail orientation (O4-, low scope). Some can’t see the forest for the trees—they love to wallow in the details. And, if you don’t play that game, it can be infuriating. On the other hand, if you are a big picture person, you may find that a detail person can become a partner, whereby they help complete your where that you didn’t have the patience to dot every “I” and cross every “t” for. Often individuals are promoted into management because they were best at handling the details of their job, and now they are mishandling (or overhandling) the details.
  • Personal agenda (A1-, low others’ needs). Some are more concerned with getting their personal priorities met than addressing the priorities of their associates, subordinates, or customers. It is all about them. When this is the case, ask them what is so important about their involvement, so that you can help to shape your work in a way that helps to address their priorities. If their priorities conflict with yours, then discover their motives AND share your motives in order to negotiate an agreeable compromise.
  • Competitive aggression (A2-, low agreement). Some people just have to win, to have the last word, to perhaps even put others down. They can be real pills, a cod-liver-oil-type-of-foul-tasting-pills. Like mistrust, it is not personally directed—it is just who they are. Normally it is testerone-driven, so approach them at a time when they are lowest in testosterone (after they’ve been defeated at something. Men begin their day with high testosterone levels that gradually decrease throughout the day, with lowest levels in the evening. Work at home in the mornings and go to the office after lunch? Just kidding. Women are highest in testosterone around ovulation time, so wait a week or so after a particularly difficult incursion before approaching them again.
  • Pride (A3-, low humility). Goeth before the fall, right? Pride is associated with wanting to look good based on the sterling work of one’s team. Some micromanagers hover over subordinates because they want to shine after the work is done. Begin as assignment from them by asking what their standards are for success. Make it a joint effort for achieving star status, yet be prepared that they may take credit for your work.
  • Assertiveness (A4-, low reserve). Some managers just talk a lot. It is not that they are anxious, dubious, competitive, or any of the other traits we’ve mentioned, but that they just can’t keep their mouths shut. Talkativeness can come across as micromanaging. I once had a manager who went on and on. I tried establishing false time limits, as in “Yes, I can meet with you now, but I need to go take a call in ten minutes.” It worked.
  • Perfectionism (C1+, high perfectionism). This is probably the most common motive for micromanaging—the obsessive need for every output to be flawless. Buy the person a copy of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice for their birthday. It is about maximizers and satisficers. Hopefully, your micromanager will learn to be less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer.

All of these traits have the potential to appear in micromanagers. At CentACS (Center for Applied Cognitive Studies), we especially track Low Trust of Others, Low Scope, and High Perfectionism in our Consultant’s Report.


Leaders Can Be Made, If Not Born

August 17, 2016 1 comment

One can be born to be a 7-foot NBA center, but one cannot be made into one. Or? Look at the Dutch, who have an unusually tall population and who also are known for their unusually heavy consumption of calcium (milk, cheese, and their kin). Clearly most human behavior has a largely genetic component, but there is always, well, almost always, room for the environment to play a small part.

Research reveals ideal Big Five trait levels for leadership. Across all leadership situations, followers need their leaders to be calm in a crisis (low Need for Stability), an active communicator (high Extraversion), strategically visionary (high Originality/Openness), sufficiently tough to say no when necessary (low to mid Accommodation/Agreeableness), and focused on the objective (high Consolidation/Consciousness). For short, I refer to this profile as N-E+O+A-/=C+. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” exemplifies these qualities. Here the poet summarizes the qualities of his leader:

One equal temper (N-) of heroic hearts (E+),
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will (C+)
To strive (A-), to seek (O+), to find (O+), and not to yield (A-).
Ulysses Nick Thompson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.jpg

Ulysses, by Nick Thompson, from early Roman sarcophagus. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But here’s the rub: Few of us are born with this temperament. Consider the odds: 1 in 3 are born N- (the bottom third of the normal distribution), 1/3 are born E+, 1/3 O+, 1/3 A-/+ (upper half of the low range of A plus the bottom half of the midrange of A), and 1/3 are born C+. The probability of being born with all five of these trait levels in one person is 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3, or one in 243. You would be correct to infer from this that, in a company of 200+ employees, there are many leader/managers who are misfits for their role. What are they to do?

I recently discussed this dilemma with an associate in Thailand. He was wondering whether our ideal leader formula might be too stringent a criterion for leader identification. He had received pushback from his clients, questioning the validity of the formula.

Here’s my explanation. Few people are ideally suited for their roles. Everyone must compensate, or adapt, in some way that is not totally natural for them. For example, in my role as research and development officer, I must be attentive to details. However, my temperament is not detail-oriented. I prefer the big ideas. But I must attend to details if I am to do my job, just as the introverted mad scientist must adapt and act extraverted at parties in order to schmooze with deep pockets and land funding for projects. We must all adapt in some way, except for the few, the 1 in 243, who are natural fits.

Leaders who are missing one or more of the ideal trait levels have three options. All are based on 1) self-awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses (gained through an assessment process), and 2) a willingness to find ways to compensate for one’s weaknesses.

  1. Choose the context. Not all leadership demands are equal. Some followers require more communication (E+) than others, as in sales teams needing more chat than a laboratory of research chemists. Put an E+ in a research lab and you have a bull in a china shop. The point: Find a context that needs what you offer, trait-wise. If you are prone to stress (N+), and you really want (or need) to lead, then find a context that is relatively stress-free (e.g., managing a gift shop rather than managing a hospital emergency room). The ideal leader trait levels are averages, and that means that in many situations more extreme levels—both higher and lower—can be effective.
  1. Embrace interdependence. Self-awareness is critical for this option. Interdependence means leaning on one another by acknowledging that others’ strengths can compensate for my weaknesses. My company is a team of ten. Not one of us exhibits all five of the ideal leader trait levels. However, on our leadership team of three, all five trait levels are present—distributed among the three of us. Jane has the N-, O+, and A-, Lisa has the O+,E+, A-, and C+, and I have the O+ (that’s about all, I fear—I’m not very leaderly!). In our meetings, I tend to brainstorm, while Lisa serves as evaluator. Lisa provides hard data for tough decisions, while Jane finds ways to circumvent constraints. Lisa and I both worry about doomsday, while Jane is as calm as a hibernating bear. We all value our differences and acknowledge that we each bring something necessary to the table, like proteins, fats, and carbs. You bring the tomatoes, you over there bring the mayo, and I’ll bring the white bread.
  1. Retain a coach. A coach in the leadership world is someone who can offer the leader suggestions on how to achieve one’s objectives. This could be anyone whom the leader trusts, from business or life partner to a professional psychologist or business coach. I was once engaged as a coach to the managing partner of an architecture firm of 80+ associates. The managing partner was concerned that associates complained about the quality of his meetings. The manager was quite introverted and hated meetings. I suggested he ask one of his more extraverted department heads to facilitate the meetings, and that the manager sit in the back of the room and serve as a resource throughout the meeting. Problem solved. In the case of Ulysses, his self-awareness made him aware that he lacked the steel nerves (N–) and rigid focus (C++) to resist the seductive sirens. Some coach—his #2 perhaps—may have suggested that he rope himself to the mast and plug his ears to bolster his resistance. Disaster averted. Whether a “coach” nudged him in the direction of acknowledging the weakness and using an adaptive strategy, or whether Ulysses figured it out on his own, this required self-awareness and interdependence.

Just because we are not a 1 in 243 natural leader, that does not mean we cannot lead. If we wish to lead, or find ourselves having to lead, we have these three options to be optimally responsive to our followers’ needs. People need a leader who is strong in will with an equal temper and strong in heart to strive, seek, and find, and not to yield. If all of these qualities are not in one person, adapt or look elsewhere.

Beauty, Billions, and Brains

August 10, 2016 Leave a comment

My search for summer reading led me to a first novel by Stuart Rojstaczer (ROYCE-teacher)–The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin, 2014). Hadn’t heard of it, but it sounded intriguing—a fictional, brilliant, female, University of Wisconsin mathematician named Rachela Karnokovitch was dead, and brainy mathematicians from around the were globe sitting shiva. Much of the story dealt with the difficulty of brainy people letting their abilities shine in public, with many, especially women, preferring to hide their smarts.

Woman Thinker-Stanley Zimny

Rachela’s son, Sasha, also a mathematician, at one point mused about what it meant to be an intellectual—someone who uses mental acuity to guide their life rather than acting only on impulses, faith, and whims. Such intellectual activity entailed asking for definitions, evidence, facts, and their ilk. Think of it as critical thinking.


One passage struck me as important to share. Sasha, given to comparing American and eastern European culture, mused about how persons with money and beauty are encouraged to go public with their gifts, while persons with brains are discouraged:

To Americans, the outward display of intelligence is considered unseemly. The Donald Trumps of the world can boast about their penthouses and Ferraris, their women can wear baubles the size of Nebraska, and no one says boo. If you have money, you’re almost always expected to flaunt it. But intellect? This is something else entirely. Women, especially, are supposed to play dumb. One of the richest men in America has said publicly that if your SAT score is too high, find a way to sell 200 points. Supposedly you don’t need them.
This inability of Americans to value intellect is, to me, maddening. If someone possesses physical beauty, they will not be cloistered or hidden in dark shadows. No, they are expected to be the source of pleasing scenery to others. We are not frightened in this country by beauty. We celebrate it, as we should. But what about beautiful brains, the kind that can create amazing worlds out of nothing but thoughts, that can find a way to intricately bond elements of our lives and our ideas that conventional wisdom tells us are inert? Why should anyone hide this intellect ever? No. F—-g boring financiers like Warren Buffett. If you have a high score on your SAT, don’t sell a single point. In fact, find a way to get smart enough to achieve a perfect score. There is no such thing as unnecessary beauty, whether it be physical or intellectual. (Kindle location 3401)

I am reminded of E. O. Wilson’s comment that the world needs more citizens who require evidence before making decisions, that it is not differences in politics and religion that entail strife, but differences in the willingness to think critically rather than to uncritically follow a leader. Said another way, we need to celebrate intellect, not hide it. Don’t be timid in asking questions and searching for evidence. It is a rich, beautiful thing.

Leaving Stuff Behind

I’d like to leave more than a tombstone for folks to remember me by.

German-American psychologist Erik Erikson wrote of the importance of generativity—of leaving something for future generations to value and remember us by. Something tangible that affirms our life has meaning for others after all is said and done. Our legacy. Recent happiness research confirms that working towards leaving something positive for others to remember us by provides us with a positive emotional boost.

Tombstone William Allen, Image Historian, 2007 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tombstone, William Allen, Image Historian, 2007. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Summer is opportune for working on our legacy. Whether on vacation or just chilling in the shade, the time is ripe for thinking about, choosing, and beginning work on what we will leave for those after us to remember our values, idiosyncrasies, skills, and so forth. What are the elements of your legacy, and how far along are you in making it real and lasting? Just this week Michael Jordan has added another element to his—a $500,000 investment in literacy. Just last night I added an eight inch plank to the hull of my wooden model of the 1492 caravelle Santa Maria—certainly a more modest gift for my grandchildren, but nonetheless satisfying as a small way of being remembered (unless it gets crushed, of course!).

Just in case you’re not already engaged in building your legacy, here is a list of some well-known forms of legacy, and also some that perhaps you’ve not thought of as such:

  • Writing a book of any sort
  • Writing a family history and putting it in one’s home town library
  • Building a cradle or a doll house
  • Constructing a scrap book or photo album, whether on paper or digitally (I have 13 Power Point photo albums!)
  • Painting a portrait of a family member(s)—or having someone else paint/draw them
  • Endowing a chair in a university, symphony, or…
  • Founding a scholarship
  • Creating an extended family mail list and sharing it with everyone in the family
  • Writing a song or other piece of music
  • Collecting family recipes and publishing them (or recipes from your religious group, scout organization, book club, etc.)
  • Designing a garden for public viewing and nurturing it to life
  • Sculpting something
  • Interviewing (and recording and transcribing) everyone in your family or circle for possible use by you or someone else in writing a family history
  • Write a poem or story or song to be read (or sung) on special occasions—Thanksgiving, July 4, Bastille Day…
  • Creating a video documentary of your family or organization
  • Contributing money towards having something named after you or your family
  • Building a mountain cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Building a beach or lake cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Write and enact a law or policy that the next generation will attribute to you with pride
  • Make costumes, ornaments, or other craft collections that will benefit others
  • Endow in your family’s name a permanent summer camp scholarship for a youth who otherwise would not be able to attend camp
  • Keep a personal/family diary, such that others may read it after your time is up
  • Build a Little Free Library for your neighborhood (littlefreelibrary.org)
  • Plan and build a sports or exercise arena of some sort—ball field, tennis court, and so forth
  • Through interviews and other media, collect stories from your family (or other organization) and write them up as an anthology. Start with the most senior members, and get as much detail as possible. Perhaps do group interviews, as in several cousins recalling stories about their parents/grandparents
  • Start a business or non-profit or social club that will continue indefinitely in association with your family or friends
  • Organize and start an annual family reunion
  • Build your family tree—consider using an online tool such as Ancestry.com
  • Write your autobiography, or dictate it to a youth who needs a class, scouting, or other project (as in the Senior Project)
  • Do the taxidermy thing and create a stuffed wall mounting to look down on future generations
  • Design and make a set of clothes for your grandchild’s doll(s)
  • Get a book like The Big Book of Whittling and Woodcarving or The Foxfire Book and make toys, statues, games, pony tail holders, and so forth to leave with your family or friends.
  • Create your family medical history, and distribute it to family members so that they may use your information as a starter for their own medical histories to leave on file with their family doctor
  • Get your spit tested for DNA (23andMe, Family Tree DNA, etc.) and share with your family your/their ancestry
  • Prepare your will thoughtfully—my mother made a list of all her possessions and valued items, then had each of her seven children, in turn from oldest to youngest, select what they wished for their own upon her demise
  • Knit afghans or piece together quilts for those close to you and/or for those in need
  • Win trophies for competitions in your special field, whether a Pulitzer Prize or a neighborhood tennis ladder
  • Preserve your scouting or military uniform or wedding dress or christening gown as a wall mount
  • Write a script for a play or some kind of event that documents and celebrates the history and characters of your neighborhood—record it and write it up
  • Start a neighborhood festival—the North Bronx Jubilee, or some such
  • Have an exchange student and continue the relationship after their year is up
  • Record your children’s/grandchildren’s voices once a year from birth onward, so that they have a record of the evolution of how their voice has changed over time
  • Collect stories and anecdotes about a favorite family pet or farm animal, and prepare them as a book, scrapbook, audio file, Power Point presentation…
  • Organize and execute a neighborhood event that will continue after you’re gone—e.g. Will and Gertrude’s Annual Halloween Wiener Roast for Amity Avenue (or South Fork Creek rural area)
  • Finance someone’s education (university, trade school, apprenticeship, professional/graduate school) who might otherwise not be able to pursue such

To get the most satisfaction from creating your legacy, choose something that expresses one or more of your values (see The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work) and incorporates one or more of your Big Five personality traits (see The Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work or The Owner’s Manual for Personality from 12 to 22). And, to read more about how this fits into your overall happiness set point, read The Owner’s Manual for Happiness.

Pick one or more and get going! And enjoy the process. Leave more than a tombstone…