Today is Jim Henson’s birthday. He would have been 77 years old. It is impossible for me to recall my childhood without recalling Kermit the Frog, my generation’s version of Jiminy Cricket. Kermit and Henson were more than a surrogate for our conscience. They were the child within that encouraged us to dream of rainbow connections and imagine what the world could be if we altered it for the better in our own way.
Tonight, I read a letter Henson wrote to his family in advance of his demise; a love letter from the grave. It is filled with that same optimism that followed Kermit.
First of all, don’t feel bad that I’m gone. While I will miss spending time with each of you, I’m sure it will be an interesting time for me and I look forward to seeing all of you when you come over. To each of you I send my love. If on this side of life I’m able to watch over and help you out, know that I will. If I can’t, I’m sure I can at least be waiting for you when you come over. This all may sound silly to you guys, but what the hell, I’m gone—and who can argue with me?
That infectious optimism—that funny and absurd meta-discourse about life—made me reflect on what I would hope that I could say upon my own demise. It goes without saying, that my first thoughts would be of my family. I hope when I’m gone that they are happy, thriving and putting their own positive mark on the world. But beyond the prosperity of my family, I hope to make other meaningful accomplishments. I hope to leave my own dent in the jalopy of life.
During a performance review a few years ago, the subject between me and my employer turned to money. We discussed incentives and goals and all the usual indicators that business school instructs you to use as objective measures of success. After a few minutes listening I said, “I’m not really motivated by money.”
My boss laughed a little uncomfortably and said, “I know. I wish you were.”
That’s when I told him what really mattered to me. You see, when my final day comes and people gather to talk about my life, I hope three things can be said. First, I hope somewhere—anywhere—a person can say they stumbled upon something I wrote and found it useful. In my head, there’s a 20 year-old boy aimlessly wandering the stacks of his college library, just as I often did, randomly picking books from the shelf to see what’s interesting. In my perfect world, that boy or girl picks up one of my books and says, “this is kind of cool.”
Second, I hope that somewhere there’s a person who could say, “that guy made a difference in my life.” Life has more meaning when you can pass something along, when you can do something selflessly that has an impact. As my friend Frances Frei would say, “make others better as a result of your presence, and have it last into your absence.” When I’m done I hope there’s at least one person who believes their life was a little better because I invested time to care and push them a bit.
Finally, I hope that when I’m eulogized they say that I was part of the team that did ___. I don’t know what ___ is, but it would mean the world to me to be a part of a team that does it well enough to be recognized. When I worked at Disney, I was fascinated by the Nine Old Men—Walt’s original animators who defined the world of feature animation so many of us loved and cherished. Each contributed in his own way, but they are remembered for what they did collectively. I hope to be part of such a team. When I go, I want people to think of me as part of those folks who did something great.
This is perhaps a morbid discussion but it raises an interesting question. What do you want to be remembered for? What message do you wish to pass on to those you leave behind? In your head, how do you imagine that your life plays out and what are you doing to make it happen?
Jim Henson said, “Life’s like a movie. Keep believing. Keep pretending.” We owe it to ourselves to follow his advice. Life is like a movie. And there’s no reason to think we can’t change the ending if we don’t like where it’s headed. We may not be able to imagine the miraculously creative worlds Jim Henson delivered to us, but we can focus on what matters and live every day as if it may be our last. We need to daydream, pretend and try things that bring us a little closer to our aspirations. When we do, we unleash the child within.