Traits, Obituaries, and Life’s Purpose

This article was originally published on The Military Leader on January 9, 2017.  Thank you to The Military Leader for continuing to publish my work!

Suddenly I am of sufficient age and experience that young people occasionally contact me in search of mentorship. Based upon my military, intelligence community, and interagency experience, they often think I can provide them a road map to the career of their dreams.

These young people ask, “How do I get a job at Department W?” “How do I get a job at Agency X?” “I am thinking of doing Y or Z, what should I do?” I typically respond by asking the young person to take a moment of pause, then I share a routine I call Traits and Obituaries.


Rather than focus on getting a job at Department W or Agency X, young people should make a list of traits they want in a job. Do they value income or service? Do they want to work somewhere that encourages creativity or stifles it? Do they want to work by themselves or in a team? Do they want to live in the U.S. or overseas? Do they want to put themselves in physical danger or remain safe? Do they like being indoors or outdoors?

After completing the list of traits, the young person should find someone who works at Department W or Agency X who can discuss what traits on the list are present at their respective department or agency. There are many a young person who have entered a job and found out their vision of the work did not match reality.


In addition to encouraging young people list the traits they want in a job, I also encourage them to write their obituary. The obituary writing exercise works best when someone says “I am thinking of doing Job Y or Job Z, what should I do?” I have the young person write an obituary as if they spent a career in Job Y and another as if they spent a career in Job Z. I then have them wait one week, read each obituary, and record their reaction to the words. This raw reaction is often the best guide. While the obituary writing exercise does get me strange looks, it is the ultimate form of backwards planning.

Here’s what my obituary writing exercise revealed:

Today Phil Walter passed away. Phil spent his formative years burning candles at both ends in the military and the intelligence community. Later, when Phil’s primary focus became his family, he chose to become a professional paper pusher and strived to be the bureaucrat that the field deserved. Phil was happiest when he was with his family or sitting at his desk, furiously typing out ideas for online publications while wearing his robot pajamas. 

There it is. Before rushing off to chase your life’s purpose, determine the activities you’ll be satisfied performing every single day…then make sure that path will give you a life worth remembering.