By Ron Culberson. With a master’s degree in social work, Ron Culberson spent the first part of his career working in a large hospice organization as a clinical social worker, middle manager, and senior leader. As a speaker, humorist, and author of "Do it Well. Make it Fun.The Key to Success in Life, Death, and Almost Everything in Between", he has delivered more than 1,000 presentations to associations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporations. His mission is to change the workplace culture so that organizations are more productive and staff are more content. He was also the 2012-2013 president of the National Speakers Association and is a recognized expert on the benefits of humor and laughter.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think my life would be complete until I was famous. I’m not exactly sure why I thought fame was a worthy goal. Perhaps curing cancer, inventing the internet, or even creating a way to have healthy teeth without flossing would have been worthwhile endeavors. Seeking fame for fame’s sake seems a tad bit shallow.
Nonetheless, as a teenager with no fear of failure and a total lack of worldly knowledge, I devised a plan to become famous. I did an inventory of my skills and determined several key attributes. I was funny. I was good at performing in front of other people. And I had memorized all of Steve Martin’s albums. So, I decided to be Steve Martin. I don’t mean that I had planned to become Steve Martin. I just figured that I could perform his act for any group that couldn’t afford him. The act was very good and I was very cheap. It was a perfect formula for success. I couldn’t imagine what would stand in my way.
At this point, many of you are wondering how I even got into college. It’s a valid conundrum. Amazingly, I attended the University of Virginia, one of the top public schools in the country. But since I grew up in a very rural and impoverished part of the state, I believe my acceptance to The University had something to do with a quota system for students from the very rural impoverished part of the state where I grew up. However, that’s a discussion for another blog. Suffice it to say that my plan to be Steve Martin, while in many ways simplistically brilliant, did not materialize. And in hindsight, I suspect we can all breathe a sigh of relief. In fact, I’d probably still be in litigation.
So, without the need to purchase a second white suit and more rabbit ears, I took the non-famous path of attending college and working in a variety of interesting jobs. In the late 80’s, I started speaking at conferences because I had developed a presentation on “Humor in the Workplace.” I was still funny in a not-at-all-like-Steve-Martin way, and my message of work-life balance was something people would actually pay for. Ironically, after getting some traction with this topic, I thought I might actually achieve some level of fame after all. This idea was reinforced during one of my early engagements when I spoke at a conference in rural Maine. The event was held at a local bowling alley and conference center. The marquee out front read, “Welcome Ron Culberson” and “Try Our New 7-10 Split Nachos.” As I drove into the parking lot, I was convinced that this was a sign (literally) that I had finally arrived and perhaps one day, my name would be in lights at a bowling alley and conference center in Las Vegas. Again, I refer you to the fact that I probably had help getting into college.
Well, my name didn’t appear on any more marquees. And while I’ve enjoyed a long fulfilling career, my path to success did not lead to fame. That being said, I do occasionally run into people who say, “Oh, I’ve heard of you.” But, let’s be clear. I do not have paparazzi in front of my house and I’ve never been recognized in the produce section of the grocery store. I have, on occasion, run into someone who knows me in the beer section, however. Maybe that counts for something.
Anyway, while I no longer have the desire to pursue fame, I do still question my ultimate life goal. One day, while I was pondering this very idea in of all places, the produce section of the grocery store, I remembered the many funerals I had attended when I worked in hospice care. Some were packed to the brim with people wanting to pay their respect to the deceased. It occurred to me that having hundreds of people attend my funeral would be a great goal to pursue. It would not suggest that I was famous but it sure would show that I was popular, right?
When you think about it, a funeral is a great reflection of someone’s life. Unless, of course, it’s done poorly. I once attended a funeral where the officiant kept referring to the deceased by the wrong name. Who does that? If there is one simple bit of information that anyone can capture during the post-death, pre-funeral planning phase, it’s the dead person’s name. I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s usually printed right there on the program. Geez.
As I contemplated this new goal of a packed funeral, I realized that there could be a problem with my plan. You see, I come from a family with good genes. My parents lived into their 90’s. So conceivably, I might outlive many of the people who would have attended my funeral. To me, the risk of a poorly attended funeral would be a huge letdown after a lifetime of pursuing a standing-room-only sendoff.
And that brings me to a weirdly coincidental experience I had a few weeks ago. One of my volunteer roles is to operate the camcorder for my church. I record the weekly church services and occasionally record a special event or funeral.
Recently, I operated the camcorder at the funeral of a woman who had attended our church. She did not have any family but a handful of friends attended the funeral. Eight years before her death, this woman had started showing signs of dementia. With no family available, her friends became her support system. They assisted her around the house and kept an eye on her diminishing mental condition. Eventually, she needed more support and these same friends helped her transition to the memory care unit of a local nursing home. However, they never abandoned her. Even after she moved, they remained committed to her care and helped with her legal and financial responsibilities.
As I listened to several of these friends speak during the service that day, it occurred to me that this might be a better goal for my life—to have friends who would take care of me when I am no longer able to care for myself. I got excited by the idea and immediately made a mental list of the people who would be the best choices for my support system. I figured I needed to start grooming them for this very important role.
Then, it hit me. I had it all wrong. My goal in life should not be focused on luring a group of people to be my caregivers. Instead, maybe I should be the type of person who cares for others. If I am able to support a family member, a friend, or a neighbor, then fame and the number of people who attend my funeral would be moot—because, at that point, I would have already achieved my goal.
In the end, perhaps that’s what it’s all about for each one of us—for life to not be all about us! That’s such a profound concept, it might actually make me famous. Wink.
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