One Funeral, Two Lessons

13 Aug

I recently attended the funeral of a young man whose family we’ve known for three decades. He was killed in an accident, his life of twenty-one years cut far too short.

Ever since Brandon was young, he knew he wanted to be a chef. He loved food, loved being around the world of hospitality, and pursued the craft with great passion. In fact, he was just about to complete his training at a culinary school of some repute, and had already gotten hired by a fine local restaurant.

Among those attending his funeral were his fellow students. And they showed up dressed as he would have dressed– in their white, cleanly pressed chef smocks. They came. And when the funeral was done and it was time to share a meal, his fellow students were there to serve. To provide a repast. To bring nourishment. To offer, on a garnished plate, the love that Brandon so passionately pursued. One of his fellow students remarked about the impact Brandon had on him:

Upon graduation you are given a sash consisting of cheesecloth, butchers twine, a tasting spoon and a sprig of sage.  Each representing something different but overall symbolizing a milestone, where you leave one place and begin a life in another.  Prior to graduation you must complete a number of classes, one where you must cook a four-course menu for 8 guests in 30 minutes.  By yourself it is very tough, but with help, good help, it becomes much easier.  I called Brandon asking if he could help, and without pause he said yes.  Today at the cemetary I placed the sash given to me with Brandon; it is because of his selfless help that I was able to graduate.  My thoughts and prayers are with your family Brandon, and watch over me when I need help, though I know you will already be there.

The loss of this delightful young man is certainly a tragedy. But another tragedy is the number of people who go to work each day absent the passion and zeal Brandon had for his profession. For him, vocation and avocation were one. I see so many people who don’t feel that sense of passion and joy for what they do. To them, work is a “chore”, something to done only for as short a time as possible so they can then turn to what they view as more enjoyable, meaningful pursuits.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Brandon was a chef. That was in his heart. It was what he felt called to be. There are others, perhaps you, who would find working on your feet in a hot kitchen trying to serve a demanding, finicky public the furthest from your career dreams. That’s fine. Find the work that does call to you, that get’s you thinking every day “I’m a very lucky person to go to this company doing the kind of work I do.”

This is not, by the way, a pipe dream that came only to Brandon. There are many people who have found the work that fits them, work for which to them time seems to fly by, work where they easily grow and adapt to changing conditions, work where others seek them out as a mentor. The best companies we’ve studied in our ongoing research help employees on this journey, one that is good for everyone.

It’s out there.

The other lesson from this day, which several of us who were in attendance noted, was that “life really is short, don’t waste it”. Indeed, life is too short, and I suspect there are many out there who are wasting the precious time they have stuck in a job that, quite literally, cuts the life out of them.

I’m a fan of the movie About Schmidt, filmed here in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. The title character, played deftly by Jack Nicholson, is the kind of person I’m talking about– he hated what he did, was loathed by those with whom he worked, and quickly forgotten once he retired. Toward the end of the movie Schmidt laments:

I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?”

In his twenty-one years, Brandon made a great difference in the lives of many, in part because of his passion, his zeal, his love for his craft. Because Brandon loved his work, his life mattered even more. Don’t let your life end up as scraps on the butcher’s block– make your life into a four-course, gourmet meal.

Those are “Top-Chef-four-star-Zagat-approved” lessons. Take them.

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