Pedaling and Pondering: Résumé Virtues and Eulogy Virtues

Immediately prior to setting out on a late afternoon bike ride yesterday, I started reading The Road to Character, by David Brooks. Within the first sentence, I was intrigued by a concept he presented: Résumé Virtues differentiated from Eulogy Virtues. Brooks defines résumé virtues as “the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.” He describes eulogy virtues less concretely as “the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”

Reading those words when I did, right before I got on the bike, was fortuitous, because I was excited to ponder the contrast and connections between the two types of virtues, and I do my best thinking on the bike.

How are these two types of virtues different? Are both categories even “virtues”? How are they linked to each other? My mind raced with these questions as I pedaled north out of town and for the next 15 chilly miles.

I think of my résumé virtues as achievements and selling points—qualities that might be evident from perusing my résumé, like degrees, grades, breadth of experience, writing ability and attention to detail. These points tell only a very superficial story about who I am, about who any of us is.

Many personal development authors and speakers recommend considering what we would want to be said in our eulogy as a guide for managing life’s choices. I have thought about this in the past, but contemplating the juxtaposition of résumé and eulogy virtues carried this idea a step further for me.

On my bike, I decided that eulogy virtues, unlike tangible selling points, tell the deeper story. It seems to me that they consist of both our strengths and our values. While résumé virtues are fairly concrete, eulogy virtues are more elusive and strike me as somewhat aspirational.

My core values are compassion, integrity, excellence and fitness. I aspire to “own” these as lived virtues, as qualities of character that someone might mention in my eulogy. But, can I claim them as virtues, when they are subjective and qualitative? Those characteristics that I consider my strengths serve as tools for living my values, and I believe that I have a responsibility to employ them to the best of my ability in the service of a life that reflects what is most meaningful to me. But, how do I know if I have achieved this? Unlike a diploma that is objective evidence of completing the requirements for a degree, eulogy virtues can only be felt—by the possessor of those virtues and by the witnesses to those virtues.

It occurred to me on the bike that résumé and eulogy virtues are intimately connected. For instance, in my own case, my commitment to excellence, my love of learning and my perseverance allowed me to accomplish academic goals. So, values and strengths—eulogy virtues—led to résumé virtues. In a different kind of relationship, I believe that some of my eulogy virtues—namely, integrity and honesty—have contributed to what could be interpreted (sometimes by myself) as deficits of my résumé. My dedication to those principles and to resonance in my own heart has led me down a path that has possibly undervalued upward mobility in career status and income.

So, which matters more—résumé virtues or eulogy virtues? Can they exist independently of each other? I think the answers to both those questions depend on the person. Ultimately, I believe I have emphasized eulogy virtues, although those have influenced my résumé virtues. Someone else may have emphasized résumé virtues and amassed more external success in doing so. Even without a conscious emphasis, however, I think that individual’s eulogy virtues will still have guided her or him toward the path of his/her résumé virtues. The difference, I think, is that someone who emphasizes résumé virtues may be less aware of, and/or concerned with, eulogy virtues. Living the introspective life that I do, I can’t put myself in those shoes. So, I can’t know which life is richer, happier or more meaningful. I can only surmise that a person emphasizing eulogy virtues, as I believe I do, makes a more conscious (not necessarily better, just more conscious) choice about what virtues he/she will live, while a person who has focused on achieving résumé virtues, may have her/his eulogy virtues identified posthumously by others. A eulogist who witnesses that person’s résumé virtues may discern and then assert that the individual embodied commitment, drive, determination and diligence, for example. I wonder if that person would have said the same things about her/himself.

Ultimately, I cannot directly control what is said in my eulogy, and I am honestly less concerned about what someone else chooses to say than what I can say about myself when I examine my own life. I think both résumé virtues and eulogy virtues can be indicators of valuable contributions in the world. Maybe I am just looking for consolation and justification of perceived weaknesses when I declare that eulogy virtues matter more to me. Or maybe seeking that justification is actually evidence that the résumé virtues are more important to me than I openly acknowledge.

I did not end my bike ride with tidy, clear answers about eulogy and résumé virtues, but I did enjoy the time to think, and I hope that these concepts will continue to crystallize for me because I think both types of virtues comprise important aspects of a whole person. I love it when books make me think and when cycling provides me with the opportunity to do so!