The Story Economy Blog

A Birthday Reflection

birthday giftYesterday was my birthday, which marked 41 years the particular collection of atoms called Judi Ketteler has been on the Earth! It’s crazy because I look 29, right?

Anyway, I woke up reflecting on how I tend to classify “best” birthdays in terms of what gifts I received, like the mug that said “Somebunny loves you,” my sister, Claire, gave me on my 12th birthday, or the beautiful Coach purse my husband (then-boyfriend) got me on my 28th birthday. I’m not above admitting I like stuff. But yesterday, I found myself thinking not so much about what people have given to me, but what I’ve given. As in, what have I contributed to my corner of humanity?

We have the “contribution” conversation for (a) profiles of famous people, and (b) when someone dies. Why do you have to either die or be famous to take some time to ponder what you’ve contributed? Famous people are too busy being famous, and dead people are too busy being dead. It’s the non-famous, living people who have the best chance of honest reflection.

So, what have I done?

Well, I put two children on the earth. Every parent starts there. But these little people of mine are wholly unfinished. Plus, their accomplishments won’t be mine; they’ll be theirs. In one way, they are all that counts. But in another sense, they don’t count at all. They are their own atoms. I can’t hide behind my children, and pretend that’s it. So they can be on the list, but only with an asterisk.

Okay, next on the list: all the roles I’ve been good at. Good daughter, good sister, good friend, good citizen, good Catholic (a LONG time ago), good student, good girlfriend, good customer, good employee, good wife, good aunt, good mother, good writer, good volunteer, good vendor.

I like those things, except they’re just a bunch of nouns. And what is “good” anyway? The opposite of bad? (I’m pretty sure I’ve been a “bad” version of every one of those things, too.)

I want to know the things I’ve done that only I could have done. Not to congratulate myself, but to hold myself accountable to the things I still want to accomplish.

Mining for the specifics of our accomplishments is a tricky business, because it doesn’t look like how we usually think of accomplishments. As David Brooks wrote earlier this year, it’s the eulogy stuff, not the resume stuff.

If I had to go back through and find a concrete thing I did—something that only I could have done, which also represents what I want to keep doing—I’d go back to a conversation I had with my coach, circa 2012. My dad was sick, and I was struggling. Now, the main reason I hired a coach was to help me rebuild my business—and she did. But honestly, the thing I’m most grateful for is this conversation. She asked something like, “Fast forward to a time when your dad has passed and you’re looking back. What do you want to be able to say about this time? What difference do you want to have made?”

I said something about wanting to spend quality time with my parents and family. That was right, but it was only part of it. It took the weeks and months after that to really form an answer. It took doing it to see it. I want to have made the situation better, through laughter or stories or bringing people together. I want to have been a hub for connection and sharing. I want to look back and see that I was a non-judgmental, empathetic person who thought about what energy she was bringing to every interaction.

Knowing what I wanted to say about myself in advance helped me embody those things. It was about spending time with my family: that part wasn’t wrong. But physically dropping off my atoms in a space wasn’t enough. I wanted to BE a certain way.

Being the person I needed to be for myself and for my family made a difference in those years, without a doubt. They were such tough years. But also, a little bit wonderful for the connectivity and conversations and stories. I brought that in the way that only I could have.

I’ve written all kinds of copy that’s made money for people and won writing awards. I’ve successfully supported my family for seven years. I’m very proud of these things! But my greatest accomplishments have been feats of empathy and sharing and making it okay for people to stand there and be in their skin.

Those are the accomplishments I want to build on! I’ll be honest with you, this writing thing comes pretty easily to me. But channeling empathy and love when it’s more convenient to hide or be indignant? That’s hard!

So, when some county clerk in Kentucky makes me embarrassed to be a Kentucky girl, and I want to join the chorus of people responding to hate with hate, what’s less convenient (but much harder) is to (virtually) hug her and ask her who held her down, told her she was a piece of garbage, took away her power, and instilled such fear in her?

When I can’t see eye-to-eye with a sibling on an issue, and I want to lash out and ask: how are you even related to me? What serves connection better (but is much harder) is to say, you think what you think because we are each on our own journey, and I love you separate from any of that.

When I am reeling from feeling rejected or misunderstood or unappreciated, and I want to hide or beat myself up or claim victimhood or obsessively trace the email trail or mentally filed away conversations to find how I could have been so, SO stupid, what releases judgment (but is crazy hard) is to coexist with the pain and stop trying to manage or manipulate it.

I feel good about my ability to connect and tell stories. But I hope that my 40s are the decade of mastering this empathy and non-judgment business, because, wow, it’s a doozy of a task, and I’ve only just gotten started.

On your next birthday, I challenge you to have the “contribution” conversation with yourself. And do it for your company on your company’s next birthday, too. What have you done that only you could have done? What have you brought to your corner of humanity? And—most importantly—how will you keep doing it?

Then have cake.


  • Amanda

    Posted by Amanda on 09/16/15 1:18pm

    First of all, happy birthday. It's a good day to born on:) Second of all, yes. Just all around yes. I love this. I've been thinking about my legacy a lot lately, and how much more I like my life when I think of being that kind of much more I like myself. This is a good challenge, and I hope many of us don't wait until our birthdays (although mine was yesterday, too) to reflect on this and take action to become the person and make the contribution we wholly desire.

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 09/16/15 1:20pm

      Amanda, thanks for the nice comment! (Saw your FB post last night and realized we shared the same birthday!) I hear what you're saying about how much more you like yourself when you're a hub. That's a great way to think of it.

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