Crucial Skills®

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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Tombstone Talk

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

Listen to Kerrying On via iTunes

I’ve often heard that on our death beds, none of us is likely to look back on our life and lament, “I should have spent more time at the office.” To be frank, I’ve known several people who should have spent more time at the office, but this doesn’t negate the point that one day, we’ll look back on our lives and assess what we did.

Research on the topic of happiness reveals that most of us have no idea about what actually causes it. In Stumbling on Happiness, author Daniel Gilbert suggests that most of us are pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy and what won’t. For instance, when you ask people which will make them happier—a bigger salary or taking a daily walk with a loved one—people generally pick the money. However, when you measure people in both conditions, more time with a loved one typically yields more happiness.

When it comes to my own happiness, I do know a couple of things. First, happiness is not a constant state that one hunts down, tackles to the ground, and possesses. You never achieve happiness; you just experience happy moments. Second, we often assume receiving recognition for our labors will bring happiness. Not to say that it doesn’t, but sometimes, it’s surprising what kind of recognition truly matters.

Last week, as I drove my nine-year-old granddaughter, Kelsee, to our house for a short visit, she asked me what kind of job I had. For a couple of minutes I talked about training and consulting while Kelsee sat quietly and listened. Eventually, I mentioned that my partners and I also wrote books. Now this got her attention. Books she understood.

“You’re an author?” she asked.

“Yes,” I explained, “that would make me an author.”

“Can I see your books?”

As soon as we arrived home, Kelsee rushed to my office to examine the books. She touched each as if it had been retrieved from a sunken treasure chest.

“Can I have some to take to school?” Kelsee asked.

“Why would you want to do that?”

“So I can put them in the school library.”

This library Kelsee spoke of, of course, would be a grade-school library. I smiled as I imagined children dressed in three-piece suits, carrying miniature briefcases, and checking out books that explain how to wield influence over challenges such as world-wide calamities and corporate failure.

“I doubt that kids your age would enjoy the books,” I explained.

It took me a while to talk Kelsee out of the idea of placing our books in her grade-school library, but eventually she accepted my advice with quiet resolve. However, she wasn’t done. A week later, when I once again drove Kelsee to our home, she struck up the following conversation.

“Grandpa, during show-and-tell last week I told my teacher that my grandfather writes books.”

“Really? And what did she say?”

“She asked who you are.”

“And what did you tell her?”

“Your name. I said that my grandfather is Kerry Patterson.”

“And then what did she say?”

“Well,” Kelsee continued, “before she could answer, Hannah—another girl in my class—shouted real loud: ‘NOT THE KERRY PATTERSON!'”

To be honest, I was a little surprised that a nine-year-old girl had ever heard of me. Surely she had me confused with somebody else.

Kelsee enthusiastically continued her story. She was obviously enjoying the moment.

“So I asked Hannah how she had heard of you and she explained: ‘My mom reads everything he writes.'”

“And what did you say to that?” I asked.

Kelsee paused for a moment, smiled wide and then said: “So—you’re familiar with his work.”

Now, that short interaction with Kelsee will never make it onto my resume. There you’ll find a chronological list of accomplishments in which I will have taken satisfaction, but you won’t find the secret of happiness. The secret of happiness lies not in the act of creating joy. The secret of happiness lies in recognizing joy when it comes.

With this in mind, here’s what I desire to have stated in my eulogy—better yet, I want it carved in bold letters at the top of my tombstone:

“So—you’re familiar with his work.”

This one moment of recognition from my granddaughter brought me happiness.

42 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Tombstone Talk”

  1. Kathy Lewis

    Just when I thought I couldnt possibly enjoy one of your stories any more than I have the dozens of others I have read, you proved me wrong.

    How heartwarming! Thank you for sharing and reminding us all that the biggest joys often come at the most unexpected small moments!

  2. John DeBoer

    Dear Kerry,

    I regularly enjoy your stories with true life meaning in them. As one of the older fellows^(62), I have also come to experience happiness in those little things that people bring to you when you do not expect it.

    Beste wishes,


  3. Ellen

    Lately, life has been hectic from all corners of my life – work is crazy, I’m experiencing health issues and my son was recently very sick. This story helps remind me, especially in the midst of the chaos, that those moments with each other are the most important things in life. Thanks for sharing your heart with so many.

  4. Jana Molnar

    Really great story, Kerry! The children may not benefit from reading the book; however, the teachers and staff could read, learn the skills, and greatly benefit.

    Also, there’s a wonderful opportunity for teachers and counselors to share with the children how to have conversations and confrontations in a safe and appropriate manner…even down to a grade school level.

    Think how much better our world would be if we taught the conversation skills to the smallest pupils, and they had a lifetime of practice.

    I’m with your grandchild…donate the books!

    On the personal side, I find that I’m sharing a lot of what I’ve learned from you. Learnings that I pass on to my own family as well as co-workers.

  5. Rock Davidson

    It is sad but true, we really do spend our the majority of our time pursuing our professions, while the most important part of our lives — our families — are second at best. Maybe we should stop and “smell the roses” often and remind ourselves the important thing of life.

  6. Lesia Stone

    Hey Kerry,
    My daughter, Bella, is nine and she loves your work! (and the Joseph and Hyrum videos as well). This morning she was watching me prep for CC1 and was as absorbed in that (before school) show as the Disney Channel! By the way, she has been singled out as a very successful and popular mediator for her 3rd grade class.

    I try to incorporate Crucial Conversations into my home every day as we juggle the many demands of children, school, activities, and family time. They see my style under stress far more than I would like; however, we have a common language in which to describe, discuss, and benchmark improvement – a little bit every day. That is your legacy to my family. Thank you.

    Vitalsmarts in grade school libraries? Not far fetched to me. These skills are precious to our children as they grow up in a world that is intense, fast, competitive, and not always forgiving. My vision for our city is to have it available to every child. Perhaps Vitalsmarts could publish a children’s series of CC1, CC2 and Influencer? If you do, I will personally buy it and hand deliver to their principals and librarians.

    Thanks again for sharing. See you at Reach ’10!
    Lesia Stone

  7. Kathleen Greer

    This story simultaneously brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my lips. I, too, pass learnings from you on to co-workers, family,friends. Your wit and wisdom are making a difference for many. In the leadership retreats that I facilitate, I purchase one of your books for each member. In discusion, the group refers back to skills learned from your books and how they have been able to apply them at work and at home. Yes…we are familiar with your work.

  8. Patricia

    As a grandparent, I so very much echo your comments and thoughts. Each moment I am fortunate to spend with my grandchildren is a joy to my heart. I know as they get older (now ranging from 13 to 4 years old) they will soon not want to be with the grandmother for their fun. But, since they have been very little I have tried to spend as much time with them as possible, so they can have conversations with thier friends and say, “My grandmother and I . . . ” Thank you for sharing your thoughts on happiness. I agree it is the ‘little instances of joy’ that need to be remembered versus searching for the elusive happiness. I believe it is much like the sunshine — if we had it everyday, would we still have such appreciation and look up to it for the warmth that it provides?

  9. Ellen McGinnis

    You absolutely should have let your granddaughter bring your books to her school for the library. Even if only one or two kids ever read them, it’s enough. The skills the books teach are vital and it’s never too early to learn them. I’m trying to teach some of the crucial conversation skills to my bickering 12 and 9-year-old children right now!

  10. Sheila Porter

    I wanted you to know that this article brought tears to my eyes. As a working mother I often struggle more with my role as mother than my role as employee. Work-Home balance seems impossible as I place so much priority on being absolute in my loyalties to employer. Perhaps it is my own personal suckers choice as I really do have a empathetic boss.

    Your article made me think of all the special moments I do share with my daughters. Most of them are as simple as the smile on my 18 month-olds face or the out-of-the-blue “I love you” from my three year old. While I notice the joy I feel on a few of these occassions, I am positive I miss the majority. Thank you for the reminder.

  11. Christy Futrell

    I loved your thoughts. When I saw the title, I aked myself what could this be. I’m glad that I clicked, opened the email and read your words. From my experience, I can say when it’s all said and done on earth I trully believe it’s those type of moments that you had with your grandaughter that you are going to value most. One year ago today my father was on his death bed, telling story after story with his wife and three kids. We hung on ever word that my father could get out all the way up until April 22 at 6:30pm, when his last words were to my mother…Honey, I love you.
    Those last two days and especially that day prior, it was all about family, believe me… it wasn’t worries of him wishing he had been more succesful, it was just about us, how much he loved us, and thanked us for all the love that we had shown him and each other over the years.
    Oh, how we can let life slip by… I pray that I do not do that, and that when there are challenges in the workplace and mountains to overcome, that I can do it with a ture grace, and remember at the end of the day what is most important in life.
    Thannk you for your words, I enjoyed them.

  12. Kay

    Brilliantly said! I put a link to your article on my LinkedIn page – I think this is an incredibly important message that I’d like to share with all of my friends and colleagues. Thank you, Kerry, for pointing out what really matters.

  13. Julia Simmons

    I’m with a couple of the other responders, donate the books. Maybe the teachers and guidance counselors will read them. Have you considered writing your ‘crucial conversations’ ideas on a grade school level? Maybe your granddaughter could help you. I have some illustration ideas.

  14. Tracey Larson

    So, I’ve become a great believer in the phrase “There are no accidents in life.” As I trudged to work this morning, I was literally asking myself if anyone ever feels true happiness. I opened my e-mails and there you were. Thanks, Kerry, for the gentle reminder of what is important and that it’s really up to me to recognize the precious moments in my life.

  15. chris boschetti

    The way in which you discuss “happiness” is really one-dimensional and a bit disappointing…one-dimensional thought does lend itself; however, to the concept of “moments of happiness”….if one thinks differently, it is possible not to “stumble into happiness” but to seek, and ultimately acheive a state where one is “happy” most of the time….where there are small moments of “unhappiness”.

  16. Joyce Larsen Linn

    Kerry, I love your articles and the last one was wonderful. You hit the nail on the head – happiness is truly a personal feeling that can make all the difference in ones life. Please keep on writing and giving us such insights into everyday things. What a special relationship you have with your granddaughter. She’s a very lucky girl.

  17. Jeff Rosenfeld

    I found this article to be very stimulating and I wanted to expand on some of your ideas. First it’s very important to define what happiness is. You indicate that there are brief moments of happiness. Does that mean you are sad most of the time or are you defining happiness in a very narrow way? Do you define happiness as euphoria? Or do you define happiness as being in control of your life where everyday is a new opportunity to move closer to your goals.

    As an example, I assume one of your important goals is to help people live better lives by spreading your philosophy (a modern day Buddha). What difference should it make to you how anyone responds, unless, as you indicate, you want to be recognized for your work. But, I doubt that is your passion and I doubt that you really are in this business to receive compliments.

    On the plane ride, you could have introduced her to some of your ideas. You could have asked her if there are any goals she would like to attain but feels there are too many barriers in her way. Which scenario would you prefer, recognition or demonstrating to someone alternative options to reach his or her goals.

    Another idea is to consider the impact of current social norms. In many cases, we suffer a loss of empowerment because of those social norms. I would suggest that we will not be “happy” unless we feel empowered. Isn’t that what you are writing about in your books?

    If it is social norms that drive us to work longer hours, we are not empowered and will probably not experience happiness. If we work longer hours because of a bad family situation that we wish to avoid, this again will not cause happiness. But what couple would not like to maintain the romance of when they were the happiest; it could be when they first met, the wedding, etc. Along with Daniel Gilbert, I would suggest reading Martin Seligman’s books and other articles about positive psychology. Their basic idea is how to make each day meaningful. This actually a happiness course taught at Harvard!

    People on their deathbeds are typically concerned about pain management, that they do not die alone, that they will be remembered, and what will happen to their loved ones once they have died.

    Twenty years ago, Judith Viorst wrote a book, Necessary Loses. Her point wast hat through anyone’s life cycle, he or she will have mixed emotions about many events. But this feeling of loss is necessary for growth. A parent may be saddened when their child first goes to school. The child may be unhappy as well. But for both, learning how to separate is very important.

    The key element is to feel empowered. If it is social norms that drive us to work longer hours, we are not empowered and will probably not experience happiness. If we work longer hours to avoid a bad family situation, this again will not cause happiness. It is often easier to work longer hours than to mainatain the romance in a marriage. But what couple would not maintain to the romance. And is there a social norm that supports this idea?

    So it is goals and empowerment that must be considered. Empowerment is the first order because without it, it will be difficult to develop meaningful goals.

  18. Mary

    This is a wonderful story. What is really interesting about it in terms of the work vs. family basis for happiness is that, in this case, your productive work is inseparable from and, in fact, the source of this moment of happiness.

  19. Deb

    Excellent. It’s not often that I stop during my busy morning to read work-related newsletters (I save them for weekends and commutes) but Kerrying On is always worth breaking from the grid. Thanks.

  20. Mary Witt

    And your column brought tears to my eyes…

  21. Mike Cook

    Kerry: Just a terrific piece, thank you for sharing this expression of joy and fulfillment. In the end I think leaving this realm with some idea that we made a contribution will prove to have been what we truly always wanted.

  22. Mary Witt

    Now that I’ve read the other comments, I would like to echo those that suggested you write a book geared for younger readers but I would suggest middle school or high school. It’s hard (but vital) for that age to learn to think about things from another’s point of view.

  23. Olen Jones

    I laughed out loud twice. What a GREAT story.

  24. Tammie

    This is a beautiful story. I think you would be able to make at least some of the ideas of crucial confrontations in elementary form and put it into a childrens book. I can see how that would make you pleased with your work (and you should be). I just hope to be that to my grandchildren. I don’t have any yet and have been feeling kinda “useless” (I am fighting bronchitis) but my daughter brought over her friends 2 year old Kaylin and Kaylin came up to me – hugged me and said “I like you Tammie”. I hope to be a good grandparent because my daughter told me she was pregnant a week ago. It is not a good situation but we will deal with it the best that we can. The one thing she said to me last night is that she wants to give the baby my middle name. We do not get along well so that was a surprise and it made me feel good. Then she said if she was to have a boy she would use my boyfriends first or middle name. He has been there for us and she calls him paparatzi (even before the song). So maybe all that struggle means something to her. I just hope I can draw the line between being a grandparent and a parent – be there for what she needs and let her struggle for the rest like I had to.

  25. Nina

    I just received a moment of happiness reading your sweet story! Brought a smile to my face. Thanks!

  26. Sandra

    Kerry, I just love all of your stories. You are such a fantastic story teller. I always look forward to reading “Kerrying On” and often forward it on to co-workers. This one was so sweet,it touched my heart and like most of your stories it put a big smile on my face – a happy moment in time.

  27. EC Cooper

    A nine year old saying… “So-you’re familure with his work.” Interesting.

  28. bean q

    haHA! i want a granddaughter!

  29. Pamela Preston

    What a beautiful moment. I am inspired to recognize moments of happiness in my life, much like the one I experienced while reading this beautiful story. Thank-you!

  30. Carol Helbig

    Just want to tell Mr. Patterson that I so look forward to each addition and every issue from all your newletters. This issue brought tears to my eyes as I have young grandchildren (5,4,almost 4,2) and snippets of happiness occur at the most unexpected moments as Kerry notes. What an exhilarating experience to have your young grandchild give you such joy and the lesson she (and you also) learned from this. (donate the books – you will be surprised who will pick them up). We as adults do not fully realize how much they observe, listen and learn. THANK YOU so much for sharing this story. PS. Your grey fedora story has stayed in my brain and keeps me balanced.

  31. Rich Gulker

    While I generally agree with you and have found your “Crucial” books extremely helpful, I completely disagree with your statement:
    “You never achieve happiness; you just experience happy moments.”

    That sounds a bit like Eeyore. I believe you wake up each morning and decide if you are going to be a happy person or if you are not. It is not our circumstances that determine this, or even the “happy” little moments, it is our fundamental attitude about life.

  32. Bill Heffernan

    A wonderful story. I always enjoy reading your comments and this story is no exception. Happiness and time are our most precious resources and too often we fail to appreciate the fleeting nature of both.

  33. Lee Grant

    You should have given her a copy of the books, you don’t know how many teachers, the principal, janitor etc. it may have helped. In addition, I would like to point out that in the 5th grade my reading tested as 2nd yr. college as did two other girls in my classroom. I don’t know how many tested as college level in the other six 5th grade classrooms. Or in the 6th grade since the scores weren’t shared. Yes this was a public school George Elementary in Ypsilanti MI.

  34. Beth Sordi

    What a terrific story! Great article!
    There’s a great book out called “The How of Happiness” and how we can boost our happiness levels by performing daily activities that mean something to each of us. The author (Sonja Lyubomirsky) also has created an iPhone application to support the activities mentioned in the book. While I don’t use it everyday, her suggestions have been of great help to me and my husband the past couple of years. You’re right – happiness isn’t a destination or something you finally achieve one day – it’s in the daily details. THanks for the article.

  35. Jenny

    Touching story:) Thank you for sharing this with us:)

  36. Ruth Johnson

    I am a nursing faculty member, teaching many students for whom English is not their first language. The pace and pressures are exhausting. I think that I am a positive mentally healthy person taking bits of joy as they appear. Having become recently very ill I realize that I need to change my approach to joy. Yes, recognize the bits and pieces of happiness as they come into my life, but more importantly create the opportunity for happiness. I craft learning for others, and now am much more attuned to crafting joy and happiness for myself. Playing with a grandchild now trumps working on a department committee. Really listening and accepting compliments from students has started to feed by soul. Life is much happier when I stop to notice the roses and then inhale deeply.

  37. Derek in Stockholm

    “For instance, when you ask people which will make them happier—a bigger salary or taking a daily walk with a loved one—people generally pick the money.”

    Do people really “generally pick the money?” How sad. I hope that it is just that you are out of touch or spend most of your time with the type of people who “generally pick the money.”

  38. Helen

    I loved this article and sent it to all of my staff and friends. My boss insisted that I be accessable via blackberry at all times, which made me feel guilty if I neglected to look at it during my personal time (weekends and evenings). This article and the accompanying blogs has lessened that guilt, as I realize that I am skilled in seperating my work and personal life; something I should be proud of. Thank you, Kerry.

  39. Barbara

    @Sheila Porter

    My mother was very much like you describe yourself. Her absence impacted my childhood (as an only child) greatly, but in spite of that pain I became independent and capable and carried an exceedingly strong work ethic into even my first job. The work ethic she taught me has served me well in every aspect of my life, and I have learned along the way the one thing she couldn’t teach me: balance. Her lack of balance taught me to seek it and live it. In her advanced years, she has also learned the importance of balance and lives a fuller life now as a result. It is very possible to have both but it must be consciously pursued and made a part of every day. Best wishes!

  40. Helen Harry

    Dear Mr. Patterson,
    I always enjoy your articles. They are so down to earth and speak of what is most essential in life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    Helen Harry
    Chaplain – Froedtert Hospital

  41. Dan

    Far too few people see life as a ‘body of work’. They see accomplishments as line items or $ signs and never take a step back to lack at the sum and impact of their efforts. Kudos to you for having the wisdom to do so.

  42. Frank Luzzo

    If only adults could be as honest as kids with no pretense

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