I went to a memorial service today. It was for Jon Brilliant, son of Larry Brilliant, whom I'd known during my first year at Google.org. The service was beautiful and moving. It was also powerfully inspiring, and I had not expected that. We were dressed in bright colours, to suit Jon's style; and there were words and rituals from a mix of spiritual traditions, also as he would have wanted.
I hadn't known Jon very well. I met him once when visiting his father's house. They invited me to swim in their pool and I hadn't brought swimming trunks, so Jon offered to let me borrow his, and I did. He was cheerful and gentle, and shone with excitement as he told me about his trip to China. When I heard that he had cancer, I felt compelled to convey comfort but I wasn't sure how. I picked up a book on Chinese calligraphy, a brush, and a bottle of ink, and practiced until I could adequately draw the characters for "health" and "courage" on cards for him and his parents. I thought he had gotten better. I had no idea that the cancer had become so serious since then. The news was a terrible shock; it felt so wrong, so unfair to him, so unfair to Larry and his family. Here is a man whose work saved countless lives, and yet he has lost his son to a cruel disease.
Jon was twenty-six.
Jon's friends from high school and college were there. They really loved him. I could see it in the way they stood when they went up to speak, and hear it in the way they told stories about him. There was joy and laughter in the things they celebrated about him, and parts they could not get through without tears. They spoke with deep love as they described all they had learned from him, the ways he had connected and inspired them, the wisdom and insight he had shown them. They mentioned the many things he had accomplished, the many places he had travelled, always trying to understand the world and make it better, and the many people whose lives he had touched in his short life.
We were reminded: the measure of a life is how well it is lived, not how long.
I suppose it is part of the natural experience of a memorial service to reflect on one's own life—on what one is grateful for, perhaps on what one regrets, and on how it might be lived more fully. And today I did reflect. I noticed that the intensity of my ambition—first to win prizes, and later to engineer help for the suffering, and occasionally to create nifty things—has so often crowded out the building of truly deep relationships with other people. Romantic interests have been the significant exception, and when relationships ended, the depth faded away. The kinds of things Jon's friends described—the way he inspired them, the way he taught them about love, the way he showed them how to love themselves—these are the actions of someone who has the simple and easy confidence of knowing they will always have love, not someone who is focused on chasing love as if to fill in something missing.
It is a startling concept to think of living one's entire life in terms of questions like
"Who is close to me and how can I change their life for the better?"
"How can I become a wiser person and share that wisdom?"
"What could I do to inspire the people around me?"
I'm just not used to thinking that way. Mostly, it's
"How can I accomplish this task?"
I understand why I do it. Deep down, I think it scales better—part of me feels morally compelled to choose to work on a lonely project that I hope or believe might help many people I'll never know, instead of building connections with people one at a time. If I spent all my time trying to be well-connected and popular and loved, I think I wouldn't be as productive. But wouldn't it be wonderful to have truly changed someone's life by bringing into it a new kind of wisdom or love or insight?
This is an interesting quotation from Larry Brilliant
Every time that I get confused and see a person who works for me or with me as a customer, a competitor, a colleague, I fail. And every time that I am unable to see that person as a human being—and instead only see what's useful to me—I fail. In those moments, I fall victim to my ambition. But in those moments when I see people as human beings, as real people, I inspire them.
I'm going to be thinking about this one for a while.