My cousin Amy died earlier this week. During the late 70’s and early ’80’s Amy was one of the few who could actually pull off the Farrah Fawcett look-alike style. Back then her eyes smiled and she could light up a room when she broke into a full facial smile. When she died this week she was alone in her apartment. The Amy I remember from when we were kids could have never conceived she’d have a mostly sad adulthood spent trying to find her meaningful place in life. I hope the Amy still had memories of the Amy that once existed. She was a young girl filled with potential. I’ll never know if she died too soon or too late when her body was discovered earlier in this week; she was in her mid 40’s.

On the day I went to Amy’s memorial service I spent most of my time working with a couple of different cross-functional teams trying to solve frustrating operational problems and institutionalize improved cost-efficiencies. The teams were comprised of skilled professionals, highly knowledgeable in their craft, all extremely passionate about their work. The issues we were confronting weren’t easy. Every time the stakes in our problem-solving excercises were raised or when we would get to oftentimes difficult truths, someone would invariably say “look, it’s not like what we do here is life-and-death important” (or some similar version of that remark) as a way to let everyone off the hook.
Today I won’t digress in to one of my rants or dissect the meaning of or implications of cross-functional team members letting one another off the hook. No, the real subject here is way too important as I think back on Amy’s life not lived—considering that there are probably millions of people in the world who have said or thought the same (“it’s not life and death”) about the work they do.

If my cousin Amy had found her meaningful place in the world, had she found a fulfilling career in a field she was passionate about, where she had been respected for her knowledge, admired for her skill, I dare say she would still be alive today and those expressive eyes and the mile wide smile would still radiate life that was really and sadly extinguished long ago.

So, please, for your own sake and for my cousin Amy’s memory, no matter what you do, no matter what your industry or career path, never ever demean yourself or the work you do by even thinking anything as absurd as “it’s not life or death.” I’m here to tell you, with Amy as a haunting image, what you do, how you do it, and the meaning you get from all significant aspects of everything you do is very much a matter of life and death.

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