Traits, Obituaries, and Life’s Purpose

by Phil Walter

Suddenly I am of sufficient age and experience that young people occasionally contact me in search of mentorship. Based upon my military, intelligence community, and interagency experience, they often think I can provide them a road map to the career of their dreams.

These young people ask, “How do I get a job at Department W?” “How do I get a job at Agency X?” “I am thinking of doing Y or Z, what should I do?” I typically respond by asking the young person to take a moment of pause, then I share a routine I call Traits and Obituaries.


A Marine participates in a field training exercise during Iron Sword 16, a training exercise, in Rukla Training Area, Lithuania, Nov. 29, 2016. The annual multinational exercise involves 11 NATO allies training to increase combined infantry capabilities and forge relationships. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kirstin Merrimarahajara.


Rather than focus on getting a job at Department W or Agency X, young people should make a list of traits they want in a job. Do they value income or service? Do they want to work somewhere that encourages creativity or stifles it? Do they want to work by themselves or in a team? Do they want to live in the U.S. or overseas? Do they want to put themselves in physical danger or remain safe? Do they like being indoors or outdoors?

After completing the list of traits, the young person should find someone who works at Department W or Agency X who can discuss what traits on the list are present at their respective department or agency. There are many a young person who have entered a job and found out their vision of the work did not match reality.


In addition to encouraging young people list the traits they want in a job, I also encourage them to write their obituary. The obituary writing exercise works best when someone says “I am thinking of doing Job Y or Job Z, what should I do?” I have the young person write an obituary as if they spent a career in Job Y and another as if they spent a career in Job Z. I then have them wait one week, read each obituary, and record their reaction to the words. This raw reaction is often the best guide. While the obituary writing exercise does get me strange looks, it is the ultimate form of backwards planning.

Here’s what my obituary writing exercise revealed:

Today Phil Walter passed away. Phil spent his formative years burning candles at both ends in the military and the intelligence community. Later, when Phil’s primary focus became his family, he chose to become a professional paper pusher and strived to be the bureaucrat that the field deserved. Phil was happiest when he was with his family or sitting at his desk, furiously typing out ideas for online publications while wearing his robot pajamas. 

There it is. Before rushing off to chase your life’s purpose, determine the activities you’ll be satisfied performing every single day…then make sure that path will give you a life worth remembering.

Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the interagency. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not contain information of an official nature. He tweets @philwalter1058 and blogs at Check out Phil’s other posts on The Military Leader:  The “Phil-Osophy” of LifeTaming Your Imperfections, and Leadership in Action: Colonel Charles A. Beckwith.

Phil has asked me to add that the “write your own obituary” exercise is also a crucial step in the book, Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want. In it, Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy “share simple but proven principles to help you stop drifting, design a Life Plan with the end in mind, and chart a path that will take you there.” I’ve read it – it’s a good one!


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