Do you know who Alfred Nobel is?
He is the namesake of the Nobel Prize awards. The Nobel Prizes have been awarded annually since 1901, initially, in five categories (Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace), then six when Economics was added in 1968.
The Nobel Foundation was created at Alfred Nobel’s death using a provision in his Will. Nobel said to establish a fund to administer awards to “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. The Peace Prize is given “to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses.” Alfred Nobel funded this concept with 94% of his remaining resources at death, about $250 Million in Canadian Dollars today (the Economics award originated when a Swedish bank donated to the Foundation in memory of Alfred Nobel).
The Awards are announced every December 10 (Alfred’s Death Day), have been awarded 609 times to 975 people and 25 organizations. The awards include a cash prize and a cool plaque thing.
I expect that most folks know about the Nobel Prizes and would consider the awards to be Alfred Nobel’s lasting contribution to his community and the human experience, even if they weren’t familiar with the human behind the awards.
That is not at all how he was remembered the first time he died.
Alfred Nobel was a chemist, inventor, and entrepreneur. He invented dynamite in 1867 and set about manufacturing it all over the globe. He made and sold a lot of dynamite that went on to blow up a lot of Earth and humans.
When Alfred Nobel’s death was first reported in 1888, a French newspaper headline read “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”) and further said “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” One problem with the newspaper story; Alfred did not die until 1896. The news outlets had it wrong. Alfred’s brother Ludvig Nobel had died. Alfred was very much alive and very much horrified that he would be remembered in this way.*
What became the Nobel Prizes were created in Alfred’s 1895 Will, written after his first reported death. And it’s how most of us remember, and celebrate, Alfred Nobel today. Many folks don’t know he was the inventor of dynamite and played the role of Le marchand de la mort during his life.
Alfred was given a rare perspective to learn how he would be remembered when he died – and he didn’t like it. So much so that he took action to change how he would be remembered – and succeeded in changing his legacy. We understand Alfred Nobel today as promoting a community of humankind, contribution, creativity and non-violence, not death and destruction.
If you were given the perspective that was provided to Alfred Nobel, what do you think the world would say of you? How would you be remembered? What would you do if you knew this?
We’re likely not going to be given the same opportunity Alfred had, but I believe with a bit of reflection, intention and a lot of honesty, we certainly can get close. But, ultimately the result of that reflection is not nearly as important as this question:
How do you want to be remembered?
Nobel knew he didn’t want to be remembered for death and destruction, he wanted benevolence and community – so he changed it. It’s pretty awesome to be able to completely change the narrative of his legacy because he wanted to. At the end of the day, human progress was more important to Alfred Nobel than anything else.
I can identify the ways Alfred Nobel succeeded in changing how he was remembered that can inform our own lives:
Awareness: Alfred Nobel did not have a rosy view about how “everything will work out” for his legacy. He did not take for granted that just because he was an industrious, hardworking, clever fellow, this was how the world would remember him. He knew, in the most public way, that he was not perceived kindly.
We need to accept that our understanding of ourselves and others is not enough – we will only be remembered for our actions. What did we say? What have we done? That’s all there is of us. Nobel went from “guy who helped blow up the world” to “philanthropist and humanitarian”. I think that’s wild.
We can all cultivate our awareness through reflection and honesty and by practicing not taking anything for granted – it’s what we do, not what we think.
Made a record: Nobel wrote down what he wanted; it was documented. He did not loosely rely on telling enough of his family members what he wanted, and expecting that they would “do the right thing”. No, he wrote down, in his own handwriting, his vision of the Nobel prizes – what they were for, and why it was important to him. He did all of that and it took him a while. From 1888 until he made his last edit in 1995, he worked on his vision and developing his legacy. Then he made sure that his people were aware that he had done all of that.
Writing down what is important to us is the easiest way for us to change our legacy. It provides a firsthand view of your life and can clarify and add to all the other stories that may exist about you out there, and can assist in defining how you will be remembered.
Made it happen/took action: these were not just happy ideas and good feels to document his vision and legacy in the hope that somehow “it will just happen” when he died. No, he put 94% of his considerable remaining material assets toward the cause – he committed! He put people in charge who were aware of what he wanted. He made sure it was well funded so that it could be set up for success.
Acting is the hardest part. Doing the work. However, if it’s important to you, then you do it – just like all the other hard things you’ve done in your life. If it’s important to you, you do it through practice, diligence, effort and time.
I think of Alfred Nobel and I think about how I want to be remembered. To my family, I just want to be a good dad, that’s all. I want my kids to remember their ‘old man’ was a goofy, wise, active and supportive dad that loved them very much so that they can feel it long after my experience is over. I work on that with my kids every day.
To the world and to you, I want to be remembered as helping change our culture’s relationship with death. I want to be known as an advocate for engaging with death during our lives, because death is life, and it’s a powerful tool to help each of us understand how we want to live. I want to be known for introducing families to the power of honesty about ageing, death and legacy, and how it can strengthen roots and ties in families and communities that lead to a better overall experience for all.
You see that? I just wrote it down. Maybe I’ve even taken some action, because if you’ve read this far, it’s a possibility that you now see your life, death and legacy a little bit differently. Maybe this blog can spark some curiosity about how you want to be remembered, and you’re going to write something down. Then maybe when you apply this to your life and get the benefit from this you will think of Andrew Brown and how his story inspired the smallest of welcome change in your life and the lives of the people that will continue after you. That’s why I do these blogs. That is why we created CODA and that is why we continue to explore this important work. All of this is to contribute how I want to be remembered.
If given the opportunity to influence how you want to be remembered, would you? Good news! The opportunity is there and it’s up to you to take it.
*Interestingly, the story of Nobel’s first death is the subject of some question, although most historians accept and publish that the mistimed obituary did indeed happen.