Last week, I lost a close friend to cancer. Benji Edmund was the best of us: Kind, cheerful, inclusive, and irrepressible.
He was a nerd of nerds: he fully owned and embraced the things that made him different, and did them better than most of us. He also embraced the things that made others different, and brought people together from every area. It was no surprise to me to see a huge group of people at his funeral, each touched by him in some way.
All this week, I’ve really resisted the urge to analyze his life and try to draw lessons from it, because I mostly just want to be sad and hurt, to wallow in the unfairness of losing him.
But after seeing his family and friends selflessly share what they learned from him, I feel compelled to point out some of the ways Benji was so special to me.
Living without regret
It’d take much more than a single blog post to describe the ways he inspired and influenced me, so I’ll focus on one or two things that are on my heart.
At his funeral, people shared what they admired about Benji, things I thought perhaps only I’d noticed. He had a genuine confidence that came not from lack of fear, but from understanding that he could accomplish anything if he simply never gave up. In the 8 years I’ve known him, I’ve never, ever seen him give up or back down from an intimidating task.
What struck me most, though, was that after he learned that the treatments weren’t working, he looked at his life and declared he was happy with the result. He said he was proud of his family, proud of his career, proud of his hobbies, and wished only that he’d had more time to keep doing what he’d been doing.
How many of us can say that? How many of us are so contented that if the worst happened, we could say we lived without regret?
His peace of mind was no accident. Ultimately, Benji’s greatest tool in living a happy, fulfilled life was his perfectly clear set of priorities, and his rigor in defending them.
Benji’s family always came first. He was like a superdad. Being present for his family was never a question, and there was never any doubt that his wife Heidi and kids came first. He didn’t wear a badge saying this, and never uttered the phrase “my family comes first”, but everyone knew where he stood.
Although Benji’s work took a permanent backseat to his family, he always rose to the top and excelled at every career turn. He always managed to pick a professional challenge that was just outside his grasp, and was willing to leap from a place of comfort, trusting that he’d somehow make it to the other side. He took genuine joy in his work, and everyone that worked with him remembers him as the “glue” that united everyone. At a relatively young age, he became highly sought after for anything ops and devops related.
Benji’s hobbies were equally impressive. If he was into it, he was really into it. He also seemed to prefer hobbies that he could share with other people. Video games, brewing beer, movies, music… he was never content to keep them to himself. He preferred relationships and experiences to “stuff”, trotting the globe with friends and family while still driving his same busted old Ford Focus the entire time I knew him.
Defending his priorities
It’s not enough to know your priorities, you have to defend them. And Benji defended his vigorously.
Benji’s family-first philosophy, to the 25-year-old version of me, seemed weird. He would frequently turn down offers to go hang out, he wanted to go straight home to his wife (and later, his kids). If we wanted to do something, we were welcome to come over and spend time with his family.
At the time this was hard to understand. But with hindsight, it was a master class in understanding and defending your priorities.
Benji’s boss, the CEO of Instructure, spoke at his funeral and told his story of recruiting Benji. It took months, because he absolutely would not jump over to this new startup until they had health and life insurance benefits buttoned up. He simply would not make that sacrifice. I’m sure this seemed inconvenient or even odd to the team there.
But for Benji, this was a simple decision, because he took his priority list, put a family requirement up against a work requirement, and knew which one would win.
Shaking the box
Clay Christensen, in How Will You Measure Your Life, talks about understanding long-term vs. short-term gains in your personal life. The benefits from sacrifices on behalf of your family can take years or even decades to come to fruition. Work and other pressures can offer immediate benefit and immediate consequence.
So when it’s time to look at our priorities, we often sacrifice these long term benefits for our family, knowing they will understand. Instead, we often choose short term gains to placate the people who won’t understand (a boss, for example).
I imagine priorities like this: imagine writing every thing that is important to you on a slip of paper. You probably have a sense of their order, and after ordering them, they go into a box.
However, there are 2 unavoidable challenges for your priority box. First, over the course of time, more things will become important to you, and you’ll start adding more slips of paper. Second, at random intervals, life will come and shake up your box. You can’t prevent this, nor can you predict when it will happen.
So the construction of this box is of utmost importance. But most of us just leave it the way it is, a simple box containing all the stuff we care about, and the thing that seems most important at any given time is plucked out and given our time and attention.
What was different about Benji’s priority box
Benji, however, built compartments into his box, keeping his priorities from being mixed up. Benji took great care with the construction of his box. He recognized it for what it was: the container for all that he cherishes and the only tool he has to protect his most limited resource: his time.
So yes, more pieces of paper were slipped in, and life came and shook his box with all its might. But Benji never had any doubts about which activities got the bulk of his time and attention, because they rested in their appropriate compartments.
It’s shocking to me that Benji understood his long-term priorities at such a young age. He’d set up his hierarchy pretty much by the time he’d graduated high school. He married his high school sweetheart, placed her at the top of his list, and never, ever took her (or the rest of his family) down.
I can say with some confidence that this was Benji’s formula for a regret-free existence.
I’m not proud of my priority box (yet)
My box is shoddily constructed at the moment. I have a lot of mixed-up priorities, coming in faster than I can handle them, and little sense of how to put them in order. But I now have a model to follow for choosing how to build my compartments and protect the things that I cherish the most.
I can’t express in words how broken my heart is right now. My heart hurts for my loss, for the pain his family is in, the long road they have ahead, for the loss the world experienced by losing him. But I can take a small measure of comfort in knowing that Benji truly lived his life, with kindness and on his own terms.
I love you forever, Benji. I miss you terribly. Thank you for reminding me to live and love without regret.