A Tombstone is the Ultimate Diploma

Newly retired, I sat in my home office sorting through cartons I had brought home from work: family photos, books about aging, flash drives of files I might need… and my framed diplomas from undergraduate and graduate school. They had hung in my office for years. But did I want them in my retirement home office? The answer was easy — no. Then what should I do with them? Wanting to postpone a decision, I returned them to the carton, stored in the closet for a while and ultimately, in the garage.

Barbara Hemphill of the Productive Environment Institute coined the phrase “clutter is postponed decisions,” so in effect, what I’ve done, is create clutter. I could live with that, except, why am I keeping them? I polled friends my age (all retired). Some said their diplomas were in the attic or basement, along with other detritis from their youth or professional life. Some didn’t know where their diplomas were. But we all had the same question: whatever the reasons that motivated us to keep or display diplomas while we worked, what was the reason for keeping them now?

I went online, to see what others thought about this issue. Some people feel strongly that diplomas should be removed from their frames, stored between acid-free paper and stored in archival boxes for children and grandchildren, or that I should digitize them and send the images to family members. According to this group, the diplomas are part of my legacy. This doesn’t resonate with me. The diplomas don’t represent my life’s work, and getting rid of them doesn’t erase my accomplishments. Whatever stories and items are passed on about me after I die, my diplomas don’t express who I am, what I’ve done or what I value.

I see my diplomas as admission tickets into my first jobs, pieces of paper I exchanged for another piece of paper — a paycheck. But subsequent jobs were the result of my performance, not my education. My diplomas are physical proof of accomplishments that no longer feel important.

It turns out, I’m not alone. Media entrepreneur Jimmy Lovine sees diplomas as a learner’s permit for the drive through life. Author Richard Paul Evans says, “A man’s worth isn’t measured by a bank register or a diploma, but by integrity.” Mostly, I think Eartha Kitt gets it right. “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”

As for me, I will likely dispose of my diplomas, so my children won’t need to. They’ll have trouble enough deciding what to do with things that matter to me, yet alone things that don’t.

Yet, I do have a diploma of sorts that I’ll pass on to my children. Each year, Moving Solutions gave out the Carlton Award, named after my first employee, Carlton Ayers, whose competence, teaching and gentle humor were the foundation that enabled the company to grow and thrive. When I retired last year, my team gave me “The Ultimate Carlton Award.” Their generous, kind words, engraved in wood, hit it just right. That’s a legacy I’m proud to pass on.

By Margit Novack

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