Lessons Learned from a Life Well-Lived

I recently lost my very dear great-aunt, Jody Naifeh.  Jody’s life was unparalleled and offers many lessons for anyone who wants to have a full, rich, and happy life.  It’s impossible to capture here all of the lessons that Jody taught in her long and extraordinary life, but I will share the lessons that made the biggest impact on me.  I hope you will find them useful in crafting your own well-lived life.

Elevate your spirit with music.  Jody was a life-long musician.  She learned the violin from her older sister as a child and was hooked for life.  One of the things she loved about music was its ability to elevate the human spirit.  Science now understands that music changes our body chemistry: music can cause our brains to release neurotransmitters and elevate our moods and our outlook.  Jody knew this long ago:  music is a universal form of expression that lifts us up. 

Whether it was Bach or The Beatles, Jody didn’t let a day go by without letting music lift her up.  Her example reminds us to use music to enrich our lives.  It’s so easy to do, but we often forget.  We can listen to music at home to create more fun when we’re with our families, at the office to create a higher level of energy at work, and to create feel-good neurotransmitters whenever we need it.  We can attend concerts and performances to have an even greater impact.  And learning an instrument (at any age) keeps our minds and spirits young.  Jody wanted people to know that music is powerful and she wanted people to use it to make life better.  There is really no downside to this simple lesson.  Find a way to weave music throughout your life and watch what happens.  

See the gold.   Jody spent most of her life teaching music to children and teenagers and she saw the gold in each of her students.  Even when the students themselves or their parents couldn’t see a child’s potential, Jody could see it and brought it to light with her unending patience and encouragement.  She did everything she could to help students who were struggling, including bringing them into her home to live with her family.  

I think Jody saw the gold not just in her students, but in just about everyone she encountered.  She wanted to understand the inner workings of any person who happened to be with her at the moment.  She asked questions about what they wanted out of life, what drove them, what they liked and disliked.  She had a piercing stare that revealed her razor-sharp mind.  When she was listening to and looking at you, it felt like you were the only person in the world that mattered to her at that moment.  

When Jody looked for the gold in others, she always found it.  After all, humans are inherently worthy.  She often reminded others of their own worth and it changed people.  But I think her outlook also gave her a rich and beautiful experience of life.  It’s more wonderful to go through life finding gold than finding flaws.  Try it.  See if you can find the gold in the people around you and in strangers you meet and watch what happens when you do.    

Say “Yes!” to life.  Jody squeezed every last ounce out of her life, by embracing opportunities every step of the way.  When Jody’s husband passed away nearly 20 years ago, the family held a celebration of his life, which included a performance of their daughter’s Irish rock band, Larkin.  At one point during the performance, Jody’s daughter invited her to get her violin and join the band onstage.    

It would have been very easy for a 70-year old widow to decline that invitation, but Jody knew that music was healing and that she had plenty of life left to live.  Jody said “yes!”, got her violin, and embraced life—the joy and the pain.  Even though she had been a classically-trained violinist, she quickly adapted to the fiddle and she played music with that band for the next 18 years of her life.  Her fiddle playing landed her a spot in the National Fiddlers Hall of Fame in 2019.  Her final performance with the rock band occurred months before her death, when she was 88 years old and in a wheel chair.  

Jody also took every opportunity she could to travel and explore the world.  In her 70’s and 80’s, she organized and led international trips with her orchestra students.  In her 80’s, she traveled to New York on several occasions to watch some of her students perform at Carnegie Hall.  She kept learning, playing music, and reading voraciously until her final days, pushing the limits of her human body.  As a result, her life kept getting richer with time.  Jody’s example reminds us that it’s never too late to do anything.  You can always say “yes!” to life. 

Believe you can—and you will.  Jody believed that she could do pretty much anything and saw no good reason to think otherwise.  It did not matter if there was no precedent for what she wanted to do: she just went after what she wanted, knowing that it would work out.  And it always did.  

She saw no reason why she could not combine motherhood and career at a time (the 1960s) when mothers were expected to focus 100% on their families.  Jody was a very loving and present mother, but I think she also knew that she would be a happier mother if she also lived out her passion for her work.  

When her three children were toddlers and preschoolers, she hosted group art classes at her home.  When they grew a little older, she created summer camps for her violin students.  Years later, when those students were in high school, she saw no reason why she could not create a city-wide honors orchestra, providing a forum for dedicated students to perform at venues all over the city.  She led that orchestra until her final days, for the past 41 years and her daughter and granddaughter are continuing her legacy.  At age 50, Jody decided to go back to school (even though she already held a bachelor’s and a master’s) to get a degree in Music Performance, because that was what she loved.  

Jody’s example serves as a reminder to us all: there is really no good reason to not go for what you want.  Belief + action = results.  

Hard work and fun go together.  Jody was definitely not afraid of hard work, but that work was infused with a spirit of play and joy that was contagious.  She wove dedication and love together beautifully in her work.  

When I was in high school, I had the privilege of joining her orchestra in one of their summer camps.  I saw first-hand how hard she worked to prepare her lessons, but it was also evident that her work was truly fun for her.  The enthusiasm that she conveyed to her students was palpable and fun and enjoyment were the driving force of the entire experience.  After a morning of hard work, she wanted us to have fun by swimming at her pool, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company.  

She brought humor and fun into every aspect of her life.  She believed that was how it was supposed to be.  I agree with her:  life is supposed to be fun.  If you’re not having fun, step back, figure out why, and solve for that.  It’s absolutely essential for a well-lived life.      

Show up every day.  Jody showed up for her life 100%, every day.  She practiced her violin every single day, without fail.  One summer, she had asked her students to commit to practicing every day.  She lived up to her end of the agreement and practiced even when traveling on a family road trip, when she and her daughter would play their violins at rest stops to ensure they fulfilled their daily commitment.  

She stayed active throughout her life—I remember seeing her go jogging in her late 70s.  She would take long walks on her 80-acre ranch well into her 80’s.  Even in her later years, Jody taught a full roster of private students for violin lessons while also maintaining a full performance schedule.  Some days she would teach in the morning, play an afternoon recital at a local nursing home, then perform at an evening wedding or at an Irish pub with the rock band.  If she said she was going to be there, she was.  She showed us that showing up is a way of life and she didn’t entertain any other option.   

Value your time on Earth.  One of the first questions that Jody would ask me every time I saw her was: “Are you happy? Are you enjoying what you’re doing?”  For many years, that answer was “no” because I felt lost in my career but was uncertain of what to do next.  There were times when it felt hopeless.  But Jody never gave up on me and she wouldn’t let me give up on myself, either.  She knew that our time on Earth is valuable and that we need to enjoy it by finding work that we love.  

During those years of uncertainty and doubt, Jody always told me the same thing: “Kissy, (my childhood nickname), you’ve GOT to find what you love.  You’ve GOT to be happy in your work!”  She was a source of constant encouragement, which prompted me to keep looking.  I read hundreds of books.  I got all kinds of career testing, skills assessments, personality tests, different types of career counseling and coaching.  And after years of searching, I finally found the work that I feel called to do: my purpose is to help others find and live their purpose.  

During one of my last conversations with Jody, I was living in Spain with my family for a year, having made the decision to leave my job and start my own coaching business.  I was finally doing what I loved.  When we spoke, Jody was very weak, but she still asked me with conviction the same question: “Are you happy?”  I was relieved to be able to finally and sincerely tell her, “Yes, Jody. I am happy.  I love what I’m doing.”  She responded “good”, finally satisfied.    

I believe that it was so important to her that others were happy in their work because she was happy in her work.  Once you know what it’s like to look forward to each day, you want to share that with everyone.  It was clear that she taught that lesson not just to me, but to many, many others.  Hundreds of her students attended her funeral, many having traveled from all over the country, and they shared stories of how she had changed the trajectory of their lives, just like she did for me.

This was a way of life for her because she knew that our time on Earth is valuable.  She also knew that what world needs most is people who love what they do, love each other, and lift each other up.  

That is exactly what she did during her time on Earth and I believe it was her greatest contribution.  When you inspire hundreds of people to live their best lives, those people go on to do the same thing in the lives of others and the impact of that ripples far beyond the reach of any one person.  

I believe that Jody would have wanted you to know this:

Your time on Earth is valuable. Your contribution matters. Your happiness matters.

Live in alignment with that truth and you will ensure that your own life is indeed well-lived.

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