On October 21st, my younger (and only) brother Erik (“Big E”) passed away. The circumstances behind his passing are not important to share, but the way he lived most certainly is. Over the past few weeks, the memories we shared and the lessons his example continues to strengthen within me have been at the forefront of my thoughts. In fact, I created a list of attributes he demonstrated throughout the 41 years he truly lived. The list is rather long and I think he would be pleased to see what I captured and to know that I was in fact paying attention. In an effort to keep the list both short and meaningful, in keeping with his life, I offer what I believe to be the four philosophies that resonated with me more than the others, which by no coincidence are the very ones to which his example demonstrated the most visible commitment. I like to call them “Big E’s Big Four”. Four may seem like an arbitrary number, however it is anything but. During his younger days, four is the number we watched run past the competition on the soccer field. On the football field we witnessed the number four run over people. And four represents the order in which he joined the family my parents created, as well as the four of us who huddled as he took his last breaths. Unfortunately, four also represents the number of decades he lived on this earth.
Sharing With a Purpose
Many were shocked to hear the news of his passing and I don’t know how many times people responded with an “I didn’t even know he was sick.” Just like most things “Big E” did in his life, that was intentional. Erik loved to share stories about his many adventures with his friends and family and he did so purposefully. He did so because he liked to make people smile and he did so because he wanted to inspire others to stop talking of things they wanted to do in life, and instead do them. His illness (or the “speed bump” as he often referred to it) was not an adventure he saw value in sharing. He made his point rather clearly by posing these rhetorical questions:
- What good will come out of us talking about it?
- Will you feel better after hearing about my situation?
- Will you fix it?
- Do you think I enjoy reminding myself of this “speed bump” through repeated conversation on the topic?
We rarely spoke of his private battle. Instead we spoke of just about everything else. That said there was a small core of friends who were integral members of the fight and he took great comfort in the role each of them played, but he wanted the conversation contained therein. Those of us who knew Erik, know that he shared a great deal. He let us know when we were capable of more. He let us know that he was there ready, willing, and able to lend a helping hand. He let us know that we were partners in his life adventure. And he let us know that he appreciated our friendship. Erik shared and he shared with a purpose…a sincere purpose. Even his decision not to share was on purpose and I sincerely respect that.
Friends are Family
Despite geography, the immediate Heritage Family is pretty darn close. And family was important to Erik. Despite never marrying, his family grew exponentially over the years. That Heritage Family of four with whom he grew up, grew into what I call the Erik Heritage Family which runs in the triple digits (at the very least) and I bet I haven’t come close to meeting close to half of the others who also thought of my brother as theirs. Yes, I am Erik’s only brother by blood, but I know that many thought of him as their brother; he knew it and that fact was one of the many reasons he wore his patented smile with such regularity. Erik built a family of friends and he truly viewed friends as family. He purposefully let people into his life that made him feel more complete, people in whom he had an interest helping, and/or people who gave him and others reason to laugh and smile. Erik didn’t have time for negative people and he firmly believed that the key to a happy, meaningful life was to surround himself with only quality individuals, and true team players. That is what he did. Going above and beyond when it came to developing friendships, he was not satisfied merely with having strong bonds with each of his friends, he facilitated meaningful relationships between his friends. He created an interconnected web of friends. It was absolutely uncanny to see friendships develop amongst friends from his childhood, fraternity brothers, people he met at football tailgaters, co-workers, and friends from the city he loved, San Francisco. It was almost as if all of us could make the assumption that a friend of Erik’s was a friend of ours. We could do so because Erik was both a magnet for quality people and a filter of questionable character. If Erik considered you a friend, odds are you considered him amongst your best friends. A good friend that Erik and I both shared recently told me that if we all made a list of people we consider as our top 10 friends, just about every one of Erik’s friends would include him in that list. I believe it. He has been in the official wedding party for more weddings than most even get invited to attend over a lifetime. Many people distinguish between friends and family, not Erik. He saw his friends as family, fully knowing what the word family meant to him.
Chasing the Keg
Erik lived a life on the go, but he also lived in the moment. He was either planning an adventure, on an adventure, or recovering from an adventure. Sometimes he was doing all three simultaneously. When I called him, I would be surprised if he picked up the phone. If he did, I would be surprised if he told me he was at home. Truth is, he rarely picked up my calls and I understood why. He was “all in” with his experience of the day. Whatever Erik was doing was the most important thing to him at the time. Whether it was skiing at Sun Valley, another college football road trip, a concert, a night out with his friends, his work, or you name it, he was focused on that experience. And he didn’t really concern himself with what might be happening elsewhere. Years ago, he explained to me that there was no point in “chasing the keg.” If we reflect back to our early adulthood, we might remember attending a keg party or two (some might be fuzzy memories at best). In our home town we would often hear of a “kegger” at someone’s house only to be disappointed upon arrival. No cars, no music, no people, no kegger. His point was that a life of continually looking for the next party was a surefire way to ensure you missed out on the moment. He loved everything there was to love about any given moment. He loved his job at Cisco and he poured himself into it. He was good at it. He loved the people with whom he worked. He also appreciated that it provided him with the ability to adequately fund his life of adventure. Though he enjoyed nice things, he was not materialistic in the least, he was an experientialist. This is probably best represented by the one way ticket he purchased to Australia in 1994. With the ticket in hand, a six-month work visa, a backpack, and nothing else, he went to Australia all by himself. Almost a year later, he came back with numerous friends, amazing stories, a wealth of knowledge, and an Australian accent of his own. I would tell Erik that he does the things that others claim that they want to do, yet have no intention of doing. He would normally respond with his favorite quote, which happened to come from Morgan Freeman’s character in Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Even at the end, where others would be focused on the dying, he was busy living. Erik never chased the keg, he was in fact the kegmaster, filling not only his cup, but the cups of anyone interested in getting “intoxicated by possibility” (a phrase he and I both have hanging on our walls).
C Students Run The World
Erik used to tell me that his IQ (intelligence quotient) was not all that high, but his EQ (emotional quotient; measure of emotional intelligence) was off the charts. He valued people with high intellect and he partnered with them with great frequency. As much as he valued those with a high IQ, he believed that it was people like him, those who understood people and could build relationships, were the ones who were most valuable in the workplace, the social scene, and the overall life experience. He was not boastful about his ability to connect with people, he was merely self-aware. He was also extremely empathetic. Empathy and self-awareness are at the core of emotional intelligence and Erik truly had a gift in each. Another characteristic that made this C-student so magnetic (never mind that he had over a 3.9 GPA in high school; college was a different story and his EQ carried the day at UC Davis) was the fact that he was visibly grateful for the experiences, the friendships, and opportunities that made his life what it was. Whether it was a hug, a card, a verbal thank-you, a custom gift, or his contagious smile, we all knew that he appreciated every day. Near the end of his adventure, his level of gratitude did not dissipate. I was not there at the time, but he did confide in my Dad (and maybe others) that he lived a good life and that even if it was going to be short, he was both pleased and grateful. He did not have a “bucket list” because he had been accumulating experiences and creating adventures for as long as I can remember. That said, he did tell my parents and me the day before he passed that he wanted to go wing suit flying and pontificated that he probably should do that sooner rather than later. There he was again, connecting with others and making us know that he was OK with what was inevitable at that point. I find that to be in sharp contrast with the behaviors I witness daily. Behaviors that scream more is not enough and now is too late. Erik self-assessed his EQ rather accurately (maybe even selling himself short) and though his being a C-student is debatable, he most certainly contributed much to those of us who were lucky enough to call him friend.
Erik Heritage was a phenomenal man, and though he was brother by blood to one, he was a brother through love to many, and an inspiration to all who knew him personally or by proxy. Whether you knew him or not, please reflect for a minute on your life.
- Are you “busy living” or “busy dying”?
- Are you developing your EQ as much as we are our IQ?
- Are you “chasing the keg” or enjoying the moment?
- Are you sharing with a purpose?
- Are you truly being friends to those you claim to value?