Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Everyone Needs an Exit Interview
Some time back a regular client sent me to interview a person associated with them who had gone on to achieve great distinction. Even though it meant driving more than a hundred miles, they asked me to do the interview in person. The subject was seriously ill and awaiting major surgery, and the client wanted to be sure I could hear what was being said and evaluate the level of fatigue as the interview went on.
The interview took an hour and a quarter, and the subject never flagged. The voice was strong and clear; the answers lucid and detailed. As I walked out the door afterward I remember thinking, this was probably the best medicine the subject could have received: A chance to look back on past triumphs and important things done well.
I’ve interviewed other people who were ill or dying and had similar experiences. In one instance the person was so slow and confused when the interview was scheduled that I wondered if we should even be doing it. Then, on interview day, he was so sharp and precise and loquacious that I could hardly get a question in. He died eight weeks later.
For many years the New York Times had a reporter, Alden Whitman, whose job was to prepare obituaries of famous people, the ones who deserved the full treatment in America’s newspaper of record. They were written and kept on file so they could be pulled out when the moment arrived, whether after a long and public illness (Francisco Franco) or unexpectedly dropping dead on a golf course (Bing Crosby).
Whitman was almost never turned down when he requested an interview, and no wonder. Whatever one’s fears or expectations for an afterlife might be, knowing that the Times is going to give you the full obituary treatment has to take a bit of the sting out of death.
In today’s journalism, where nearly everything is done on the fly and on a shoestring, that sort of advance planning rarely occurs. From time to time our local papers are caught flat-footed when a newsmaker from the past shuffles off the mortal coil unexpectedly (or, perhaps more accurately considering the age of those involved, without prior notice to the press).
When that happens, it’s not unusual for me to get a call from a reporter seeking information or comment on someone whose public life I used to cover. No matter how busy I am, I always take time to help as much as I can, regardless of my feelings for the person. The wicked and the righteous alike deserve a good obituary, and obituaries of the wicked make for more interesting reading.
What the obituary and the interview have in common are the conferring of importance on a life. When an oral historian comes to the nursing home to do an interview with someone closing in on the end, it’s a validation. It’s saying to the person interviewed, “What you did is still interesting or important, even after all these years. I want to hear about it, and through me, others will, too.”
One of the great fears we carry with us through life, and one that can grow more acute with age, is that our lives were wasted or poorly spent. The person who’s interviewed late in life has to realize that’s not so. What a tonic. Medicare should pay to have everybody interviewed.