Sunday, July 09, 2023

Keep the pearls, lose the rest

On July 1, I shifted to emeritus status at the university where I’ve been teaching for the past 12 years. We’ve come to use “emeritus” as an honorary term where those who retire from a position are permitted to keep the last title they held. I’ll still have office space on campus and may teach from time to time if the school would like me to and I’m still capable of doing so.

While I will also continue to teach and consult elsewhere, I have set a goal for myself for the first several months of tending to a rigorous purge of all of the boxes and files of materials that have accumulated in my attic and basement at home during the past several decades of my work life.

Along with boxes of books I’ve written and a lot of positive memorabilia accumulated are several folders of old correspondence, not all of it pleasant. Some of my poorly written graduate school papers that I’ve kept for some reason, perhaps hoping they would strengthen with time. (They haven’t.) A pile of letters from various publishers letting me know how uninterested they were in a book proposal. A handful of letters from readers letting me know just how wrong I was in a column I had written with expressed wonderment about how I ever got asked to write a column in the first place. And a couple of particularly tough letters from my father who was disappointed about a decision I had made or my own disappointment I had expressed about a decision he had made.

Old notebooks, ephemera from a long-ago holiday, matchbook covers from restaurants that must have meant something at the time (my favorites are the ones that have pre-printed “name” and “phone number” inside the cover nodding to the pre-cellphone method of collecting a stranger’s number at some joint) will all be easy to part with.

But the several folders of disappointments give me some pause. Perhaps I have held onto them to remind myself of the bumps along the road to more pleasant memories. Now, however, with this commitment to a great purge to lighten the things I carry, is it time to let these things go?

As with many philosophical questions I’ve faced over my adult life, I turn for advice to my best friend of 55 years, who retired recently himself after a long career writing for the Muppets.

“That’s what shredders are for,” he responded without hesitation after I texted him asking advice about whether to keep any of this stuff, particularly the letters from my father. “Try to dwell on the bright moments of the past. Shred the letters, for it irritates you and will likely not result in pearl.”

I’ve also kept an old fax/answering machine that I haven’t used in a decade because it had some voicemails on it from my grandkids when they were toddlers. In finally transferring the voicemails to an online digital file so I could recycle the machine, I came across a lovely voicemail from my father “just checking in.” It’s the only recording I have of the voice of my father, who died in the first months of the pandemic in 2020. Keeping that message seems the right thing to do. It’s already a pearl.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

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Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


1 comment:

Vikram said...

Beautiful blog-post, Professor Seglin. Keep the pearls; shred the rest. Lovely message. It is relevant for old letters, paper documents, and even perhaps things we hold onto in our minds. Here's wishing you a fabulous next chapter!