The Best of Bob – Edition #3


Part II – How do you measure significance? — My Book of Days

In my last museletter, we discussed the fact that the difficulty of measuring significance keeps many people frozen in Life I. I mentioned a long letter I received from Peter Drucker fifteen years ago that clarified my mission and pretty much set the DNA for the fifteen years since – and my life’s work. In the letter, Peter wrote, “Your first role is the personal one … This is something only you can do. It is not something that can be measured or can be easily defined. But it is not only a key function. It is one only you can perform.”

As addicted as I always have been to measuring performance and contribution, I struggled for years to find a way to add it all up, especially as I became less and less involved in running up the score in business (achievement) and more and more involved in what I speak of when I say, “The fruit of my work grows up on other people’s trees” (contribution).

In the second stage of my life, it’s all about relationships. All that will remain when I’m gone will be those parts of me that I have invested in the lives of others. But how do I make that concrete enough to satisfy my compulsive need to measure results? What’s the human side of this Life II enterprise?

I think I have found a way. I call it my Book of Days. If I were to make a picture of my life of relationships, it would be a mosaic. A mosaic consists of fragments – little bits and pieces. Individually, they seem like random sizes and colors, but assembled as they are, for example, in the ceiling of St. Peter’s in Rome, they make a coherent picture. You have to step back a bit to see the pattern, but when you do, it snaps into focus. For instance, look at this mosaic assembled from random stones.

Our relationships and encounters are the fragments of our lives. They come at us from all directions – an e-mail, a cell phone call, a planned meeting, an utterly random hallway encounter. Clarity about calling and mission is what fits them together to make a picture.

The New Testament describes forty-seven encounters of Jesus with individual people. Each one is highly personal. No two are treated alike (think of Mary, Martha, Judas, Pilate). Most of my life now is spent in encounters with individuals. Some lead to big outcomes, others not. Some are long projects – writing books, convening meetings, speaking to large groups, but quite a few are “just conversations.”

My Book of Days is my way of making a mosaic out of the fragments of my life. Here’s how it came about. A few years ago, Linda and I went to see an art exhibit for Robert Longo at Metro Pictures in New York. As we entered Metro’s cavernous Tribeca gallery, what we saw took our breath away. There were 365 pictures – all the same size (about 2 feet x 3 feet), all framed exactly the same, all done in the same medium (black and white – pen, ink, paint and charcoal on velum).

Longo, a stunningly gifted artist, lives and works in New York, where he is impacted each day by a barrage of images from the media. For this exhibit, he had painted and drawn a memorable image for each day of his life for a year – 365 images for 365 days. Wow! To see them all at once – an enormous mosaic that represented a year of what got through Longo’s filter, of what remained … strong forceful images.

The gallery was selling these pictures in patterns of ten selected by the artist. I said, “Great!” Linda said, “No way. I’m not letting Robert Longo take over my home!” I reasoned this way and that over a long, civilized lunch at Union Square Café, but it was no deal.

Well rats! But as the afternoon of other gallery visits wore on, an idea gradually dawned on me. “I can do this!” my mind said. “I can collect the fragmentary encounters of my life – and it’s worth doing.” So that afternoon, I went to Borders and bought my first Book of Days – blank pages large enough to hold an 8-1/2-inch x 11-inch letter. That day, I pasted an artifact that would bring the day back to mind. And I’ve done that every day since for almost three years now – a mosaic of the little pieces of my life.

Since most of my life is now hopefully devoted to contribution and significance, that’s most of what is in my Book of Days – a kind of treasure chest of what I’ve attempted to do and how people have responded – individual lives, one at a time – very human, much warmer. and more alive than numbers. It’s my “gift from heaven,” right there in a very alive, human format. It’s a reminder that my life has pattern and meaning to it. I usually review several pages each week, six to nine months after the fact, and there is always a coherence to it, a sense of direction. It’s encouraging.

People ask all the time (see the e-mail below, for instance), “How do I discover my mission in life?” I always say, “It’s right there in your life and it has been there a long, long time. You just need to back up and see the pattern.”

The mission is in the mosaic. And the mosaic is made up of the fragmentary encounters of your life. It takes some thought, but it is right there, waiting to be discovered. The pattern is there. Try it. You will see.

Bob challenged us with these questions…

  1. Could you do a Book of Days? Sure you could! All it takes is a blank pages book, some scissors, a glue stick, five minutes a day and the raw material of your life.
  2. What is the “mission in the mosaic” in your life – the good things and the hard things? What is the pattern?
  3. Looking at the pattern, what does it indicate life probably has in store for you next?


In 1988 Bob wrote his goals for life.  They are brilliant.  I don’t think Bob would ever recommend adopting someone else’s goals but this is surely worth studying to understand how a tremendously productive man approached life. <<click on the image to see Bob’s goals>>

Goals for Life
Robert P. Buford