The email arrived Jan. 19 carrying the subject line "sudden loss."

It was from a man named Harry Hirsch, a reader of this column writing to tell me his wife, Libby Sohn-Hirsch, had died just days earlier at the age of 86.

He wrote in the email: "I remember so fondly her sitting at the breakfast table and laughing out loud at one of your columns and then reading it to me, even though I had just read it."

Touched beyond measure by this, I asked Harry if we might meet for coffee so I could learn more about Libby. We met soon after and he told me she had been "at the top of her game," but a problem came up following a minor surgery and, just like that, his love of 33 years was gone.

He showed me her obituary. She had written it herself, and it included a line that leapt out: "She was once asked to name four characteristics which personified her. She mentioned honesty, compassion, optimism, and perseverance."

Those traits carried her well throughout her working life, starting as an actor, a mother and an activist fighting for school integration then transitioning in 1973 to a new career in interior design. She retired in 1993 and remained ferociously active, tutoring children, taking classes, traveling.

Doing it all with honesty, compassion, optimism and perseverance. That, I thought, is advice worth sharing.

I've said in the past that we tend to overthink our workplace lives. What are the keys to success? What are the best ways to manage people? How do we win clients over?

There are thousands of books that attempt to answer those questions, many in ways that have become borderline indecipherable. I received an email pitch this week for a book called "9 Powerful Practices of Really Great Mentors: How to Inspire and Motivate Anyone."

I'm going to list the "nine practices" exactly as they were detailed in the email, and I want you to force yourself to read every word of this, no matter how hard it seems: Model Emotional Intelligence; Initially, Explore Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation; Build Rapport Through Understanding of Different People Styles; Identify and Pursue Stretch Goals; Reinforce the Importance of Safeguarding Credibility; Foster Strategic Thinking; Encourage the Protege to Draft an Initial Mentoring Plan, on His/Her Own; Identify and Leverage Teachable Moments; and Reinforce the Value of Lifelong Learning.

There are so many buzz words in that paragraph that it sounds like a highly agitated beehive. I'm sure there is some value and good thinking buried underneath all those terms I don't understand, but perhaps we are better off taking a break from exploring our intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and considering some more pragmatic advice.

Advice like Libby's: Honesty, compassion, optimism and perseverance.

You don't need a book-length explanation to figure out what to do with those words. They don't come with 20-step implementation plans or a flow chart for optimally leveraging teaching moments while utilizing the HCOPS (Honesty Compassion Optimism Perseverance Strategy).

They're signposts. They're words you tuck away and think about in that brief moment before you send a nasty email to a co-worker, or when you're just about to give up out of frustration. They're words that, hopefully, give you pause and lead you to at least consider doing the right thing.

That's what Libby did, and the results are reflected in a life well-lived.

Since she died, her husband has been overwhelmed – and buoyed – by the outpouring of support from those who knew and loved her. It hasn't been easy, of course, but Harry has taken a measure of comfort in seeing the positivity Libby put forth in life spring back through the words and actions of friends and family.

Work, like life, is complicated. Undoubtedly we can all benefit from learning specific techniques and approaches that make us better workers, co-workers or managers. But that learning collapses without a proper foundation, and that foundation is what Libby so perfectly described in her obituary.

Honesty. Compassion. Optimism. Perseverance.

Libby, I wish I'd known you. I wish I'd heard about those traits of yours in person rather than in the words you left behind.

But they'll stick with me. And now, I hope, they'll stick with others as well.



Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.


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