Perry was clear that he wanted to be remembered for helping others get sober. That kind of conviction has a good life lesson for us all on the work that really matters.
Before he died, Matthew Perry talked about how he wanted to be remembered ― and it wasn’t for playing Chandler Bing on “Friends.“
The 54-year-old actor, who was found dead in his hot tub on Saturday, became world famous for his work on the sitcom. But the actor was open about how he dealt with alcoholism and drug addiction throughout his life ― and it was helping others stay sober that he wanted to be remembered for.
In a 2022 interview with “Q with Tom Power,” Power read a line from Perry’s memoir: “You said in the book, ‘I think you have to have all your dreams come true to realize they’re the wrong dreams.’” He then asked Perry, “What are the dreams now?”
“The best thing about me, bar none, is if somebody comes up to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say, ‘Yes,’ and follow up and do it. That’s the best thing,” Perry answered. “I’ve said this for a long time, when I die, I don’t want ‘Friends’ to be the first thing that’s mentioned. I want that to be the first thing that’s mentioned, and I’m going to live the rest of my life proving that.”
And in his actions, he did that: Perry turned one of his former Malibu mansions into a men’s sober living facility called Perry House, and he advocated on behalf of drug courts where people with substance abuse problems go to supervised programs with treatment instead of being incarcerated for their offenses. He received the Champion of Recovery Award by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2013.
It’s a reminder that even though your career achievements may be how others remember you, you get to decide what is actually important ― and often, it’s not about work.
For Perry, he made his desired legacy as a person who helped others get sober loud and clear.
“When I see what Matthew Perry hoped his legacy would be, I see him sharing what he valued most: helping to ease people’s journeys and leaving the world better than he found it,” said Lauren Appio, a psychologist, executive coach and organizational consultant.
Prioritizing what’s important at our core and not just what others want for you is an important life skill.
“What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?” Appio said. “Will they be telling stories about how you stayed up until 4 a.m. to make the perfect deck? Probably not. How you want to be remembered will help you name some of your cherished values.”
Here’s what we can learn about work/life priorities from Perry’s viewpoint:
How you make others feel will be more rewarding than accomplishments on a resume.
For Perry, helping others get and stay sober was a major part of a life lived well. Helping others is a commonly desired value, therapists say.
California-based licensed clinical psychologist Ryan Howes notes that when he talks to clients assessing their work, it’s most often about how their work impacted people in direct or indirect ways.
“For me, this helps bolster an idea that we’re mostly humanitarian at heart, and that we view a life well-lived as a life that touches and enhances the lives of others,” he said.
California-based licensed therapist Aimee Monterrosa said it’s common for clients to focus on helping others when they reflect about their past.
“I have had clients say that they feel good about helping others because they know what it’s like to lack support, or lack feeling cared for or seen and that in being helpful to others, they are ensuring that people don’t experience that kind of darkness,” she said. “Like they are giving light back to the world even if they don’t always experience lightness themselves.”
When asked by Power in the 2022 interview about what he gets out of helping people get sober, Perry said: “It fills your heart, you see the lights coming on for a new person.“
Giving back is also a known way to help yourself feel better, too. “Research has found altruism helps decrease isolation, create a sense of belonging, keeps things in perspective, and can promote physiological changes in the brain that contribute to happiness,” said Chicago-based psychotherapist Cathy Ranieri. “How meaningful that Perry wanted to highlight this as his legacy.”
And it’s a legacy he’s remembered for. When “Friends” guest actor Hank Azaria talked about Perry, he did not focus on Perry’s role. Azaria shared how Perry was the friend who helped Azaria get sober.
“The night I went into AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], Matthew brought me in,” he said in an Instagram post after Perry died. “The whole first year I was sober, we went to meetings together … I got to tell him this, as a sober person, he was so caring and giving and wise, and he totally helped me get sober.”
There are ways to assess what’s actually important to you.
If your career is a driving purpose of your life and you wish it was not, know that that is OK. That’s by design.
“Work takes over our lives because, for most of us, we need to work to earn money to live our lives. And we’ve also been inundated with other people’s values about financial success and prestige our whole lives,” Appio said. “It can be hard to differentiate what we truly value from what we’ve been told is important.”
If you’re unsure of how you want to be remembered, try these exercises:
Practice the art of slowing down.
Go for a 10-to-20-minute walk, journal, get coffee with a friend, or take yourself on a solo date, Monterrosa said. That helps us “to get off autopilot and ask ourselves what we need or what is missing that would help us feel connected and really grounded,” she said. “We are often encouraged to over identify with work and to me, real self-care is about being able to recognize when you need to put yourself first, no excuses.“
Take a look at the photos in your phone.
“Which pictures matter the most to you? Your vacations? Your time with friends? Your pets? That slide from a work conference?” Howes said. “Just be aware of what jumps out as meaningful moments or relationships, and see how you can prioritize that in your life.”
Pay attention to what went well in your day.
Monterrosa said she tells clients to practice identifying something that went well that day or brought them joy or something they feel grateful for. “Whether it’s a moment with a loved one, the completion of a task or simply that they had the best grilled cheese pull ever –– it’s a buildable daily practice in noticing the simple and feel-good things happening to us,” she said.