Its part of the human condition that we just get caught up in life. When we are charging through the undergrowth we don’t see the trees, let alone the wood. As a consequence we often don’t get time to identify what is really important in life until its too late. Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, captured this beautifully when she wrote about the deepest regrets of the patients she nursed through the final weeks of their lives.
In a striking parallel, in 2005 Steve Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University and urged the young graduates to remind themselves every day of their mortality. He recommended this as a sure fire way of staying focused on what is really important, on what really matters in life.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Let’s look at what Bronnie Ware and Steve Jobs said and then draw some important insights.
Five regrets of the dying – Bronnie Ware
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. – This was the most common regret of all, that they had not followed their dreams but resigned themselves to the lives other’s expected of them.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. – Every male patient regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of work.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. – By suppressing their feelings in order to keep the peace with others, they had settled for a mediocre existence and never achieved their full potential.
I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends. – Golden friendships had been lost and as death approached it was too late to track them down.
I wish I had let myself be happier. – When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.
The Stanford Commencement Address – Steve Jobs
Connecting the Dots. – Follow your instincts, do what interests you. At the time it may be difficult to see how a particular interest or activity has any connection with your career or life goals. That’s because life is simply too complicated and too unexpected to be able to connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life karma whatever. Steve claimed that this approach never let him down and interests that seemed obscure and irrelevant at the time turned into a source of great value in later life.
Love and Loss. – To paraphrase Steve’s words, ‘Shit happens’. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick, don’t lose faith. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. So when disaster strikes you can reassess and learn from your mistakes, but if you truly love what you do you will overcome even the greatest of setbacks.
Death. – In the face of death, almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
In closing his speech, Steve Jobs urged the young graduates to, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.”
Here are the insights I have gained from both of these inspirational teachings.
Put Love and Friendships front and centre stage. – One of our greatest failings as human beings is to take our most important relationships for granted. It’s like continental drift, slowly and imperceptibly we allow ourselves to drift apart. In the end life boils down to love and relationships, that’s all that remains.
Live a life true to yourself. – It is not just the expectations of others that influence our decisions and our destiny. Our cultural norms and beliefs are like an ocean current that pull us along in their invisible embrace. These beliefs are so ingrained in our society that we are often unaware of the strong influence they exert on us. Ultimately, only a few of us will avoid the final regret of not following our dreams, it takes exceptional courage to walk our own path and disregard the disapproval of others.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”
Henry David Thoreau
Be Authentic in your Relationships – Have the courage to be open and honest. Give your opinions the same respect you give to the opinions of others. Friends are often startled and surprised when we speak openly and honestly, but it usually brings our relationships to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from our lives. As Bronnie Ware observed, either way, we win.
Follow your passion. – Follow your instincts and gut feelings, if something interests you, do it. Life is a jigsaw, but when it ends how much better to have something that resembles a lived life, not just a lot of white space. As Steve Jobs learned, we cannot join the dots going forward, we have to trust they will connect looking back.
Love your work. – We are all different, we all love different things, but find the work you love to do. If you are a round peg don’t hammer yourself into a square hole it will only damage you. If you haven’t found the work you love, keep looking, never settle. Don’t choose a job or a career because it pays the most, stress and dissatisfaction are too high a price to pay.
Don’t spend all your life on the treadmill of work – It may be our culture, it may be an unquestioned norm of our society, but is it right, is it good for us? Our relationships, our physical and mental well-being all need a balanced life. Work can provide important social contact and a sense of purpose and achievement, but not at the expense of our vital relationships. Time spent with our partners, children, family and friends nurtures and deepens our bonds of love and affection.
Choose Happiness – Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish – Always remember happiness is a choice. We can nurse an injustice, or we can let it go. Life is short, make time for fun.