Living life without regrets and 6 other life lessons Beau Biden taught me

“Hey man, come up and see me some time.” Those were Beau Biden’s last words to me.

At the time, we were paying our respects to a friend who had lost his father. Beau didn’t recognize me at first. It had been a couple years since I last saw him, I was 20 pounds lighter and a full-grown man. I recognized him of course, but not all of him. He was his usual frame but carved into the side of his head was a scar that was so foreign to my recollection of him that I had to pause. We both did a double take before Beau yelled out to me from the window of his Suburban, coaxing me to pay him a visit.

I never went to see him.

At the time, Delaware seemed like a world away. I was living in D.C. and going about the life I had built with my wife, far removed from the kid who got his start driving Beau around on his first campaign for Attorney General. Now, the distance is a universe away.

As I reflect on Beau I’ve experienced all the emotions and asked all the questions. How are Hallie and the kids holding up? Did they have time to prepare for this moment? Would that have even mattered? What was going through Beau’s mind in those final days? And these questions lead to deeper, probing questions that make you dig a bit. Why has this impacted me so deeply? I mean, I only worked for him for a couple years, right? But why can’t I remember all the good times, every last detail? And then the questions that make you shake your head and stare into nothingness. What lay in store for him had he lived? Why him? But above all else, what hadn’t I taken him up on his offer and gone to see him?

When I joined Beau’s campaign for Attorney General in 2006 I was fresh out of college, looking for a journalism gig in D.C. A soon-to-be friend of mine asked me to volunteer for the campaign. A handful of weeks later I was brought on as the state field director.

It was a lean and mean operation — just six or seven of us on the payroll and Beau. At times, though, it seemed like the entire State of Delaware had come out to lend a hand, a feeling that resurfaced seeing the crowd at his visitation Friday. On such a small campaign being field director meant many things. Showering the state with road signs, calling through list upon list of senior centers to schedule a visit, setting up and breaking down press conferences, knocking on doors until you were bloody in the knuckles. The normal campaign fare. But it also meant getting to drive Beau up and down the state endlessly, to every event, meeting and neighborhood where voters stood to be persuaded. In that time, Beau taught me some very poignant things about myself and about life.

  1. You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there. Beau did what he did because he cared. More important, he was eternally present for people because of his devotion to them. During the campaign he lived somewhat of a crazed life making time and space for every person who invited him in. I can only imagine that habit persisted. He soaked in every handshake and every drawn-out story someone made him sit through because he genuinely cared about people. You can’t fake that. If you don’t care about something, get out and find the thing you do care about.
  2. Laughter goes a long way to being happy. He wasn’t a jokester, but Beau was massively funny. When it was time to be serious, he was. But in the times between he kept it light. Nothing seemed to get him down. Don’t sweat the small stuff and always keep it fun.
  3. Family is everything. The Bidens have an amazingly close family, a storybook version of some idealistic past we all aspire to live. And they also have a unique way of staying close to their enormous extended family, the hundreds if not thousands of people they’ve touched over the years, who have worked for them and who have been impacted by them. Standing in the receiving line Friday, my wife commented on the diversity of the people who showed up — young, old, wealthy, poor, black, white, Hispanic. We were all there. Being part of the Biden family meant being part of the club. It was the place where everybody, the Bidens included, knew your name. When my brother died, Beau called me from Iraq. That’s dedication, and family. Build your own club, and cherish the people in it.
  4. Find your calling and nail it. Beau was laser-focused on protecting the most vulnerable among us, seniors and kids. During the campaign, some journalists questioned whether it was all a campaign ploy. Boy, were they wrong. Beau made hard decisions at the Department of Justice and built a team that put away some awful people because the Beau I knew believed strongly this was his calling. I traveled the state with him once he entered office presenting to groups of school kids about the threat from online predators. After one of these presentations he turned to me and said, “you know, this is one of the most important things we’re doing.” He was in an endless pursuit of doing the important things. When presented with an easy ride to the U.S. Senate he balked — he had a job to do. Build your career around your passion and never deviate.
  5. If you’re good to them, people will follow you. Beau amassed a following of dedicated loyalists not because he was successful, but because he was good to them and did good things in the truest form. His genuineness is something you don’t find often in politics. It permeated him and inspired all of us to be better. Being good to people and having true intentions sweetens success.
  6. The power of one person is profound. It’s hard to believe one person could have this effect on so many people in such a personal way. I was in his life on a daily basis for a brief moment in time, but the impact he had on me has molded me into the person I am today. If you strive for what’s better this will be reflected in your ability to transform the people around you. And they will love you for it. Recognize your value to the people around you and relentlessly grow it.

There are so many more lessons to this story, a number that is only compounded by the sheer volume of people Beau brought into his life. For me, the lessons are about life but they are also about being a husband, being a good son, building a stellar career and, perhaps one day, being a father others can look up to. I owe my success and my outlook in life in many ways to Beau. The last lesson he taught me, after he passed away, began with those final words he yelled out from the window of the Suburban.

7. Live life without regrets. We constantly spend our energy focusing on things and people that don’t really matter to us. It’s so easy to get caught up in the small stuff. When something does matter, that’s where you should be spending your time. Those are the things you should lose sleep over, the reasons to work until two in the morning, the people to go out of the way to see. One day, life ends for us all. Make sure the last thing on your mind is not what you regret but what and who you lived for.
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