The soon to become “richest man in the world” had to make a decision.
“I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people, and I had a brilliant boss that I much admired,” recalled Jeff Bezos. “I went to my boss and told him I wanted to start a company selling books on the Internet. He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me, and finally said, ‘That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn’t already have a good job.’”
Bezos took 48 hours to think it through. Ultimately, his decision came down to one question:
Will I regret this decision at 80?
“When you think about the things that you will regret when you’re 80, they’re almost always the things that you did not do. They’re acts of omission. Very rarely are you going to regret something that you did that failed and didn’t work.” says Bezos.
It is true — Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, can confirm.
She shared the dying epiphanies of her patients in a blog post, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom.
Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:
1. 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. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
What’s your greatest regret?
Years from now, when you are at the end of your life, what would you trade then to be back here now for one chance — this chance — to be true to yourself?
On that day, what will you hope you decided to do today?
Reminding ourselves of our mortality puts life in perspective. When we realize how short our lives are on this planet, we can separate out the trivial from the important.
All of a sudden bickering with your spouse about washing dishes does not seem to matter any more. It helps us focus on what really matters, not just today, but over the course of our entire lives.
Most of us do our best to not to think about death but there’s always part of our minds that knows this can’t go on forever. Part of us always knows that we’re just a doctor’s visit away or a phone call away from being starkly reminded with the fact of our own mortality or of those closest to us.
I’m sure many of you have experienced this in some form. You must know how uncanny it is to suddenly be thrown out of the normal course of your life and just be given the full time job of “not dying” or caring for someone who is.
The one thing people tend to realize at moments like this is that they wasted a lot of time when life was normal… they cared about the wrong things. They regret what they cared about. Their attention was bound up in petty concerns year after year when life was normal.
This is a paradox, of course, because we all know this epiphany is coming.
Don’t you know this is coming? Don’t you know there’s going to come a day when you’ll be sick or someone close to you will die and you’ll look back at the kinds of things that captured your attention and you’ll think, “what was I doing?”
You know this, and yet if you’re like most people, you’ll spend most of your time in life tacitly presuming you’ll live forever.
There is a psychological phenomenon known as hyperbolic discounting where people choose smaller, immediate rewards rather than larger, later rewards.
Given a choice between $100 today or $120 in a week. Most people choose $100 today.
All important decisions in life requires us to fight off this natural desire for instant gratification.
Most of us have a tendency to focus on whatever is urgent right in this moment: emails, phone calls, texts, news stories. It is easy to get lost in the busyness of life and forget about the important tasks — the ones contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals.
Looking back from your deathbed helps to prioritize what’s important.
Once a quarter, I like to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and answer these questions:
- Are my goals still worth pursuing? Are they in alignment with my values and priorities?
- Am I excited to be doing what I’m doing or am I in aimless motion?
- If nothing changes in my life, what would I regret the most on my deathbed?
- Where do I want to be five years from now?
- If I can only achieve three things over the next three months what should they be?
If we do not remind ourselves of what is important, it is easy to be thrown off course. Quarterly reviews are a great way to course correct — like an airplane.
All airplanes are off course 99% of the time. The purpose and role of the pilot is to continually bring the plane back on course so that it arrives on schedule at its destination.
The key is to continuously course correct to avoid ending up with a life full of regrets.
It worked for Bezos, it might just work for you too.
I didn’t think I’d regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. So I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I’m proud of that choice.