Earlier this year I quit myjob after 4 years on the grind.
I didn't quit to do an MBA or because I got a better job, and I didn't quit because I hated the long hours and travel.
I quit because of something I read. A simple article that changed how I think about life.
"Regrets of the Dying"
I found the article while procrastinating one day at the client office, probably between PowerPoint revisions or during the post-lunch lull. I was skimming through essays from Paul Graham's site, lazily clicking between articles as I waited for inspiration for the next great Y Combinator startup idea.
One essay that piqued my attention was titled "The Top of My Todo List", which talks about a palliative care nurse--called Bronnie Ware--that made a list of the biggest regrets of her dying patients. Paul linked to Bronnie's original article, titled "Regrets of the Dying".
Reading the list of dying regrets snapped me out of my mindless reading and shook me to the core. It's not an understatement to say that reading this single article has changed the course of my life.
When I had finished reading I came to the sobering conclusion that if I didn't change something soon then I would be echoing 4 of the 5 regrets while on my deathbed.
Here are the five regrets from the article, along with a painfully honest assessment of my life:
1. "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
FAIL -- I went into consulting because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated. A lot of people wanted , so I followed the herd and got myself hired. I worked hard for promotions for the same reason: because that's what everyone else wanted. It took me a while to realize, but all I was really doing was trying to win an imaginary status competition against my peers. It's only recently in life that I've started to really think for myself and figure out what I want to do in life.
2. "I wish I didn't work so hard."
FAIL -- Little explanation is required here: I worked nights, I worked weekends, and I travelled a lot. I still work extremely hard now on my business, but I don't regret a second of it. Maybe my priorities will change when I have a family. Regardless of how I feel now, Bronnie is pretty clear in saying "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."
PASS -- This was the only regret that I didn't have when I first read the list. I've always tried to say what I feel, even when it is inconvenient or pissed people off at work. But if I'd stuck it out at my job for another 4 years I doubt I'd still "PASS", as there is constant pressure at work to suppress your feelings in favour of "playing the game" with bosses and clients.
4. "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends."
FAIL -- I lost touch with a lot of friends in the first few years after university. Everyone moved to different cities, became busy with different jobs, and started making different friends. The convenience and proximity of school life gives the illusion that it's easy to maintain friendships, but it's a lot tougher in the "real-world". I haven't seen some of my closest friends from school since we graduated, and it's already one of my biggest regrets in life.
5. "I wish that I had let myself be happier."
FAIL -- If you had asked me while I was working if I was happy, I would have said "yes". But after a few months of time away from work, it's clear that I didn't really know what happiness was. Sure, I went out for nice dinners, travelled a lot, and bought stuff I wanted, but I no longer associate those things with happiness. Now I'm happy when I'm fully immersed in writing or working with a coaching client, when I'm going for a walk on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, or when I wake up before dawn to hangout with my girlfriend before she leaves for work. All of these activities are free, and all of these activities make me extremely happy.
How to live a life free of regret
My solution when I read this was to quit my job and start my own business, but I don't think this is the only approach or even the best approach. I think it's entirely possible to live a life free of these regrets while working an insane finance job -- it just takes a little honesty, planning, and effort.
Below are two activities that have helped me take control of my life. My life is a perpetual work in progress so these aren't perfect, but they helped me and they could help you.
Step #1: Be honest about the current state of your life
It took me around 6 months to quit my job after reading Bronnie's article. I could have sent a resignation email the minute I finished reading it, but I was in denial and I was scared. I tried to justify my career choices by pointing out all of my seemingly successful and happy colleagues, but the internal gnawing feeling wouldn't go away.
It took me a while to finally give an honest assessment of who I'd become after 4 years in the corporate world. It wasn't easy and it wasn't fun to realize that the life I was working so hard to build wasn't going to make me happy.
Take a few moments to objectively look at your life and give an honest assessment of whether you are happy with the direction you're heading. If you're happy then great, but if you're not then don't worry -- there are ways to take control and get things back on track.
Step #2: Build systems to protect what's important in life
The challenge with these regrets is that they are the result of tiny day-to-day decisions that accumulate over the extended timeline of your life. As Paul Graham says, "the mistakes that produce these regrets are all errors of omission [...] Errors of omission are a particularly dangerous type of mistake, because you make them by default." Paul's solution is simple: convert the 5 regrets into 5 commands that sit at the top of his to-do list. Don't ignore your dreams; don't work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy.
I've taken this a step further and have built weekly and daily systems to guarantee that I'm doing things to prevent these regrets. Things like journaling about my biggest goals in life, scheduling in time for long walks and meditation, and hosting monthly dinner parties with my closest friends. I literally put these into my schedule at the beginning of the week and prioritize them over a lot of other seemingly important things on my to-do list.
Most of us never think about dying, let alone how we'll feel about our entire life in the last moments. Talking about death is uncomfortable, scary, and emotional. It's a lot easier to live as if we are immortal than to face the inevitable truth that someday this party will end.
I guess I won't really know if the steps I've taken have worked for another 60 to 70 years, but for now there's peace of mind knowing that I'm trying to fix things before it's too late.
Alistair Clark is a former management consultant that runs worklifefitness.co. He's on a mission to help busy professionals (consultants, bankers, entrepreneurs, etc.) take control of their demanding careers and hectic lifestyles so that they can succeed at work, create a meaningful life, and maximize their health & fitness. Get started with a free eBook: Get in Shape and Save 11 Hours a Week.