Most of us have been brought up with a strong mindset of planning and building our futures. From a young age we’re taught that it’s necessary to get good grades so we can get into the right college which will give us the right career opportunities so that we can get married to a suitable spouse, afford quality housing, yearly vacations, offer our children the ‘good life’ and have enough saved up for retirement.
It’s not difficult to put the blinders on and race towards these goals as quickly as possible, little realizing that a bit of the future is arriving at our doorstep every day. A popular quotation puts it this way, “First I was dying to finish high school and start college. Then I was dying to finish college and start working. Then I was dying to marry and have children. Then I was dying for my children to grow old enough for school so I could return to work. Then I was dying to retire. And now, I am dying…. and suddenly I realize I forgot to live.” (Anonymous)
The need for strategic thinking and future planning is essential, without it we would float aimlessly through life and feel purposeless like a ‘plastic bag drifting through the wind’. The important aspect of this exercise becomes broad thinking and not neglecting certain aspects of life which seem more intangible but could have a huge impact on our long term satisfaction.
One place where we can go to find clues on what is important is from those who have experienced life threatening circumstances and have been given a unique perspective on their lives.
An example of this is Ric Elias, a front row passenger on the Airbus that crash-landed in the Hudson River in New York, January 2009. Ric recently shared his story at a TED conference. He shared three lessons that he learned in the short span of time as he heard the pilot’s voice announce, “Brace for impact” over the PA system and before his plane crashed onto the river.
Lesson number 1: Life changes in an instant. Life is unpredictable and can be too short; it can be snuffed out in a moment without warning. Don’t take life for granted. If you have a bottle of wine and a person to share it with, open it. The special occasion is right now.
Lesson number 2: There is no place for personal ego. Ric regretted wasting time on things that didn’t matter with people who mattered. He has since worked on ridding his life of negativity that gets in the way of genuine relationships. Since that time he hasn’t had a fight with his wife.
Lesson 3: He realized he loved his life and the most important thing to him was to see his children growing up. He now lives to be the best dad to his children.
One of the most intimate questions we will ask ourselves at the end of our life is, “What would I do differently if I had to live my life over again.” The humourist and cartoonist Don Herold’s poem on the topic, which has been widely circulated on the internet is worth reading in that it forces us to think about the question in light of the years we have left rather than from a perspective of hindsight.
If I had to live my life over again
Of course, you can’t unfry an egg, but there is no law against thinking about it.
If I had my life to live over, I would try to make more mistakes.
I would relax. I know of very few things that I would take seriously.
I would go more places. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less bran.
I would have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary troubles.
You see, I have been one of those fellows who live prudently and sanely, hour after hour, day after day.
Oh, I have had my moments. But if I had it to do over again, I would have more of them – a lot more.
I never go anywhere without a thermometer, a gargle, a raincoat and a parachute.
If I had it to do over, I would travel lighter.
If I had my life to live over, I would pay less attention to people telling us we must learn Latin or History; otherwise we will be disgraced and ruined and flunked and failed.
I would seek out more teachers who inspire relaxation and fun.
If I had my life to live over, I would start barefooted a little earlier in the spring and stay that way a little later in the fall.
I would shoot more paper wads at my teachers.
I would keep later hours.
I’d have more sweethearts.
I would go to more circuses.
I would be carefree as long as I could, or at least until I got some care- instead of having my cares in advance.
I doubt, however, that I’ll do much damage with my creed.
The opposition is too strong.
There are too many serious people trying to get everybody else to be too darned serious.
– Don Herold
His answer is of course completely subjective which may resonate with us in some ways but fails to completely answer the question for us personally and it’s not meant to. What Ric Elias’ story and Don Herold’s poem ask of us is to think about our life in broader terms, to make changes now so that years from today our poem is shorter than Don Herold’s.