I’m approaching one of those big birthdays and I’m wondering, “Am I where I wanted to be at this stage in my life?” If I’m honest I have to say, “No, not completely.” Maybe you’d say the same.
Sure, life has dealt me some large and unexpected twists and turns (health issues, where I live, who’s my employer, kids, interpersonal relationships, all kinds of things!). Even so, the real trajectory of my life is dictated by the choices I make (or don’t make), and by my response to events rather than the events themselves.
This became more poignant when I read one day of the top regrets of the dying. The top regret of all is not having the courage to live life true to oneself. That’s the single most common regret, the thing people would most liked to have changed. And it doesn’t matter your age, gender, nationality, religion, or socio-economic background. It’s virtually universal.
I don’t want to be content with only having avoided some mistakes in life. I want to be aiming at something. Something meaningful. I want to get to the end of my days and know I've lived a life true to myself. I've made progress over the years but I've still got a long way to go and it’s worth thinking about the path I’m on, where I've been and where I’m headed. To avoid the number one regret we have to ask, what does it mean to live true to oneself? Perhaps it’s easier to start by saying what it isn't.
"I want to get to the end of my days and know I've lived a life true to myself."
My biggest mistake is being distracted by busy-ness. You know, being so busy that we neglect being the men and women we really want be.
Our human BE-ing should direct our human DO-ings. The best hours and years of our lives are spent doing work. There’s nothing wrong with that. Human beings were designed for work and meaningful work done well is balm to the soul.
But ask yourself, is the work you’re doing satisfying? Or have you fallen victim to one of the classic blunders—working for money. Over 120 years of research has repeatedly and conclusively shown that how much we earn is not a good motivator.
When money becomes a primary goal, when making a difference is over taken by making a buck, passion dies. At best, money should be seen as the reward for good work, not the goal of our work. The real goal, if we are to avoid regret, is to make our work count for something.
"What satisfies your soul? Who do you really want to be? How will your life matter? What kind of a legacy do you want to leave?"
I maintain that the work you choose to do comes from who you are. Indeed, all our choices about how we live and what we do are based on who we are. In light of that, I want to challenge you to consider what really matters to you. What satisfies your soul? Who do you really want to be? How will your life matter? What kind of a legacy do you want to leave?
When I started Percipient Studios years ago, I was so desperate for clients that I’d say, "Yes!" to any work that came my way. Even if I didn't know anything about the tools and technologies requested. I needed the money. So I lied and said, "of course, I know how to do that!"
It was a recipe for many disasters. I worked many, many hours and slept few. My effective hourly rate tumbled to less than minimum wage. I was barely scraping by financially, I was exhausted and grumpy, and I was neglecting not only sleep but also my wife and kids. Oh, and the quality of my work was really bad. I was miserable.
Being some kind of omni-competent, über-impressive, go-getter with his own business: surely that is the pinnacle of success, right? In the movies, those higher up the corporate ladder always look happy and successful.
I was running the rat race of bigger house, better job, nicer stuff… and, all too often, bigger credit card bills. If we listen to the advertisers and marketers, we only need make a little more money to buy something a bit nicer, and then we’d really arrive. Arrive where? At the status of cool for a few minutes before fashion moves on?
When at last in frustration and disillusionment I turned away from the seemingly-compelling marketing messages, I found something precious. I found commiseration, clarity, and courage from people who had travelled this road before me. People who had fought (and sometimes lost) the battle. Who had learned something about themselves, their businesses, and what’s important in life. People who said out loud the things I’d been thinking on the inside. I didn’t find it in business school, leadership magazines, or by listening to the blaring, ever-present voices on the radio, the television, the movies, or in seminars. No, I found it in the nitty-gritty world of real life.
Two people in particular have spoken sense and talked straight into my soul: Niels Hartvig, the founder of Umbraco (check out this inspiring, behind-the-scenes article) and Zack Arias, a photographer from Atlanta.
Reflecting on what he learned after his business imploded and he lost everything in bankruptcy Zack said:
I used to subscribe to the philosophy of “fake it till you make it.” When I talked to people, I embellished what I was working on to make it sound bigger and more important than it really was. I wanted them to think, “Wow, this guy really knows what he’s doing and he’s working on really great projects.” I wasn’t, but I wanted people to think I was so they’d hire me.
After I lost everything, I decided I wasn’t going to be proud, arrogant, or overconfident anymore. I was just going to be me. If I was shooting pictures of toilets that day, then I would just be honest with people and say, “Yep, I’m shooting pictures of toilets. That’s what I’m doing.” Whatever gear I had was the gear I was going to use. I wasn’t going to go into debt again. If I was struggling, I wasn’t going to be the guy staring at his navel saying, “Woe is me.” I decided to keep my head up, my hand to the plough, and be busy at work.
Having that kind of attitude made a big difference in my life, career, and business.
(Read Zack’s entire article)
Contemplating a change to the trajectory of your life will seem risky. Your brain screams you’re being foolish. Your heart and soul know better. Listen to that inner-voice! Being true to yourself makes an enormous difference in both how and why you do what you do.
For me, the process started unexpectedly; I was having lunch with my wife. "What I need to do is get good at something," I said, "instead of being mediocre at lots of things. Then I’d know how long a project should take. I'd know how much to charge. I'd know what’s easy and what’s difficult. I’d be able to work less and sleep more. I could actually do a decent job."
My complaining had revealed the outline of my dream! What I wanted, what my soul craved, was to get my life back, and to do really good work that I could be proud of, that others found valuable.
“What I need to do is get good at something,” I said, “instead of being mediocre at lots of things."
That conversation was transformational. And saying it out loud to someone else made it real, rather than just another gripe session inside my head I could too-quickly forget.
How are we to pursue our dreams? Even a great pep talk doesn’t help with the bills or magically heal broken relationships. It’s a process that takes time. And it’s probably going to be a lot of effort until you get the key areas established.
Here are five steps to help us get started well.
1. Be an expert
We need to become true craftsmen, thoroughly competent with our tools. Take classes. Become an apprentice. Get the appropriate certifications. Be diligent. Practice, practice, practice. If nothing else, take a typing course to increase your speed and accuracy!
2. Do the work you want
Prospective clients look at your portfolio to see what you’re good at. It needs to be full of the kind of work you want to do. If it isn’t, start working in that new area while not giving up your existing income. Do the new work on the side, in the evening or on weekends. It’s only for a season, not for the rest of your life — overwork isn’t something you should intend to do forever, but it’s a way to transition from the life you have to the life you want. Start small, do it as a hobby, provide free pro bono work (for me, that’s photography). Get involved. Develop your skills and build a portfolio that shows the kind of work you want to do. Eventually people will start paying you to do exactly that kind of work because of your real-world knowledge, experience and proven portfolio.
3. Live simply
You’ll find enormous freedom to pursue your dream when you don’t have to worry about money. Get on top of your expenses. My wife and I went through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, and learned not only to live within our means, but below them. It turns out we don’t actually need very much to be happy. Even with an incredibly tight budget, we paid off debt and slowly saved up for purchases and could then make them with no guilt whatsoever. No debts, confidence in our decisions, and the joy of giving money away. Sure, we had no meat or cheese for a while but it was worth it!
4. Fire the client (or the boss)
With some monetary freedom you’ll be able to reconsider who you work for. If you don’t want to work with (or for) them… fire them! They aren’t worth it to you or your business. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, trust your gut! Finish the project and don’t accept any more work from them. Instead, do the work you want to do with people you enjoy working with. The Chief Happiness Officer is right, relationships and results go hand-in-hand.
5. Pay it forward
It’s sometimes tempting to focus on the negatives and think about ways to pay people back. Choose, instead, to focus on the good things you already have. Remember the people who have been kind, helpful, and friendly and pay that forward. “Paying it forward” is the idea that we should repay the good deeds done to us, by doing good to others.
For me, this was a lot of time spent on the Umbraco forum. It started out as just trying to figure things out for myself but became a way of helping others. Whenever I had a break between projects or spare time in the office, I’d answer forum questions. It feels great to help others, and more than once I’ve found that, when I put others first, things go surprisingly well for me, too.
When we arrive at the pearly gates and look back over our lives, will we be satisfied or have all-too-common regrets? Will we have had the courage to be true to ourselves? Will we have made a difference? Will we have allowed ourselves to be happy and not worked too much?
"Be the person you want to be. Be true to yourself."
Listen to your own inner voice. Begin with, “I’d have fewer regrets if I …” or “What I really want to be is …” Find your dream. Be the person you want to be. Be true to yourself. And from that BE-ing, you’ll find your way to the appropriate DO-ing. Make a plan and tell someone about it. Then work your plan, steadily but surely. And never, ever give up on your dream.
While I’ve made some progress toward my dream over the years there’s still further to go. I’d have fewer regrets if I ate better and exercised more. I want to spend half an hour, at least five times a week, in prayer and meditation. I want to learn to play the piano. I want to improve my photography skills so I’ll do pro bono work at least once a quarter to push myself to grow. There, I’ve said it out loud! Now you can hold me to it.
Please share your own dreams and plans in the comments below.