What really matters

Dying is an intense sad process, but there is another side to it as well: people often take the opportunity to reflect.

As a doctor I have the privilege to talk to people who are nearing the end of their lives. A while back I asked one of my wonderful 85-year old patients what had been most important in her life.

She didn’t need much time to think, and said: “That has to be my family, doctor, and the move from England to Australia with my husband.” Her loved ones, and the journey that changed her life – she couldn’t have been more concise.

I asked myself: what matters most? I found three inspiring life lessons.

#1: Achieving childhood dreams

Randy Pausch was a professor in computer science who died of pancreatic cancer. He became well-known after he gave a lecture titled The last lecture: Really achieving your childhood dreams. It went viral on YouTube.

In the video below Pausch gives another, shorter, inspiring speech to university students about how to live your life well by nourishing relationships with others and expressing passion. Pausch died 68 days after giving the speech.

#2: Don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid not to try

“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” Apparently Steve Jobs asked this question everyday, and it has become a guiding principle for many. Like Randy Pausch, Jobs was looking for passion: “There is no reason not to follow your heart,” he says in one of his famous speeches. Jobs reminds us that all negatives, like fear of embarrassment or failure, just fall away in the face of death.

#3: Begin with the end in mind

One way of following your heart is to begin with the end in mind. This principle is very similar to Steve Jobs’ philosophy, and it’s habit two of Covey’s famous 7 habits of highly effective people:

(It) is based on imagination – the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default.

A patient once told me that he and his wife took their four-wheel drive and caravan five times on a trip around Australia. I said I’d love to do the same one day but that five times was a hard act to follow. He looked at me and replied: “Aim for it.”

When I listen to my terminally ill and elderly patients, they remind me – like Pausch, Jobs and Covey – to keep on trying, have fun and be there for others.

Don’t wait until tomorrow

Over the years I’ve known several people who became ill shortly after their retirement. I remember one hardworking business man who suddenly died after he signed off. He left his wife behind with the tickets for their world trip.

Our emigration to Australia is part of the our dream. My wife and I feel privileged that we have been able to find a beautiful spot where we are truly happy. I try to teach my kids to do what they love and to enjoy the journey.

It’s a recurring theme in discussions with patients: how to give passion a place in your life, now, not later. It is easy to do and can be as simple as blocking off a few designated hours every week.

But sometimes I forget. It’s easy to lose myself in daily routines, busy schedules and tight deadlines. Everyday business sometimes seems more important than my dreams. There are always plenty of reasons why not to do something I’m passionate about.

So I remind myself, like some businesses do by writing their mission and vision on the wall. It can be a message on my home screen or a piece of paper on the mirror.

What change in your life makes you happier? Whatever it is, start today. Don’t wait.