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.

Try win-win instead of hardball

Teamwork is essential in healthcare. Yet, too often, we act as individuals looking after our own interests. Solving problems together, even if the objectives seem opposed, is beneficial for all parties for many reasons.

Stephen Covey introduced the principle of win-win in his book the Seven habits of highly effective people. It’s still a great principle for conflict resolution, incl in teams, groups, organisations etc. Covey:

Win-win sees life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win-win means agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying. We both get to eat the pie, and it tastes pretty darn good!

A win-loose outcome is bad for all parties. Even though the winner may feel triumphant, the loser may not want to deal with the winner ever again.

So what’s required for a win-win result? First of all it requires an open mind. Black & white or good & bad thinking is not helpful and often not realistic either. Secondly, understanding the other party is crucial:  Where do they stand? What is important for them? Where is the common ground?  And finally: flexibility, as there are always more solutions to a problem.

Win-win is not about being nice, as Covey said. It’s about being courageous and considerate at the same time.

The seven habits according to my son

At breakfast my six-year old son mentioned he knew ‘the seven habits’. I couldn’t believe my ears. Was he talking about the seven habits of highly effective people, by Steven R. Covey?

“What kind of habits have you learned?” I asked.

He put down his cup and said to my amazement and surprise: “Habit one: be proactive.” So this is what children learn in school these days!

Here are three of the seven habits of highly effective kids, according to my son:

Habit 1: Be proactive

“When I start cleaning up my room before mum asks me to. ”

Habit 3: First things first

“When I do my homework first, and then play a game on the iPad.”

Habit 4: Think win-win

“When Daniel and I don’t agree and we find something we both like.”

If only all adults would strive for mutually beneficial solutions, set their priorities based on importance instead of urgency, and take responsibility for their choices in life…