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What Really Matters?

By Dr. Marshall Goldsmith

It is always a great time to reflect upon life and determine what really matters to you.

Take a deep breath. Take a deeper breath.

I want you to imagine that you are 95 years old. Before taking your last breath, you’re given a great gift: the ability to travel back in time–the ability to talk to the person who is reading this article, and the ability to help this person be a better professional and lead a better life.

The 95-year-old you understands what was really important and what wasn’t, what mattered and what didn’t, what counted and what didn’t really count. What advice would this wise “old you” have for the “you” who is reading this page?

Take a few seconds and answer this question on two levels: personal and professional. Jot down a few words that capture what the old you would be saying to the younger you that is here today.

My suggestion is simple. Just do whatever you wrote down. Make that your resolution for this year and next.

A friend of mine actually had the chance to interview people who were dying and asked them what advice they would have had for the younger version of themselves. What did she learn?

One recurring theme was,” Be happy now!” – not next month or next year. The great Western Disease is “I will be happy when . . .” The wise old you has finally realized that the next promotion, the next achievement, or the corner office really won’t change your world that much. Many older people say they were so wrapped up in looking for what they did not have that they did not appreciate what they did have. They often wish they had better enjoyed their journey through life.

A second common response revolved around friends and family. You may work for a wonderful company, and you may think that your contribution to that organization is very important. When you are 95 years old and you look at the people around your deathbed, very few of your fellow employees will be waving good-bye. Your friends and family will probably be the only people who care. Appreciate them now and share a large part of your life with them.

Older people offer a third piece of advice: “Follow your dreams.” Figure out your true purpose in life and go for it! This doesn’t apply just to big dreams; it is also true for little dreams. Buy the sports car you always wanted, go to that exotic locale you always imagined yourself visiting, learn to play the guitar or the piano. If some think your vision of a well-lived life is a bit offbeat or even goofy, who cares? It isn’t their life. It’s yours. Old people who pursued their dreams are always happier with their lives. Few of us will achieve all of our dreams. Some will always be elusive. So, the key question is not, “Did all of my dreams come true?” The key question is, “Did I at least try?”

I completed a major research project involving more than 200 high-potential leaders from 120 companies around the world. Each company could nominate only two future leaders, the very brightest of its young stars. These are the kinds of people who could jump at a moment’s notice to better-paying positions elsewhere. We asked each of them a simple question: “If you stay in this company, why are you going to stay?”

The following are the top three answers.

  • “The work is exciting; I love what I am doing.”
  • “I like the people. They are my friends. This feels like a team. It feels like a family. I could make more money working with other people, but I don’t want to leave the people here.”
  • “I can follow my dreams. This organization is giving me a chance to do what I really want to do in life.”

The answers were never about the money. They were always about what matters most in life. When my friend asked people on their deathbeds what was important to them, they gave almost exactly the same answers as the high-potential leaders I interviewed in our research.

So do the reverse New Year’s resolution. Don’t look ahead. Look behind – from the perspective of the ‘old you’. Be happy now, appreciate your friends and family, and follow your dreams. This is good advice for everyone who wants a fulfilling career. It’s also great advice for everyone who wants to live a wonderful life!

We are excited to announce that Author and Leadership Expert, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, has joined IIL’s Leadership and Innovation 2023 online conference as this year’s Live Keynote Speaker! We go live March 2nd! Register today and use code LEADPM for a $10 discount!


Dr. Marshall Goldsmith

A New York Times #1 bestselling author, has written or edited 51 books which have sold over 3 million copies, been translated into 32 languages, and become bestsellers in 12 countries.  Amazon recently recognized the ‘100 Best Leadership & Success Books Ever Written’ – and included Marshall’s Triggers and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.  He is the only living author with two books on the list.  His other bestsellers include: MOJO, Succession: Are You Ready? The Leader of the Future and How Women Rise (with lead author, Sally Helgesen). His new NYT bestseller, The Earned Life, is an Amazon Editor’s Choice for Book of the Year So Far in 2022.

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

 

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