04/29/2013 08:32 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2013

How to Lead a Life That Counts

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I'm not a know-it-all expert. Far from it.

I procrastinate. I get distracted by unimportant tasks. I'm not as disciplined as I'd like to be. So why am I writing this blog post?

Because I'm a relentless observer of what makes for a remarkable life. Discovering what it takes to lead a life that counts is something that has always fascinated me.

Judging from the people I've met who live with a sense of regret and hopelessness, it's obvious that we often make mistakes in the pursuit of a meaningful life. But it doesn't have to be that way.

One mistake we often make is that we confuse what describes us with what defines us. That might sound vague, so allow me to explain.

People describe us based on our characteristics:
  • Job
  • Wealth
  • Education
  • Physical appearance
  • Social status
  • Abilities
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses

On the other hand, there are only two things that define us: our character and our commitments.

If we focus on our "description" instead of our "definition," we'll eventually end up shortchanging ourselves. We can definitely avoid that by adhering to some fundamental principles.

Here are three of them, which will ensure that our lives will be significant ones that are "well-defined."

1. Commit to a cause.

It's easy to become a hostage to the present, to pressing issues that cry out for your attention.

Your car broke down, so you need to get it fixed right now .

Your employees are unhappy, so you need to appease them right now.

Your kids didn't do too well on their latest test, so you need to get academic help for them right now.

But not every single urgent issue is of dire importance in the long run. Every wellness expert will tell you how crucial it is for you to be "fully present," to live in the here and now.

Without a doubt, living in the past or the future will lead to unhappiness.

At the same time, though, you're not just a participant in the present. You're also the custodian and creator of your future. Moreover, you're not defined by the problems you solve. You're defined by the causes you commit to.

Sure, even if you commit to a cause, there will still be problems to deal with. Life is full of problems, as I'm sure you've experienced firsthand. But your focus shouldn't just be on eliminating the problem. Instead, it should be on elevating the cause. There's a huge difference between the two.

Clearly, it's impossible to commit to that many causes, whether they're social, environmental, entrepreneurial or family ones. But whatever cause you do commit to, give it your all.

2. Live out your values.

Whether or not you write down your goals, you're probably a goal-oriented person. You want to attain a certain amount of material wealth or a certain level of education, or enjoy a certain kind of family life.

Despite our fascination with people who have achieved amazing goals, it's not the goals we achieve that defines us. Rather, we're defined by the principles we embody.

It's not about professing what's important to you or what you stand for. It's not about declaring what values you hold onto.

It's about allowing those values to get a hold of you and guide you in everything you do. When it's all said and done, your behavior matters much more than the beliefs you claim to have. Your beliefs are validated by your behavior.

It's through your actions that you live out your values, so it's important to make sure that every goal you set is aligned with your core principles.

Achieving a goal that isn't in line with your values may bring you further away from becoming the person you want to be.

3. Empower others.

I know plenty of driven, ambitious people who want to both be amazing and do amazing things. There's nothing wrong with that.

Nonetheless -- to use a camping analogy -- we shouldn't mainly be concerned about building an awesome campfire. Rather, we should concentrate on how we're keeping other people warm.

We shouldn't merely aim to help others, even though that's certainly better than just trying to serve ourselves. Our ultimate objective should be to empower people.

If you help people without simultaneously empowering them, you make them feel even more helpless and needy. This principle holds true whether you're a nurse, teacher, entrepreneur, mechanic or parent.

At the heart of it, poverty isn't a lack of material things. It's a feeling of powerlessness. We hurt people every time we help them without also empowering them.

As such, we need to be careful each time we attempt to "do good," because good intentions don't always lead to good results.

In closing...

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck observed that "a fundamental sign of mental health is the realization that life is tough." We'll always have pressing concerns to address if we want to survive in this world, because life is tough.

But we need to periodically take a step back from our busy lives and ask ourselves: What defines me? And am I leading a life that counts?

It's your character and your commitments that define you. Furthermore, you can only build the right kind of character and commit to the right causes when you make the right choices. Every choice matters, whether it's what car to buy, which city to live in, who to marry, which job to take, or what to do this weekend.

Let's continually remind ourselves that a meaningful life isn't built in a day. It's built one day at a time, and one decision at a time.

Let's build a life that counts.

Let's get to work.

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