This is a great question, and the answer is going to come from an unexpected source. But, I think you'll agree this is the best coaching advice you will ever get. It's not going to come from me -- it's going to come from you. Ready?
Imagine yourself at 95 years old, knowing what was important and what wasn't. Take that knowledge to heart now, both for your career and for your personal life.
You are now about to receive the best coaching advice that you will ever get in this -- or perhaps any other -- lifetime! You are about to receive advice from a very wise old person. Listen very carefully to what this wise old person says.
First, take a deep breath. Take a deeper breath. Now, imagine that you are 95 years old and you are just about to die. Here comes your last breath. But before you take your last breath, you are being given a wonderful, beautiful gift: the ability to travel back in time and talk with the person who is reading this column. The 95-year-old you has been given the chance to help the you of today to have a great career and, much more important, to have a great life.
Figure Out What Counts
The 95-year-old you knows what was really important and what wasn't; what really mattered and what didn't; what really counted and what didn't count at all. What advice does the wise "old you" have for the you reading this column? Take your time. Jot down the answers on two levels: personal advice and professional advice. And once you have written down these words, take them to heart.
In the world of performance appraisals, this may well be the one that matters most. At the end of life, if the old you thinks that you did the right thing, you probably did. If the old you thinks that you screwed up, you probably did. At the end of life, you don't have to impress anyone else -- just that person you see in the mirror.
A friend of mine actually had the opportunity to talk with old people who were facing death and to ask them what advice they would have had for themselves. Their answers were filled with wisdom. One recurring theme was to take the time to reflect on life and find happiness and meaning now. A frequent comment from old people runs along the lines of: "I got so wrapped up in looking at what I didn't have that I missed what I did have. I had almost everything. I wish I had taken more time to appreciate it."
Look to the Present
The great Western disease of "I will be happy when..." is sweeping the world. You know the symptoms. You start thinking: I will be happy when I get that... that promotion... that status... that money. The only way to cure the disease is to find happiness and meaning now.
A second theme from old folks was friends and family. You may work for a wonderful company and believe that your contribution is very important. But when you are 95 and you look around your death bed, very few of your fellow employees will be waving goodbye! Your friends and family will probably be the only people who care.
Don't get so lost in pleasing the people who don't care that you neglect the people who do.
Give It a Try!
Another recurring theme was to follow your dreams. Older people who tried to achieve their dreams were happier with their lives. None of us will ever achieve all of our dreams. If we do, we will just make up new ones! If we go for it, we can at least say at the end, "I tried!" instead of, "Why didn't I at least try?"
In conducting research for one of my books, my co-author and I interviewed more than 200 high-potential leaders from around the world. A key question that we asked was: "If you stay in this company, why are you going to stay?"
The top three answers:
- "I am finding meaning and happiness now. The work is exciting, and I love what I am doing."
- "I like the people here. They are my friends. This feels like a team--like a family. I might make more money if I left, but I don't want to leave the people here."
- "I can follow my dreams. This organization is giving me the chance to grow and do what I really want to do in life."
When my friend asked people who were on their death beds what really mattered in life, and when I asked young, high-potential leaders what really mattered at work, we heard about the same thing.
If you want to make a new beginning in life--look ahead to the end. Then decide what to do.
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Please view the Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The next video in the series Triggers: Last Breath accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready? The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015). Pre-order Triggers at TriggerstheBook.com!