The trait that I find myself talking with my kids about the most is to “begin with the end in mind.” It’s the second habit cited by renowned author, Dr. Stephen Covey, in his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Before my kids had entered a military public school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they had to abide by Covey’s 7 habits daily as part of the school’s curriculum, I had frankly only tangentially been aware of his book. My kids, like most kids, live in the moment and have trouble thinking about the future. Studying for an upcoming test is currently an anathema in our house that my wife and I are trying to progressively fix.
But, this isn’t an essay about the failings of kids – in fact there is a certain freedom worthy of our respect in the way that kids don’t obsess over their future prospects the way adults do. This is an essay about how adults also fail at looking at each endeavor by “beginning with the end in mind.” But, this isn’t exactly about end goals in one’s professional life either.
As many of you know, my wife is a family medicine physician, and that means she sees the whole patient from birth to death. Having already experienced the early years firsthand, I am far less curious about those patients. The ones that I am most curious about are the older patients. So I often ask her questions about those in their retirement years and those who are nearing or at the end of their lives.
Part of my curiosity is because I am interested in whether they have financially planned well enough to take care of themselves and their families, but I am more curious about how they view their lives and whether they have any regrets. Some don’t, but many do. I’m all about life hacks wherever possible, so I have asked my wife about what these regrets are. I ask her if there’s anything I can do now to avoid them. It turns out there are things that can be done, but end-of-life regrets are never decisions like, “I wish I had taken a higher paying job” or even “I wish I had not cashed out my pension.”
My wife told me that in palliative care, end of life regrets tend to be more along the lines of “I wish I had worked less and spent more time with my family” or “when I was home, I wish I was more ‘present’ for my kids and my spouse.” Trained as a lawyer, I sought to research as much as I could about this. The problem is that there are not tons of statistics for this area (though I will cite to science shortly). Most of the important information is anecdotal.
In her blog entry on the “Regrets of the Dying,” palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware shares the following powerful observation from the dying:
“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. This [regret] came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
It turns out that the science in this area backs up the anecdotal evidence. In 2018, Cornell University released a comprehensive study that found two very interesting conclusions regarding aging and regret: First, as we age, our concern about our ideal selves, the term these Cornell scientists use to describe what we would ideally like to possess (e.g., our goals and aspirations such as fame, fortune, power etc.), begins to dissipate. Second, regret itself does not usually dissipate as we age.
In other words, part of human nature is regret. That is unlikely to change for many of us, but what we regret does morph over time from professional goals to personal ones.
In many ways, this reminds me of the relatively famous exchange between distinguished authors Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut when they were at a party held by a hedge fund billionaire. Vonnegut had just told the Catch-22 author that this billionaire made more money in a single day than the author had made on his famous work in his entire lifetime. Heller responded by saying, “Yes, but I have something he will never have – enough.”
With respect to Habit 2 “begin with the end in mind,” Dr. Covey has also said, “your most important work is always ahead of you, never behind you.” He may have been referring to a climb up the corporate or government ladder, which is certainly important because I firmly believe aiming higher not only has positive health effects but also moves society forward. However, what I like most about this “begin with the end in mind” quote is that it is never too late to reprioritize one’s life.
As I reflect on this topic, I have found that Habit 2 of highly successful people doesn’t only apply to daily progress in my professional life or even to my kids still mastering the basics of doing their homework and studying for an upcoming test. As someone who prefers to minimize regret wherever possible, I try to heed the warnings offered by those at the end of their life, and begin by thinking about what memories of my working years I will cherish when I am retired (or when I reach the end of my life). In this case, that means sitting with our kids while they are studying after family dinner, rather than staying as late as possible to make sure the boss goes home before I do.