Things That Matter
A Life with No Regrets
Beginning with a View to the End
We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. . . .
Life is long if you know how to use it.
—Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life”
Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years caring for people during the last weeks of their lives, routinely asked her patients about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently if they could. Later she posted an article called “Regrets of the Dying” about her findings. In it, Ware wrote of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gained at the end of their lives as well as the common themes that surfaced again and again during these conversations. This article has been shared millions of times online and was turned into a book in 2012.
It’s a fascinating premise, isn’t it? What do people most regret about their lives?
I’m not going to include the list here. Instead, I want to ask you: How badly do you want to know what’s on it? How tempted are you to google the article right now so you can see the top regrets that people have at the end of their lives? And more importantly, where does that desire to know the regrets of the dying come from? Isn’t the strength of your interest proof that you’re concerned that your life might be wasted?
(Now that I’ve got you thinking about that, if you still want to know what the list is, you can turn to the first endnote at the back of this book and find the list there.)
Why did a list about other people’s dying regrets go viral? It’s because we all know that’s going to be us nearing death someday and we don’t want to have regrets when we get there. And also, I believe, because we’re already starting to have regrets about our life choices.
For people in middle age, and even for people in young adulthood, it’s common to have nagging anxiety that we’re squandering our time and resources on things that are not important while not focusing enough on the things and people that really do matter. And we can easily imagine that we’ll be sorry about it someday if we don’t make a change. Yet on and on we go, putting the inconsequential ahead of the imperative.
On and on we go, putting the inconsequential ahead of the imperative.
Something’s got to change here. And there’s only so much time ahead in each of our lives to make the change.
We’re always going to make some foolish decisions along the way that we wish we could take back. So it’s probably not possible to live a life with absolutely no regrets. But it most certainly is possible to make changes that take us off the easy path of immersing ourselves in the ordinary and the immediate and put us onto a more intentional path that leads to a life that satisfies and resonates beyond our own mortal existence—a life well lived. Presented with the choice, don’t we all want a life of fewer regrets and more fulfillment?
One day, not long ago, I was forced to come face to face with something I just had to do before I died. And I want to tell you about it now, because it’s related to you.
In October 2019, I sat with a number of team members from my staff at a conference called Start Finishing, at the K’é Main Street Learning Lab in Mesa, Arizona. Charlie Gilkey, author of a book with the same title as the conference, was our presenter for the day. Charlie told us he wanted us to be specific in applying the principles of the workshop to the most important work in our lives. To help us determine what that work was, he said, “Close your eyes and answer this question: If you were to die today, what is the one project you would be most disappointed that you weren’t able to complete?”
After asking ourselves the question, we shared around the table what work we saw as most important. The young woman next to me mentioned an art project she wanted to complete. A mother of two spoke about her desire to prepare her two teenagers for life. For me, without hesitation, I answered Charlie’s question this way: “If I were to die today, I would be most disappointed that I never got a chance to write that book I’ve been thinking about for a long time now.”
I bet you can guess what book it was.
It’s the one you’re reading right now.
For a while, I’d been thinking about writing a book that takes the principles of minimalism I am known for and paints a bigger picture of how distractions keep us from meaning, purpose, and satisfaction. And at that very moment in the Learning Lab, writing Things That Matter
became my highest-priority task. Because there is one message that drives me more than any other—and it’s not helping people clean out their closets, as useful as that is. The one message that burns most in my heart is the invitation to live an intentional, meaningful life. Apart from my faith and my family, this message is what I most want to be remembered for after I’m gone.
I’ve been reading and writing and talking about this subject for years, which has given me the opportunity to pick up many viewpoints and stories. Now I’m bringing all the most important insights together in one volume, focusing especially on how to achieve the focus that is required to live according to your priorities. In Things That Matter,
I want to show you what you need to clear away from your life to transition to more intentional living.
Living a life of purpose is important not just to me or to a few others like me. It’s important to all of us, because we all have at least one thing (probably more) that we feel we just have to do before we die. And I’m not talking about bucket-list items like “ride in a hot-air balloon.” I’m talking about living in a way that makes a difference. I’m talking about knowing our lives matter and make an impact on the world in a positive way, that our existences mean something.
This brings me to you. Let me ask you the same question Charlie Gilkey asked me: If you were to die today, what one thing (or few things) would you be most disappointed that you weren’t able to complete? Please don’t just cruise past that question. Stop and think about it. Identify your top-level goals, clearly and specifically.
If you were to die today, what one thing (or few things) would you be most disappointed that you weren’t able to complete?
In preparation for writing this book, I commissioned a nationally representative poll—the Things That Matter Survey—that asked a number of questions related to the themes of this book. I’ll be referring to the survey findings regularly in the chapters to come, and I believe you’ll find the results fascinating. To start with, one question we asked was “Would you say that you have identified a clear purpose, or purposes, for your life?” I was pleased to see that 70 percent of respondents answered yes. Another 19 percent answered no, while 11 percent were unsure.
Do you know your purpose or purposes? If the answer is no or you are unsure (like 30 percent of the poll participants), I invite you to go to the “Discover Your Purposes” exercise at the end of this book. It will help you methodically think through the desires that land at the intersection of your passions, your abilities, and the needs of the world. You’ll see what works of service you’re suited for and drawn toward doing.
If you’re a part of the 70 percent and you think you know your purpose, that’s wonderful. Nevertheless, I encourage you to keep your mind open, because this book most likely will help you refine or redefine the things that matter to you along the way.
Right now, I want you to start believing that it’s not too late to reorient your life around your purposes. You can do something now to live the life you want to live and eventually come to the end with fewer regrets.
You can do something now to live the life you want to live.
The theme of this book isn’t a “how to be happy” message, though I believe living a life aligned with your values and passions is the quickest way to happiness in both the short term and the long term. This book is about so much more than how you feel; it’s about how you live the one life you have and how to keep it focused on the things that matter. I would go so far as to say the world needs you to live for the things that matter to you because you’re at your most productive and influential self when you’re offering your unique contribution.
There may be no greater pursuit for yourself and others than choosing to live a meaningful life focused on the things that matter.