The One Important Lesson Most People Learn too Late in Life

Life is meant to be lived for others. Here’s why that matters and how to do it.

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If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea–Antoine De Saint-Exupery

It’s yours. The whole thing. You get to choose. How big. Or how small. What you’ll do with it. What you’ll make of it. And how great it can be…

Life. It’s here for us to act on. And yet, why do we not always feel that way? Why is it that sometimes we get stuck, and can’t seem to break free from some nagging thought, some feeling that we’re not enough, that there’s no hope, that our relationships are broken, or that we’ll never reach our full potential. Pretty soon, it can stack up and feel overwhelming. What do we do then?

If we’re satisfied with our life—not necessarily happy or delighted that we’ve exceeded our wildest expectations, just satisfied—we yield to inertia. We continue doing what we’ve always done. If we’re dissatisfied, we may go to the other extreme, falling for any and every idea, never pursuing one idea long enough so that it takes root and actually shapes a recognizably new us. – Marshall Goldsmith

Most people hate change. But everyone loves progress. And yet, sometimes we don’t feel like we’re progressing in the right direction, or at the pace we’d like. If we fast forward our minds into the future, we can see it’s actually up to us to decide who we want to be.

Based on experiences from nurses, the number one most common thing people on their deathbed say they regret is: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

It’s sad to think about… But not when it’s flipped the other way, i.e. what people on their deathbed would be most grateful they did do: “I’m so glad I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

What kind of life is that? What would it feel like?

I remember when I was a kid. I rarely thought much beyond the moments my brother and I were creating massive Star Wars worlds in our yard. Life was lived one moment to the next. Fully. No holding back. I didn’t wonder much if one situation was going to work out, or if my friend who I hadn’t seen for a while would stop talking to me altogether. Worries were at a minimum. And it was glorious. One of my favorite things back then was to read “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. They offered a main character, and a storyline that would change depending on your choices. You could be climbing a mountain one minute, and choosing whether to enter a spaceship filled with alien squirrels the next. And then be dead one page later. Or have saved the galaxy. Anything was possible. You could choose. I remember keeping one finger in the page where the choice was, and then flipping to alternative endings, then flipping back if I didn’t like what I read. It was a masterful way of always winning, of always choosing my own adventure where I didn’t die, and actually saved the day.

What stuck out most to me was that choices have consequences. Decisions. They determine our destiny. And life is filled with them. Sometimes hard, sometimes easy. But they’re always there. Ever present. Ready to kick us to the curb one minute or lift us to the clouds the next, depending on what we do.

The other thing is: Life is meant to be lived for others. There’s nothing that changes the world more than a decisive person filled with unlimited character, writing their own inspiring storyline, and directing every scene with optimism and resilience. This is at the core of the Searching Character. Martin Luther King, Jr, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln. They all stuck with it, believing and then becoming their message, making decisions that created their destiny. Because it mattered. It mattered more than anything else to them. And it was more than an idea or ideal, it was a mission meant to be lived moment by moment.

We’re all motivated by different things, but studies show that the most powerful, highest-performance goals are connected to meaning. When Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker examined experiences of people who described their lives as happy and others who described their lives as meaningful, she found that being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but that there are important differences. Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Those who considered their lives happy focused on what was happening to them in the present moment and were “takers”, and those who considered their lives meaningfulfound insights exploring and integrating their past, present, and future and were “givers”. Givers go beyond a balanced life to creating one connected to what’s most important.

When we make goals about achieving something tied to serving others, our goals keep on giving. Like when my young sons and I were at the carnival and I challenged them to hit the plates with the ball so we could win a big stuffed animal for their little sister, Faith. When we’d attempted it for ourselves in the past, we rarely won, but because we were focused on winning for Faith, we each broke a plate, on three of three attempts, and won a big stuffed dog for her. A Selfless Purpose like that keeps you connected to work, life, and the world. Here are some characteristics of a Selfless Purpose:

– A few lines that capture what will constantly be motivating for you every day

– Like a life teaser trailer that offers the best of you for those you love and respect most

– Powered by inspiring concepts (kindness, courage, etc.) and tied to service for others

Here are some radically simple examples of Selfless Purpose:

– “I speak not for myself but for those without voice…those who have fought for their rights…their right to live in peace, their right to be treated with dignity, their right to equality of opportunity, their right to be educated.” – Malala Yousafzai

– “I’ve always liked working on stories that combine people who are relatable with something insane. The most exciting thing for me is crossing that bridge between something we know is real and something that is extraordinary. The thing for me has always been how you cross that bridge.” – JJ Abrams

– “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” –Maya Angelou

What is your Selfless Purpose? How will you live it today?

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