The study of 4,000

Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.
4 B.C – 65 A.D.

A few years back, Dr. Gerald Bell, a business school professor at the University of North Carolina, conducted a study of 4,000 retired executives. The average age of this group was 70.

He asked them just one question: “If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?”

Before you read the responses, take a moment to think about this question: when you’re past the prime of your life, how will you judge your time on Earth? Will you look back with satisfaction on a life well lived–or with regret over what might have been?

In Dr. Bell’s study, the number one answer was “I should have taken charge of my life and set my goals earlier. Life isn’t practice, it’s the real thing.” No other answer came close.

It’s interesting to note that the people in the study didn’t express regret over things they had done so much as what they hadn’t done. Here are the other answers he received, listed in order of popularity:

2. I would have taken better care of my health.
3. I would have managed my money better.
4. I would have spent more time with my family.
5. I would have spent more time on personal development.
6. I would have had more fun.
7. I would have planned my career better.
8. I would have given more back.

To summarize, they regretted “letting life unfold without creating a plan of what they wanted to do. They regretted the randomness of lives shaped by external stimuli rather than internal goals and focus.” I think the lesson is clear. Most people are tentative about life; they drift along and let things happen rather than taking charge of their lives.

Dr. Bell stated that a lot of people are reluctant to set goals, to define a purpose in life, because they think it will impose limits on their life. He goes on to say that just the opposite is true. Setting goals, having a clear purpose, will set you free; it will expand your life.

Study the list of responses. Chances are, you’re making some of the same mistakes the respondents made.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to decide your purpose in life. Life is now. It’s not practice. This is the only shot you get at life. Make the most of it now so you have no regrets when it’s over.

We have met the enemy and it is us.
The comic strip Pogo
Walt Kelly
1913 – 1973

Copyright © 2021 John Chancellor

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