Rule #1: Regrets Stink
On a muggy morning in 2005, my father collapsed after 18 holes of golf. An employee attempted CPR. An ambulance arrived. I raced to the hospital with my wife, but Dad was dead before he reached the ER. All that remained were long forms on clipboards and unexpected funeral plans; the dumb, numb shock that accompanies sudden death.
I hate to call what I experienced after Dad's death a midlife crisis, because that seems so cliché. It was more like a midlife evaluation. The way coaches adjust the game plan at halftime. Dad's grieving friends wrote to say how he'd changed their lives, and I thought — "What will people say when I'm gone? What have I done that matters?"
I was struggling to find my purpose. And then a friend gave me some advice: "You only know about yourself when you're outside your comfort zone." Without really planning on it, I started volunteering around the world and plunging myself into sometimes scary, always fulfilling experiences.
Bronnie Ware, a former palliative-care nurse in Australia who worked with patients nearing death, wrote an article on regrets that is quietly circulating on the Web. It discusses the most common regrets she heard from dying patients. At the top of their list: They wished they'd lived a life that was true to themselves and that they'd realized more of their dreams.
While volunteering at a climate-change research project in Ecuador, I met an over-40 British college student named Ellen. She'd been romping through rain forests for nearly a month with students half her age, assisting a scientist studying global warming's effect on Andes vegetation. Ellen previously worked for a government contractor, until she read a line in Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which notes that an average human life lasts just 650,000 hours.
"I remember reading that sentence," said Ellen, "and attending a meeting at work and thinking, 'Why am I giving you lot one of my hours?'"
Because of that, she left her job, left her comfort zone, went to school – and changed her life. No regrets.