For some things, you clear your schedule.
For the last couple years, I’ve sung with a choir that performs a couple of times a year—Christmas, Easter, and in the fall. None of us are professional musicians, we just love music, and we love to sing.
Last week, we learned that the woman who has directed the choir for the last twenty-five years was losing her battle with a lengthy illness and didn’t have much time left. An email quickly went out, asking if anyone would be available to gather at her home to perform a couple of John Rutter pieces for her.
Over forty of us showed up the next evening. We held a quick run-through in the driveway—half of us were sight-reading—before filing upstairs for a hallowed private performance to honor the woman who had brought us together.
As we lingered in the driveway afterwards, one of the guys looked back at the house and said something pretty profound:
“Now I know how I want to go, and I have fifty years to figure out how to make it happen.”
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey starts the chapter on Begin with the End in Mind (Habit 2) with a thought exercise: imagine you’re at your own funeral. Smell the flowers, hear the soft organ music, and feel “the shared sorrow of losing, the joy of having known” filling the room. There will be four speakers: a family member, a friend, a work colleague, and someone from your church or community organization. (Note how these are carefully chosen to represent four distinct roles in your life.)
He then asks you to think deeply:
What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?
What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?
We know, deep down inside, how to answer those questions. Our heart knows. The answers will be different for each of us. They express what we value in life, what matters most to us.
Most people never take the time to consciously discover the answers to those questions. We may have a poignant experience that stirs them up—the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, or a great tragedy on the news—but we don’t do anything to ground ourselves in that moment. To remind ourselves of what we once felt. Soon, those feelings, hopes, and dreams slip away like so many petals driven before the winds of a busy life.
Eleven years ago, I spent an entire summer studying the positive traits I saw in people around me and distilling them into a thirty-three-word personal mission statement. I revisit it every January, and I have yet to change a word of it. I refer to it at all levels of planning, from five-year plans all the way down to split-second choices throughout the day. It’s one of the most productive things I’ve ever done.
Spend time today thinking about who you want to be and the life you want to live. What you want to be known for. The legacy you want to leave. You won’t come up with a complete picture, not yet. But start the process. Write one idea, element, or attribute down on a 3×5 card. Or start a note in Evernote. Do something today to get started.
As you develop this vision for yourself—who you want to be fifty years from now—start walking it back. Learn how to set goals that point you in the right direction. Learn how to make regular, reliable progress towards your goals. Learn how to start, and start as many times as you need to finish.
Dr. Covey calls this “the most fundamental application” of Begin with the End in Mind.
To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.
Today will pass. The next fifty years will pass. When they have, do you want to be wherever life’s busy winds have blown you, or where you wanted to be all along? The choice is yours. Take the helm.
Someday, you’ll be glad you started now. So will a lot of other people whose lives you’ve touched.