Don’t Regret Working Too Hard

I was lying in bed, safely reading a magazine, when the fear arose. It started somewhere between my stomach and my chest, and it radiated outward. Like adrenaline coursing through my body after a sudden fright, it was a physical sensation, but it felt slower, deeper, wider, as it radiated to the tops of my arms and legs. It felt hot. I started to sweat. My body felt weak.

I put down the magazine and thought about death.

My mother-in-law, who was in her late sixties, died not long ago after a long battle with cancer; she was first diagnosed in her forties. A few weeks ago I received a call from a friend in her forties, who one morning found a lump in her breast and a few days later had a mastectomy. At lunch last week, a friend told me his business partner came home from vacation feeling a little under the weather; within a week he was dead from an aggressive cancer he never knew he had. That was right after he told me that his father-in-law was recently killed crossing the street.

And now I was reading an article by Atul Gawande about rethinking end of life treatment. Gawande is not just insightful as he explores what doctors should do when they can’t save your life; he’s also vivid. The first line of his article reads: “Sara Thomas Monopoli was pregnant with her first child when her doctors learned that she was going to die.”

I am, as far as I know, thank God, healthy. But somewhere in the middle of that article it suddenly hit me — not just intellectually, but physically and emotionally: I am going to die.

Each year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts an American Time Use Survey asking thousands of Americans to document how they spend every minute of every day. (The New York Times created a fascinating interactive graphic using the survey as raw material.)

According to the data, most of us spend 20 hours of each day sleeping (8.68 hours/day), working (7.78 hours/day), and watching television (3.45 hours/day). I know: shocking, right? Who sleeps that much?

It’s hard to look at the data and not think about where you fit in. Do you watch more or less television? Do you work longer or shorter hours? It’s a useful and interesting exercise to examine how we spend each minute of the day. To know where we’re devoting our wisdom, our action, our life’s energy.

And yet, where we spend our time only tells us so much. More important, and completely subjective, is what those activities mean to us.

I recently happened upon a short article, Top Five Regrets of the Dying, by Bronnie Ware, who spent many years nursing people who had gone home to die. Their most common regret? “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Their second most common regret? “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”

There are two ways to address these regrets. One, work less hard and spend your time living a life true to yourself, whatever that means. Or two, work just as hard — harder even — on things you consider to be important and meaningful.

If you put those two regrets together, you realize that what people really regret isn’t simply working so hard, it’s working so hard on things that don’t matter to them. If our work matters to us, if it represents a life true to us, then we will die without the main regrets that haunt the dying. We will have lived more fully.

That doesn’t mean you should sell all your belongings and feed the poor in a foreign country. Well, if that’s true to you, go ahead. But the whole point is that your life needs to be true to you, not what others expect of you.

So the question is, what matters to you?

That’s a critically important question to explore. With yourself and, if you’re a manager, with your employees. What matters to them? Not as a collective, but to each one of them. Of course having a fair salary, enough vacation days, and your respect matters to them. But you know that already. Go deeper.

First, ask about what’s working. What about their daily work matters to them? Why are they doing it? What part of it is a source of pride? What impact do they feel they’re having on people, ideas, or things that are important to them?

Next, ask about what’s neutral. What are they working on that they couldn’t care less about? What doesn’t matter to them? What’s not important?

Finally, ask about what alienates them. What about their work contradicts what matters to them? What makes them feel bad or untrue to themselves? What are they even slightly embarrassed about?

And then, slowly, over time, help them shift where they’re spending their time, so the scale begins to tip in the direction of what matters to them. Some things you won’t be able to change — maybe they’re working for the wrong company. But don’t be afraid to ask the questions. Your workforce, on the whole, will be tremendously more dedicated if they’re working on things that matter to them.

Can everyone spend their time working on things that matter to them? Maybe not. But I remember listening to a nighttime janitor as she spoke with such deep pride about how well she cleaned, how wonderful the office looked after she finished, and how important she felt it was to the people who worked there during the day. So, maybe yes.

There is no objective measure — certainly not money — that determines the value of a particular kind of work to the person who does it. All that matters is that you do work that matters to you.

When I woke up at six in the morning, I looked over at my bedside table where Gawande’s article lay open to the photo of an empty wheelchair with a baby’s happy birthday balloon tied to it, and once again, I felt that rush of fear and dread and sadness spread from the center of my chest to the rest of my body.

So I took a deep breath, got up, took a shower, and sat down to write this blog post. This writing, to me, matters.