I read a story recently about a man whose work was counseling people who had just been informed they had terminal cancer and, thus, only a short time to live. They had no treatments, no miracle drugs, no surgery, no “anything” available to change the diagnosis. What was most interesting was how their priorities changed overnight. Upon being told they had only a short time to live, the things that had previously seemed vitally important became irrelevant. This raises the question of what is really, truly important – and why aren’t we living that way?

Our life is filled with events, relationships, and personal development – wealth, fame, friendships, personal growth, career, education, et al. Most, to be blunt, don’t last. Some are fleeting; some stay with us a little longer. But very, very few things in our lives endure. Love? Have you checked the divorce rates recently? Fame? In this era of the instant celebrity, how much does fame mean when you can buy it with a good marketing budget? Friends? Almost all friendships cease with the end of the school year, when you change jobs, or move to a new home. Career? Don’t make me laugh.

Most events and relationships in our lives fall into the category of fleeting and superficial matters. As my mother used to say, these things come and go. So, what does count? What is truly important and lasting?

The Big Five: Work, Health, Family, Friends, Integrity.

In reviewing some old files recently, I discovered a note that I had filed and forgotten. I cannot remember where I found these words but they certainly aren’t original with me. In fact, this issue goes back to the ancients. Philosophers and artists – and writers – from every culture and every civilization debated this. After all their words are condensed, they largely agree about a few things that really matter in life.

Let’s briefly examine them to see why these will never be grouped in the “these things come and gocategory. No, these five items will never be superficial and temporary. 

1) Work. In this context, I consider “career” and “work” to be two different things. Career, I dismissed as unimportant and temporary. Unless you are one of those very rare individuals who go to their job willingly and cheerfully every morning, a career is merely something we do to fulfill our obligation to make enough money to support ourselves and our family. Also, in the modern world, with technology changing and eliminating many jobs from the past, we can expect to have several entirely different careers during our lifetime. (Think of the telephone repairman working on public payphones or the professional typist.)

But work, in my mind, is different from a career. Work is what we do to fill up our days. In most societies, work is a vital part of our identity. Our work becomes how we see ourselves and how other people see us. When we meet a new person, we usually want to know what kind of job they have. That helps us to label them and know what to think about them. Since we spend so much time each day and each week, our work becomes a major element in our self-image and our social status. Our work can give us satisfaction, the pleasure of completing a chosen task, and make us feel a part of a group effort.

2) Health. It has been said that our health is something we don’t value until something causes us to lose it. An injury that requires a long recovery, medical procedures, or daily medications (with accompanying expenses and side effects) will provide a harsh reality check. Suddenly, we don’t feel so Teflon-coated and bullet-proof. The possibility of a permanent physical limitation can make us appreciate good health. Each decade after we reach adulthood, we encounter more and more limitations and reductions. From successfully completing a marathon, the advancing years reduce us to pulling on our socks as aerobic exercise. Replace the silly platitude about “You’re only as old as you feel,” with “You are old when someone respectfully gives up their seat to you on a crowded bus.” Another criterion for being old is when we begin to make funny noises every time we sit down in a chair or stand up again. In addition to defining a large part of our self-concept and our public image, our health is also a vital part in making any plans or undertaking any new activity.

3 and 4) Family and Friends. If you are lucky, you will have some family members whom you love and who love you. If you are lucky, you will have a few lifetime friends. Imagine how drab your life would be if you had no one to celebrate your achievements with or to console you over a loss. These are the people, in turn, who offer support and company on those cold psychic evenings when life seems infinitely futile and lonely. Besides, as a dear friend once told me, “They put color in my life.” Relationships are golden; we should treasure them.

5) Integrity. In a world where personal wealth seems to be the only criterion for most people to consider someone successful, the means of acquiring that wealth is often overlooked. But, ultimately, the person who acts with integrity – even when they are safely invisible and will not be accountable for an action – is the person we admire and trust; this is the kind of person we hope our children will emulate.

 An Answer from one of China’s “Four Classic” novels

Let me insert an excerpt from China Bound. This is another writer’s thoughts on what is truly important and valuable:

I am currently reading one of the “Four Classics” Chinese novels, A Dream Of Red Mansions, and enjoying it immensely.  One of the characters talks about what she thinks are the most important things for a person to acquire in life.  She lists riches, nobility (of character), and leisure.  She then notes that it is difficult to achieve any two of these accomplishments but only the rarest individual manages to have and hold all three.  For me, these things are the most valuable qualities as well, rather than the single-minded focus on material success which seems to be the most popular viewpoint currently in America.  To that list, I would add education and friends to share our experiences with.  It is interesting to consider what we think are the most important things in life.  The fact that I am living a life where I can discuss such issues with students over breakfast – instead of the latest celebrity scandal, invasions, and publicity stunts – tells me that I am in the right place.

An idea from Benjamin Franklin

Finally, let me include an excerpt from my book It’s That Simple about Benjamin Franklin’s famous 13-week cycle for self-improvement. As an old man, Franklin described the traits he considered the most valuable and desirable… and how to attain them.

Ben Franklin wrote that, as a young man, he was intelligent and talented but impetuous and vain. He hoped that people would like and respect him but he actually made himself unpopular with his behaviors and his speaking habits. In his autobiography, Franklin describes how he created a self-improvement system. His 13-week system led to a life of accomplishments, financial success, and worldwide respect that lasts to this day.

Here are Franklin’s Thirteen Subjects (and the order in which he applied them)

in his own words:

1. Temperance – Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. Silence – Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling

conversation.

3. Order – Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business

have its time.

4. Resolution – Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what

you resolve.

5. Frugality – Make no expense but to do good to others and yourself; i.e.,

waste nothing.

6. Industry – Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off

all unnecessary actions.

7. Sincerity – Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you

speak, speak accordingly.

8. Justice – Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are

your duty.

9. Moderation – Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you

think they deserve.

10. Cleanliness – Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.

11. Tranquility – Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or

unavoidable.

12. Chastity – Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness,

weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

13. Humility – Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

So, dear readers, if you were told that you had terminal cancer and, thus, only a short time to live, what thoughts would you have about what is really, truly important? And, then, I will ask why you are not living according to those values today. I welcome your contributions and responses to my words. You can share them in the comments field below. (English only, please, because of international readers.)

P.S. Inquiring minds want to know: How is my 30 Days Without Morning Coffee Project going? Today is Day 9 and no problems. Of course, I said I was eliminating my wake-up cup of coffee (or two or three). I am still allowed to have coffee when I go out so I make a stop on my way to the library (my home-office-away-from-home) to enjoy a caffeine blast before I start my work. At home, I have eliminated the temptation by eliminating the possibility. I do not have any coffee at home so it is impossible – at least not easy – to make coffee when I get up in the morning. I am doing fine with hot water and honey lemon tea. If you remember, the purpose of this exercise was to explore this long-time habit rather than go caffeine-free for any health reason. As the mornings gradually become cooler following the fall equinox, that morning coffee sounds really good. Looking forward to it… in 21 more days.