How to measure the success of life?

About a month ago, I was on the phone with my dad.  Out of the blue, he told me:  “I don’t think your life is successful.”  I didn’t say much in return.

Everyone is entitled to have an opinion.  Parents are no exceptions.  If someone judges me, usually I just ignore it.  If it’s too intrusive or offending, I yell and hit back.

After hearing my dad’s comments, I thought about it a lot.  How do we know if a life is successful? Or does it even matter, as long as we are happy?  Should we judge a person’s success by the money, power, and fame?  Or something else?

I know where my dad came from.  His success criteria are the money, and power.  He knows many people in China who made much more money than I did.  Those could hold positions with a lot of power, and have hundreds of thousands of employees, followers, or worshipers.

Power or fame doesn’t mean much to me.

I feel that, being famous is quite a burden, and a lot of personal freedom is lost.  Look at those celebrities.  Anywhere they go, there are bodyguards, assistants, tailed by the paparazzi.  Is attention good or bad?  It’s bad.  As an average gal myself, I can travel and walk anywhere freely.  How nice it is nobody noticing or bothering me.  This precious freedom is not something money can buy.

Power is not my interest.  And leadership is not in my DNA.  I don’t like to be followed by others, and don’t enjoy following other people either.  While working, I managed the relationship with boss, as that’s part of the deal in order to get the paycheck.

Money?  It would be nice to have more.  But I don’t want to be a slave of the money.

In my opinion, the success of life should be judged only by the person himself or herself, not by anybody else.

In my case, the success of my life will be measured by the regrets I will have had at the end.  In order to have a successful life, I try to reduce my personal regrets to the minimum.  In this way, when it’s my turn to leave this world, I would feel the contentment and inner peace about my life journey.

So, let’s talk about regrets, and life.

In some culture, death is a taboo topic.  I feel death is a reality everyone has to face sooner or later.  Dodging the topic doesn’t void its existence.  The purpose of talking about death is to appreciate life, and live the life to the full.

Several years ago, I enjoyed Bronnie Ware’s article “Regrets of the Dying” in her Blog.  Lately I read her book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing”.

Bronnie Ware worked in palliative care for years in Australia.  She took care of the patients who were at the last stage of their lives.  Most of them had only several months or weeks left.  Looking back at their lives, what do the dying people regret the most?  Here are the top 5 regrets:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” – By Bronnie Ware

This is the top regret of the dying people.  It’s so beautifully worded by Ms. Ware.  This is a great reminder to me every day: life is short, and I should be true to myself, no matter what.

During the whole journey of life, many are living under the expectations of others.  When we are young, parents and teachers expect us to be good, better and the best.  When at work, we are constantly being judged by the brutal bars:  fail/meet/exceed the expectations.

As parents, spouses/partners, adult children of aging parents, we are wearing many hats.  Each hat has tons of obligations.  But, what about our own dreams, passions, and well-beings?  Did we ever put a high priority to pursue them, which are good to ourselves?

Two decades ago, I decided to come to US to pursue my dream.  That was a tough call I made, as I had to leave a lot behind painfully, and venture into a new country of unknowns on my own.  Many of my family and friends didn’t like what I did.  But that didn’t matter to me.  I’m very glad and proud about that big step I made for myself.

The same is true for my early retirement.  That’s exactly what I wanted for years.

  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” – By Bronnie Ware

Not a strange regret.  Many people put too much effort on the job, and didn’t balance it with life.  The moment they realized it, it’s way too late.  Obviously, people didn’t say:  “I wish I had worked for more hours”.

When I was in Beijing, I had one coworker, who was kind of a workaholic.  He is a dad of two kids.  One time he told me with a face full of pain and regret that, he was not around when either of his kids was born.  Where was he?  He was working somewhere, in some business trips.

This is one of the reasons I decided to retire early, as I don’t need this regret.

  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” – By Bronnie Ware

Everyone has feelings for sure.  Many people bury their feelings for lots of reasons.  Why don’t we talk about it?  The talk could expose our own emotional vulnerability.  It could also hurt others, interrupt the superficial peace, or simply rock the boat.

Expressing feelings needs a lot of courage.  I’m not shy of acknowledging and expressing my feelings, as it’s part of who I am.  Sometimes, I have to check and take control of it.  The goal is to make sure that, the feelings don’t overpower me.  In my blog, you see those emotional words everywhere.

  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” – By Bronnie Ware

Friendship enriches our lives.  When we were young, it’s common to hang out with friends.  Once getting married and having kids, the dynamic changed.  Some friends were lost in touch.

But, once the kids are grown and moved out, more time is available for our own again.  Reconnecting with friends is a beautiful thing.  It brings back the sweet memory, silly laughs, and the shadows of the youth and energy we used to have.  I feel that way when I attended the 30-year college classmate reunion in 2015.

  • I wish that I had let myself be happier” – By Bronnie Ware

Here we go.  Happiness, I love this topic.  It is something nobody refuses, no matter who we are.

Happiness is a choice.

Two of my New Year resolutions for 2018 are:  smile more, and continue appreciating my half-glass full.  When you smile, you won’t be mad or upset anymore, right?

Life offers so many wonderful things.  Then, what are you waiting for?  Smile, and choose to be happy.  It won’t cost you a penny.

Looking at the top 5 regrets for the dying, I don’t see any word like money, power, or fame.  Sure, it may matter a lot to some folks.  But, it seems that, there are more important things people care about: truthfulness, relationships, feelings, and happiness.

Back to my dad’s judgement about me, I would let him keep his opinions to himself.  Overall, my life has been very good and blessed.  I’m truly happy so far.  The words “Successful or not” would be reserved for my self-evaluation much later.

Hey, let’s discuss:

Do the top 5 regrets Ms. Ware described make any sense to you?

What do you care?  Having a successful life, a good life, or just being happy every day?

How important is money, power and fame to you?

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12 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    I always tell my kids “no matter what you end up doing, make sure you enjoy it and you make enough money to live the lifestyle you choose.” Their definition of happiness may not be the same as mine, and I want to respect that. They shouldn’t live the life I want them to live.
    Great post Helen. Money is just a mean to get where we want to be.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Caroline, you made a very good point. As parents, we have to respect the next generation’s life choices, and hope they make enough money to support their choices of lifestyle. Money is essential But it should not dictate our life.

  2. Steve says:

    Very well written article Helen, I will have to read Bronnie Ware’s new book this spring. Sometimes looking at life from a different prospective helps you find what is important in your own life. (whatever that may be)

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thank you, Steve. It gave me some new perspective after reading Bronnie Ware’s blog. In my case, I won’t be able to get rid of all the regrets. But the blog reminds what I can do, and try to reduce the regrets to the minimum.

  3. GYM says:

    Great post Helen!! I’m sorry that your dad said that to you, but you really responded very well to it and didn’t get defensive (which is something I would probably do!). You are right in saying that success can only be measured by yourself.

    To me, relationships seem very important at the end of life. And to nurture relationships, we need time and effort and love and patience. Accumulating assets doesn’t mean anything. No one says that they want their Mercedes Benz with them on their deathbed.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thank you, GYM. For my parents and their peers, they feel they are entitled to say anything to their kids. I hope this won’t repeat in my relationship with my kid. It’s still a learning process for me.

      You are right, relationships do need a lot of work. It is precious and beautiful. The material stuff that used to be shining (like beach houses, luxurious cars, etc.) may lose the luster to the people on the deathbed.

  4. Ms ZiYou says:

    Love this post Helen I can’t believe your Dad actually said that!!!!

    And I agree power is overrated….and it also corrupts!

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thank you, Ms. ZiYou. Yeah, many people are addicted to power, and can’t ever get enough. I do believe power changes people, sometimes in a bad way. They forget who they are, and lose the basic and good side of human nature.

  5. Joe says:

    Asian parents are so judgmental. Sorry to hear what your dad said. My dad is more open minded. He had a ton of successes and failures so he knows that life is full of ups and downs. My family is doing well and he’s glad for us.

    The 5 regrets are great. Thanks for sharing. These are all very difficult to do. I want to be true to myself, but I have many responsibilities and obligations too.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Yes, it’s a culture thing: parents have more authority in many parts of Asia. I’ll do whatever I can to try to be a different parent. It won’t be easy, though.

      Regarding the 5 regrets, I know what you mean. I try to use them as reminders for me to live a better life.

  6. Bob says:

    Yea that was kind of a ridiculous thing for your dad to say to you. First off you have achieved the ultimate power their is in your freedom. Freedom to do as you please without being controlled by people. I would say that makes your pretty successful in my book. Your life going forward will be on your terms and people will be working for you in many ways vs. you working for them. You now will have the time to be with your family, kids, and possibly grand kids as much as you want and that also is worth an unbelievable amount. You are not a burden on anyone. I wonder if you dad did not understand completely what you have accomplished, no small task.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thank you, Bob. My dad and I have very different values, and attitudes of life. He is not alone. He pretty much represents most of the people living in that village: money, material stuff, and power weigh a lot to them. They are kind of pessimistic about life. Most of the time, they only see the half-glass empty. Therefore, I don’t see many smiling faces in that village. Most of them are emotionless, or sad and miserable. Sometimes, I question: is that the place I really came from? Obviously, the answer is yes.

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