Personal Priorities

Ian Hellström | 3 May 2021 | 3 min read

What is important in life and how can you figure it out before it is too late?

People who buy into the hustle culture often struggle with finding meaning outside of work. Hobbies must be monetized and turned into side hustles to avoid ‘wasting time’ on matters no one can gawp at on social media. And here I was, thinking a hobby was supposed to be fun and something other than work.

So, how can you figure out what’s important to you? Let’s get macabre for a moment.

Imagine your death bed. Who do you want around you? What do you want to say to them? What do you want them to say about you? How do you want to be remembered? What are the highlights of your life you want to look back on? Would you have done anything differently? Are important people missing from your side? Is anyone thrilled about your imminent demise? And more importantly, why are they so excited to flush your ashes down the lavatory?

It might help to check common regrets for inspiration.

While such a thought experiment provides clarity on the meaning in your own life and your values, it ignores the reality of needing food, a roof over your head, and preferably a few of the finer things the world has to offer.

Still, it’s a great rough guide for anything that hustling may overlook because it’s hard to turn into a profit: family, friends, social causes, travel, and so on. It’s possible to transform your family into a profit centre, but they may resent it, it’s illegal, or both.

Instead, wind back the tape from your death bed and picture your retirement speech. Where are you? Who is there? Who is toasting to you and what are their reactions? What aspects of your career are worth being proud of? Are you satisfied with what you have achieved? What are you looking forward to in the next few chapters of your life?

With the knowledge of where you are, where you are currently headed, and where you ultimately want to go, you can plot a course to that destination, making adjustments along the way. Perhaps you value the journey more than the destination or maybe there is only one possible raison d’être for you. The most valuable aspect of this exercise is to learn when to say ‘No’ and why.

The death bed gives perspective on what’s important in your life. The retirement speech adds in a dose of reality as (almost) everyone has to earn a living. But when you’re lost in uncharted territory and you have to decide whether to plough on or retrace your steps, it’s important to know what’s flexible and possibly worth sacrificing, and what is not.

If your intention is to work until you die because work is life, then you can start writing your last will and testament now, because karoshi (過労死) will take care of you sooner rather than later. Harsh, but it’s best you hear it now than when you’re enjoying the comforts of a silk-lined coffin, surrounded by estranged friends and family and a dearth of coworkers who were too busy digging their own graves with unpaid overtime.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I don’t start with the retirement speech. Perspective is needed to see priorities clearly. It’s about strategy versus tactics. You still have to make decisions here and now, but it’s important to have an idea where you draw the line and what you ultimately want people to say about you, if anything, or if you even care.

There is no right or wrong. There is only what’s right for you. Choose wisely.