Don’t let pressure and overwork encourage you to hurry past parts of your life. Whether it’s your children’s early life, whole segments of your marriage, or maybe the last active years of loved parents, they are swiftly past and gone beyond recall. Regret comes too late to save them. How many people still cherish an unfulfilled ambition to travel, or start their own business, or enter a new career, and yet do nothing to make it happen? Too many. Time passes. What was once an inspiring idea seems less and less feasible. Yet still they cling to the dream — only not this year. Maybe next year, when things calm down a little. When they’re not so busy. When they have the time.
We are so confused about time. We always have the same amount of it, since we can neither create more, nor save any for later, nor do away with what there is. Yet our perception of time is totally different. Sometimes it seems to drag in endless amounts. Sometimes it appears to flash past. Only our perception changes. Time itself does not.
Of course, what we mean is time free from other demands. But we will never have that either. There are always other calls on our attention and always will be. If you’re waiting for that magical day when nothing else awaits you, only your dream ready for fulfillment, you will wait for ever.
The truth is simple. People confuse what is urgent with what is important; what is pressing today with what is pressing in terms of their whole life. A task stands before you and shouts for your attention because it’s here, now, and must be done by tomorrow. So you set aside far more important activities and choices because they’re not urgent. You can do them tomorrow, no matter. Only that tomorrow never comes.
To live this way is understandable — it’s how the vast majority live — but it’s neither sensible nor fulfilling. All those unmet dreams and expectations build up, until you enter the later part of life trailing a vast, sad cloud of “might have beens.” So many people today are filled with regret at the opportunities they missed because there were more urgent claims at the time. As they look back, they see clearly those claims were never as important as the hopes they supplanted. Now it’s too late.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
(William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar)
To choose a fulfilling path, you must be clear about your values, so you can see the difference between demands that are only urgent, but otherwise have little importance in the scheme of your life; and those that may lack obvious urgency, yet are crucial to who you are and what you want your life to be. You must have the courage to use your time on important matters and set aside what’s merely urgent.
If there’s a dream in your life — something you yearn to achieve, or merely something it would be so much fun to try — don’t put it aside. If that dream is up there at the top (or very near the top) of your personal values, do it now. Yes, now. Don’t wait another day. Nothing is as important to your long-term well being. But if your dream doesn’t make it to the top of your list, set it aside without regret. Like a pretty toy, it may be pleasant to look at, but it’s not important enough to give time to.
Choice may not remove regret entirely — you may always wonder a little what it might have been like — but at least you’ll know you did choose. You didn’t look back later and realize you’d missed that boat without ever grasping it was ready to leave.
“The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”
(Edward Fitzgerald: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam)
Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership, and The Coyote Within.