Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Holiday Story

Getting the best return on life

By John F. Wasik (Reuters)
Author of The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome

A Haitian family walks on a street in the town of Jeremi in Haiti January 7, 2007. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz I was in a homeless shelter recently with my daughters and neighbors serving a hot meal to some folks who didn’t have a roof over their heads.

They smiled gratefully and thanked us as they sampled my pasta recipe and other dishes. This was a frozen moment when I had to ponder the investment one makes not in stocks, bonds and funds, but life itself.

My friend Mitch Anthony, speaker and author of “the Bean is Not Green,” always has great insights on this process. He says we need to take stock of our “return on life (ROL).”

Return on life is about measuring what’s important to you in non-tangible terms. A warm place to sleep. A job. Health insurance. A decent meal with people you love.

To evaluate your return on life, you literally have to stop thinking about money. Just stop. Look at what you have and what you can give. What do you value?

“Everyone has a unique set of values,” Mitch tells me. “We have a vision of life. What adds to or subtracts from it? What are our responsibilities to others?”

To gauge ROL, we need to know how much and how often we value certain things. Are we spending too much time at work or worrying about it at home? Do the things that matter most occupy the least amount of our daily existence? What have we put in the backs of drawers that need to be revealed?

In order for us to have this self-conversation, we need to throw out some ideas that have dominated the financial arena and poisoned our lives.

Forget about forecasts.
Nobody has a decent crystal ball, especially after 2008. The world is moving too fast. You can’t plan your life around a business channel. What are your needs? How can you best address them with current resources and time?

Stop focusing on performance.
So you didn’t get a raise or bonus this year. Did you achieve what you set out to do? Are you getting closer to your goals? Life isn’t a steady upward curve. It really looks more like the stock market, which is a jagged line.

Forget about timing.
Some people can plan careers and they are defined by certain milestones: Becoming a manager or partner, getting the big raise, retiring. Life going forward won’t be that simple. We will gradually retire or work into our ninth decades. We will un-retire and pursue different careers. Work isn’t what it used to be.

The one thing we shouldn’t embrace is regret, that indisputable anxiety that we’ve not gotten the best return on life. Or to quote Stephen Sondheim from A Little Night Music: “Isn’t it rich/Isn’t it queer?/Losing my timing/this late in my career?”

The best ROL leaves us with no residue of remorse. It flows organically, like an idea whose time has come. You won’t find it jumping out at you from the business headlines or a blog.

How do you know you’re making a good life investment? You can feel it in your gut, your neck and your heart. I’m not talking about a mutual fund or bond that may or may not pay you back. I’m talking guarantees with the full faith and credit of what makes you tick.

For some, it may be learning piano or a new language. For others, it may be volunteer work or a trip to Antarctica.

I can tell you I’m finding immense pleasure just cooking for my family and others, taking that daily walk and breathing deeply. I can’t value any of these things in monetary terms, but they have value beyond words. I can measure them in warm smiles.

Most importantly, you can gauge your return on life in terms of what you can do for others. This is the compound interest of giving and it could be anything from a kind word to going to a friend’s funeral and talking with survivors.

There’s going to be so much in life that will make you sick with anger and grief. You’ll get a much better return from your life energy if you can multiply good will. That’s the most valuable asset of all.

Happy holidays and peace, prosperity and health!

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