What Mattered and What Didn’t


December 11, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

My friend John Izzo is a fascinating person who combines an interest in spirituality with an interest in corporate life. His latest book, The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, is based on 250 interviews conducted with people over 60 on what they learned about the keys to fulfillment in their professional and personal lives. Following is an edited version of our conversation:

This project – interviewing people over 60 about the secrets of life – sounds like great fun. I wish that I had done it! What gave you this idea? 

When I travel to a new city, I read reviews from people who have been there before – of hotels, restaurants, and things to do. Since I have always been interested in why some people find lasting fulfillment, it seemed to me that same method could apply to life and career. If you want to know the secrets to a happy life, you should ask someone who has lived one.

So I asked several thousand people to identify the one person they knew who had “lived a long life and found lasting happiness.” After reviewing over 1,000 suggestions, we conducted in-depth interviews with an extremely diverse group of 250 people ages 60 to 106. We asked them to reflect on their lives and careers to tell us what they had learned: the things that brought meaning and fulfillment as well as the regrets and things they wished they had learned sooner.

Why did you choose to interview people over the age of 60? 

I feel we live in a society that tends to dismiss experience in favor of youth. This is out of step with what human societies have done for thousands of years. When I was done with the interviews, I had tapped into 18,000 years of life experience! It doesn’t get any better than that!

Was there one secret that really stood out for you? 

The importance of following your heart and being true to yourself. Many of these people told me about critical times in their lives when they had to follow their own dreams instead of the dreams of other people, what parents, friends, or society was telling them to do.

The first thing is the choice of our careers, which must begin with understanding ourselves and what we love to do. I have met so many people over my years in business who are in jobs or careers that are not a good fit for their deepest self. Maybe they followed what their parents wanted them to do or they just got stuck in a career and keep trying to make it fit who they are.

What about beyond one’s career? 

I learned each one of us has a path we are meant to follow. Some of us were meant to spend our lives outdoors or working for ourselves or helping others or living a life of adventure. These people all had different dreams, but the common element is that they followed the voice inside themselves.

A man named Ron, for example, had a family that wanted him to become a medical doctor but he had an experience right before going to study medicine when he realized it was not his path. Others told him the path he was choosing was crazy, but he listened to his own voice and that decision made all the difference in how his life turned out. When I asked him how you know when you are following your heart he told me: “I think most of us know, but we have to have the discipline to listen and the courage to follow.” What I learned is that most people reading this know if they are following their heart right now but we have to have the courage to follow that voice.

What role did taking risks play in finding happiness? 

One of the questions we asked people was about key moments when they reached a crossroads and when the paths they chose made a big difference in how their lives turned out. In almost every case, the important crossroads involved risk, stepping out of your comfort zone in some way. Looking back, people often identified those moments of “stepping out” as being the key to their ultimate happiness and success. When I asked people if they had risked enough almost every one of them said “nowhere near enough.” What I concluded is that many of us play it way too safe and it is often when we feel uncomfortable that we know we are making the right decision.

The other fascinating thing is that almost no one regretted a risk they took that didn’t work out – whether in work or their personal life. We can handle the risks we take that don’t work out but what we can’t deal with is the feeling that we didn’t try for what we really wanted. These people told me that the thing we should fear most at the end of life is that our last words would be: “I wish I had…” So the moral to the story is that if there is a dream or hope you have for your life, make sure you at least try for it.

When people looked back on their careers and lives, what gave them the most meaning and sense of purpose? 

One of the questions we asked people was what brought them the greatest happiness and the greatest meaning and also what turned out not to matter very much. The most common sources of meaning were relationships and feeling they had made something better while they were here. When people looked back on their careers and lives, happiness came from feeling that they gave something to others, whether it was the people they mentored, the impact they had on some matter that was important to them, or the relationships people had developed during their lives.

It occurred to me that we think what will make us happy is what we get (money, status, power, praise) but what ends up giving us the greatest happiness is what we gave while we were here.

When I asked people what did not matter very much the three most common answers were: money beyond what you need to be comfortable, what other people think of you, and having status. Many of these people said they wished they had learned sooner that life is not a contest and your happiness is not about how you compare with others because there will always be someone who has more of whatever it is you think you want.

Many of these people are well beyond the traditional retirement age. Did you learn anything about staying “young at heart”? 

These people ranged from 60 to 106, but they were not “out to pasture” and were still living vital lives both in work and life. Many of them told me how important it is not to pull the curtain down too soon on your life. One of my favorite people was a 93-year-old man named John who had three careers, including that of a painter, a career he began in his sixties. Like so many of the people I interviewed, these people assumed they could contribute until very late in life.

Thank you! How can our readers reach you? 

My e-mail address is JohnIzzo@aol.com. My Web site is www.theizzogroup.com.