Excerpted with the permission of the authors from Chapter 34 Power Questions:
Note from Bob: Enter our 2016 Five Favorite Questions to Ask at Thanksgiving Contest – details at the bottom of today’s post!
He had everything to live for.
There was a baronial home in Connecticut’s most affluent zip code, a loving family, a salary beyond anything he had ever believed possible. And a recent promotion.
Let me tell you about the job. He was the CEO and Chairman of the Board of KPMG, one of the premier and largest accounting firms in the world. It was a position he had sacrificed to achieve. The long hours, the travel, neglecting the family, the scrambling to get the key position.
Gene O’Kelly was sitting on top of the world.
Then he discovers he has a blind date with destiny. On a routine semi-annual executive physical exam, he complains to his doctor about a reoccurring problem he is having. They probe and examine. The clinic puts him through a battery of extra tests.
The results are conclusive. The news is not good. Tragic.
Gene O’Kelly is told that he has an inoperable brain tumor. At best, he has 90 days to live. These are the moments you realize that life goes by so fast, if you don’t stop every once in a while to look around you, you might miss it.
We don’t know of the sudden despair he must have felt. How he broke the news to his wife. How he faced up to the prognosis. What middle-of-the-night fears he faced. In times like this, one’s life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.
What we do know is that O’Kelly was a driven man, compulsive, and a realist. He must have felt at some point, soon after his death sentence, that his 90 days of life were too precious to waste on regrets. He knew from his business experience that successful people are those who are good at moving to Plan B.
He decides to keep a journal chronicling the 90 days of life left to him. (Actually he will live 60 days beyond that.)
Now, please get a pen and paper. I’ll wait.
I want to strongly suggest that you get a copy of the book he wrote.
It’s called Chasing Daylight. It made an indelible impact on me. It will on you, also. That’s a promise.
It made me realize that I must look at things as if I am seeing them for the first time, but, also, as if I am seeing them for the last time. And perhaps as if I would never see them again. I had to take everything in and remember it all forever. I had to capture every moment.
I speak at workshops, seminars, and conferences. I spend about 60 days a year in my speaking engagements. Some years more.
The book made such an impact on me that I started beginning all of my speeches by asking the group to think about what they would do if they only had 90 days to live. Who would you visit? What wrongs would you right? Which friends would you tell how much you love them? What places might you want to visit for the last time? How would you spend the last days with your family?
You get the idea. I want to impress on those in my audience that life is a very fragile thing. You begin dying the day you are born. I remind them to live life to its fullest—their cup overflowing with joy, fulfillment, and rewards. I tell them to work as if they will live forever, and live as if they would die tomorrow.
After doing this exercise for a year or two, I realized that there was actually a more significant question. What would you do if you knew you had only three years to live? The reason that’s a more consequential question is that it is more thought-provoking. It really stretches you.
Ninety days gives you an opportunity to quickly bring all of the elements of your life into a neat package and tie it with a ribbon. But changing the time frame to three years creates a very different challenge. It forces you to do a great deal more thinking and planning. It gives you time to do more than just wrap things up. You are reminded that things don’t change. You change your way of looking at them.
You take a careful look at the inevitable forward motion of life. But suddenly it has an abrupt stop. The end.
The more I think about extending the time period to three years, the better I like the idea. That’s when I decide I will do something a bit different at my speaking engagements. I do it now at all of them.
I give everyone a blank envelope. I tell them to write their return address in the left-hand corner. Then I have them address the envelope to themselves. “Mark it Personal and Confidential ,” I tell them. In the right-hand corner where the stamp goes, I have them put the date.
I now ask them to write a quick narrative. A very special document.
“Don’t worry about the sentence structure, spelling, or ending the sentence with a preposition. Forget everything your freshman English teacher taught you. What I want is a free flow of spontaneous writing.
“Make your mind into a blank sheet of white paper. Now you’re ready to write.
“You have three years to live, three years from today. What would you do to change your life, personally and professionally? What would you hope to accomplish? Who are the people you would want to bring into your life in a more intimate way?”
I tell them that a friend is someone who knows the song of your soul and sings it back to you when you’ve forgotten the words. Who are those friends and why aren’t you seeing more of them now? How would you change your life?
I give them 15 minutes to complete the narrative. No one really needs longer than that. I want an unadorned, unvarnished, and a totally heart-exposed report.
I ask them to fold the paper, put it in the envelope they’ve addressed, and seal the envelope. I gather all the envelopes and take them back to my office. I have these on a tickler. The office sends them out three years later.
I have been doing this now for about six years. The results are extraordinary. I have a dozen or so phone calls every month from folks who receive their envelopes.
They tell me that when they first see the envelope, it seems to them that the writing looks very familiar, but they can’t remember having addressed the envelope. (Three years is a long time.) They open the envelope and read how they planned to spend the three years. That’s when I get the phone calls.
Some tell me how close they are to being able to achieve what they had written. Many tell me how blessed they are to have lived beyond the third year. I have had glorious comments. I have made a note of all of them. (I think someday I’ll write a book!)
Social scientists tell us that when you make a public commitment to something, it greatly increases the odds you will actually do it. We know that if you put it in writing, it leaves an indelible mark on your mind.
Just be careful what you wish for. It may very likely come true.
This is a question that can be used in countless situations. I have used it with clients, with friends, and the family. “If you knew you had only three years to live, what would you hope to achieve personally and professionally?”
It is a question that will lead you on a journey of wondrous pathways. The signposts are all down. There’s no road map to follow.
This question forces people to begin thinking about how to reorder the priorities in their life. It helps them understand they must not wait until just the right time. The time will never be just right.
They will be ignited somehow by an emotional spark. The canvas of their life is neutral but the details are ready to be filled in and will be fluorescent.
Invite someone to think deeply about their priorities in life and how they want to spend the remainder of their days. Ask:
“If you knew you had only three years to live, what would you hope to achieve personally and professionally?”
What questions would you like to ask those gathered at your table to take the conversation beyond the weather, the roads, shopping and football?
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