A few years back when my father was still alive, I tagged along on one of his excursions to the mall to hang out with his group of old war buddies. I was pretty excited about the chance to listen in on the wisdom that would be thrown around that day. It turns out that I had a conversation with one of them that resonates with me still to this day. In fact it changed how I view life.
We met up with the crew at Starbucks, which was where they congregated three or four times a week. Each of them sporting a blue baseball cap with the war they were involved in inscribed on the front with yellow stitching.
Included in the small eclectic group were veterans of every war that America has been involved in since WWII, even the Afghanistan conflict was represented. The birth years of these gentlemen spanned the spectrum, ranging from David in 1985 all the way back to Tom, who at 91 was born in 1919.
Tom was my father’s best friend. Back in his youth Tom parachuted from airplanes behind enemy lines as a paratrooper during WWII. I found him to be a fascinating man that I enjoyed listening to reminisce about the “good ole days.” But it was the conversation we had that day about regrets that affected me most, it was powerful and I’ll never forget it.
I asked Tom when he looked back over his life were there any regrets. He said for the most part no, he didn’t. But when we continued talking it became overwhelmingly apparent to me that he did, especially when he started talking to me about his deceased wife, whom he loved dearly.
He said, “I do wish with all my heart that I had spent more time with my wife. I was so busy all the damn time trying to make money, and it was at jobs that I didn’t even much like. I guess I always thought that there would be time for us later, after I earned enough.” I noticed the change wash over him as he continued with the story. The smile ran away from his face and in its place was a look of regret tinged with melancholy, it was palpable.
“You know,” he said, “If I had it all over to do again, I would chase my dreams with the fury of a Texas tornado. I’d go after them with everything I had. And if they never came to be, that would be alright, at least I would have given it my best shot, and there wouldn’t ever be that feeling of wondering if I could, I would know.”
Tom turned from me right then and with a half glazed look in his eyes stared out to a long ago time; he was momentarily lost in thought.
“I would have lived my life the way I wanted to live it, and not have someone else dictate it for me, so they can realize their dreams. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I would have tried harder to make a living doing what I had a passion for instead of working at jobs that only meant a paycheck. As I got older I eventually figured this out and was finally able to do what it was that interested me. But there were so many years before that, while my wife and I were in the prime of our lives, that I drummed away mindlessly at work I found uninteresting and monotonous.”
He turned to me and looked me straight in the eyes with a seriousness I could feel and said, “If you don’t have a passion for the work you do day in and day out, if you wouldn’t do it for free, I say run and run quickly! Get the heck out of there and get to doing something you know feels right in here,” he said tapping his chest.
He continued with, “If I could do it all over again, I would have loved more and criticized less. I would have helped more people in their time of need, instead of being so worried about my needs. And I would have built more things, things that would be here long after I’m gone. These things don’t have to be physical structures; what I’m talking about is a legacy, something to be proud of, something that loved ones can be proud of too. Your goal in life shouldn’t be to live forever, your goal should be to create something that will.”
This conversation with Tom, the WWII vet, had profoundly changed me; I could sense the difference inside. It was a fascinating feeling wrapped with urgency and a bit of melancholy. I knew that I had just been taught a very valuable lesson, one I’d never forget.
I thanked Tom for his time and for the wonderful advice, wishing our talk wasn’t over yet. His face lit up immediately and the smile I was used to seeing was back on his face. He vigorously shook my hand and as he did he bestowed one more shiny jewel of wisdom onto me – he said, “JP, if there is something you really want in this life, something you think about at night in bed before falling off to sleep, then son, chase it like your pants were on fire! Because before you know it, you’ll be an old man like me who can only look back and say – I shoulda, coulda, woulda…”
Tom has since passed away, but his lesson that day lives on in me, and I can only hope it will live on in you too.
Remember, right now is tomorrow’s past. Rather than sow the seeds of a future regret, why not sow the seeds of a budding legacy?
A Few Tips on how to Live Life without Regrets
1. Choose to be happy, because happiness isn’t something you find, it’s a choice.
2. Follow your dreams. Don’t let others dictate how your life unfolds.
3. Speak your mind instead of keeping your thoughts to yourself.
4. Spend quality time with loved ones; don’t work your life away, find a balance in your work-life and home-life.
5. Don’t look at past mistakes as failures, analyze the mistake and learn something from them, take away something positive. As the Dalai Lama said, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.”
6. The Dalai Lama also said, “Live an honorable life, so when you get old and look back you can enjoy it again.”
7. “Take risks, if you win you’ll be happy; if you lose, you’ll be wise.” -Author unknown