By now you probably heard of the story of deathbed regrets. Bronnie Ware was an Australian hospice nurse. She worked with many patients during their last days. She summarized her patients’ deathbed regrets in a blog post, which she then turned into a book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. The story went viral when it got publicized by The Guardian and Huffington Post and the like.
Number two on the top five regrets of the dying was:
I wish I didn’t work so hard.
I don’t doubt that many who were dying said that. The question is whether this is actionable. In other words, knowing that many regretted having worked so hard when they were dying, should you not work so hard now?
Frugality and working hard are two tenets of the Puritan work ethic. It contradicts with this deathbed regret. Who’s right?
When you are dying, you already got all the benefits from working hard. Wishing that you didn’t work so hard isn’t going to take away any of the benefits. Isn’t it like having your cake and eating it too? If you wish you didn’t work so hard, you have to offer up the benefits you derived from working hard. Is it the trip you took with your family using the money you earned? Is it the good education your children had when you were able to afford that more expensive home in the good school district? Is it the pride and joy you had when you saw the students you taught graduate?
Not giving up anything and only wishing you didn’t work so hard makes the regret moot. To us not dying, not working so hard has consequences we must bear. Some consequences may be acceptable; some may not be.
Maybe those dying realized working so hard didn’t make much difference anyway. They thought it would lead to more money, more prestige, better life experiences, better whatever, but it didn’t. It’s like those students saying they shouldn’t have studied Chapter 7 because it wasn’t on the final exam. Before you took the exam though, how would you know? You worked so hard because you wanted the better outcomes you desired. Not able to actually achieve the desired outcomes doesn’t make working so hard a bad move prospectively.
Maybe some were dying at an younger age than they expected. They weren’t able to enjoy enough of the fruits of their hard work. In other words they overshot by working so hard. Again, if you knew you were going to die young, of course not working so hard would still be good enough. The question is, how do you work just hard enough to achieve what you actually need and not one bit more? Not knowing when you will die makes it difficult. Not working so hard and betting you will die young doesn’t seem to be a good strategy to me.
It’s good to strike a balance between working hard and living a life. However, because you don’t know what makes a difference or not, or how much you actually need before you die, more likely than not you will end up working harder than absolutely necessary. Some parts of working so hard will appear wasted when you look back. Those who said they wished they didn’t work so hard weren’t wrong. They just had hindsight we can’t have now, at the time we are deciding how hard we should work.
For this reason I say the deathbed regret isn’t actionable. Some of your efforts will appear wasted. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the effort to begin with.