What can we learn from a juggling CEO and regrets of the dying.

While browsing through my digital Evernote archive (aka my Backup Brain), I noticed a quote from a 1991 speech by Brian Dyson, then CEO of Coca Cola. He gave this commencement speech to students from Georgia Tech University as they were about to leave school and enter the (working) world.

Imagine life if a game of 5 balls that you manipulate in the air, trying not to let these balls fall. One of them is made from rubber, the rest is glass. The five balls are: work, family, health, friends and soul.

— Bryan Dyson in 1991, then CEO of Coca-Cola

In the speech, he then explains that it will soon become clear to you that the ball made out of rubber, represents “work”. If that ball falls, it will bounce again. In other words: you can always go look for new or more work. The other balls are made of glass. If one of those falls, it will not bounce back and recover to its former shape. If a glass ball falls, it is broken, damaged, cracked or even completely shattered.

Dyson continues:

You have to be aware of that and strive for it. Manage your work efficiently during working hours, take the time to be assured of your sincerity, give the necessary time to your family and friends, take appropriate rest, and take care of your health. If you are gone, it isn’t easy to return as it was.

scan of the newspaper article can be found here [pdf]. This is pre-YouTube 😉

The regrets of the dying

The Dyson quote reminded me of an article (and book) I read called “Top Five Regrets of the Dying“. The author, Bronnie Ware, was working in palliative care at the time and bundled the conversations she had with the people she cared for. The blogpost is a very condensed version of the book. In it, she shares the most heard regrets people told her about on their death beds.

The most heard regret was:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

Most people Bronnie talked to, looked back on their lives and realised most of their dreams had gone unfulfilled as a result of the choices they had made during their lives. 

The second most heard regret was:

I wish I had not worked so hard

The people she spoke to said that many of them (mostly men, as they were the breadwinners) were working so much and so often that they missed important moments in the lives of their children or barely spent time with their partners. All because (in their opinion) they had been spending too much time working.

Why work as an independent entrepreneur then?

As an independent online entrepreneur, it’s great to have so much freedom to do what you want, when you want and where you want. But these quotes are also a solid reminder (for me) to keep a healthy perspective on the work I am doing.

After all, there is always a lot to do; if your income isn’t what you want, it’s easy to work harder, more, and longer. 

If things go well, that gives a boost to…. indeed, work harder, more and longer.

A frequently heard reason to convince people on the joys of being an independent entrepreneur, especially as a “digital nomad”, is that you can do your work anytime and anywhere. I like to turn it around: you can always decide not to work.

That means I can always be there to say goodbye to the kids when they go on a school tripNever miss a play, a concert or sports event they have. On the days that my wife and I are both at home/working, we can enjoy a long walk through the woods together in the afternoon. When I’m reading a good book, there’s more time to finish that chapter. And then read another.

It’s not that I don’t work much, on the contrary. Client work means I tend to go into overdrive. I will never miss a deadline and always overdeliver.

But my autonomy is enormous. In many cases you chose what to work on. That is quite a different experience than working for (commercial) goals set by a manager or board of directors. 

No longer does a day off have to get approved by a manager beforehand. No withdrawn leaves due to large project deadlines.

Internal struggle

In short: life as an independent online entrepreneur occasionally creates internal friction because there is so much space to do things your own way. That requires discipline, a solid productivity system and routines to stay focussed when working and switching off when not working.

To me it is absolutely worth it to exercise said discipline, have a solid productivity system and reliable routines, because those quotes make it a lot easy to realise that work exists to support the rest of your life (and that of those depending on you).

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