When someone shares with you that they have an incurable illness, is one of the first things you want to know is how they are going to change their life?
Educator Bruce Kramer, in a memoir he wrote with journalist Cathy Wurzer after receiving a diagnosis in 2010 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, observed, “I know that I am dying. But this is not new knowledge, and it is not ALS. It has always been so. Disease only changes the circumstances and the speed.”
In other words, we all face a death sentence, but we don’t know when it will kick in. This is reality. But often it takes a specific diagnosis to change our behavior. What if we think about this differently?
Get rid of the bucket list. The bucket list usually represents the things that we want to do some day, and when each activity or experience is done, we check it off. There seems to be little distinction between a bucket list and that weekend chore list. Those lists actually need to get done whether we wish to do them or not.
Let’s not turn our desires into tasks. Instead, you might create an experience list. What are the traits or behaviors that you want more or less of? Do you wish to explore more, interact more, work more? Do you wish to decrease screen time, be less unnerved by politics? Once you know things you wish to add and which to eliminate, you can then decide what to do to incorporate them, based on your resources. The beauty of this approach is that you never have to be disappointed. You recalibrate the list as you learn more about yourself, so everything is an experiment.
One of our clients was afraid of money, so they never allowed themselves to use it. They were anxious savers who regularly looked at their investments and wondered if they would have enough. The challenge for them was to get them to save less. As we worked through the words that they would use to describe themselves, one of them said “adventurous.” Well, to be adventurous, you may need to create some adventures. They started testing out experiences in small ways, and over the years that have matured into their description. Is there misalignment between who you are or wish to be and how you act? Reflecting on this can lead to meaningful change.
This reflection is difficult because of disease with our lives. Disease is something we can’t control, so it is a great foil to “dis ease,” the discomfort we feel about our lives despite our influence over them. As Kramer says in “We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying,” our belief is that “dis ease is easily managed by the right life, the right belief, the right partners, the right jobs, the right nationality, the right possessions, the right dreams.” But things go against our wishes all the time in our “right” lives. How we handle those setbacks ultimately determines the quality of our lives.
Here is a predictable future setback. If you have done everything you felt you were supposed to do by putting money away for your retirement, saving a bit of your income each month and investing prudently, you might feel a great sense of betrayal at the next stock market correction. It isn’t fair: You followed the rules and suddenly you have less money than you had. Your reaction is probably a reflection of your dis ease. There is nothing wrong with being disappointed in your investments, but if you are several years from retiring, and putting money away, you should celebrate market corrections rather than agonize over them. In a perfect world, the markets stay cheap each year you are saving and grow dramatically a few years away from needing to spend the money. Dis ease comes in because your money insecurities surface and you become anxious about your future.
If you have put your retirement at risk by being invested inappropriately so that a downturn dramatically affects you, then you had a different type of dis ease. Greed may be too strong a word, but it may have had at least a bit part in your dis ease. Now it’s time to assign blame. You say you didn’t realize the risk that you were taking. Most likely this was not the problem. The dis ease may actually have come from sensing things were too good to be true but not wanting to disrupt them. If you have less money, you may need to adjust your plans. These adjustments are more difficult when too much of life was put on hold in order to prepare for uncertain futures. Striking the right balance between today and tomorrow can help the dis ease.
Kramer and Wurzer quote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Don’t wait to know when your time is up to make the changes you can make long before you have all the answers.
Ross Levin is the chief executive and founder of Accredited Investors Wealth Management in Edina.