Several years ago a palliative care worker named Bronnie Ware wrote a very powerful blog post detailing some of the experiences she shared with her patients during the final phase of their lives. She noted some common themes that kept coming up over and over, which she put together into a list she called Regrets of the Dying.

And the top two regrets noted were:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

Bronnie notes that when we realize most of our dreams go unfulfilled because of choices we made, regret naturally ensues.

Why is it that we work so hard at living a life we are expected to live, and barely make an effort at creating and living our own lives?

Fear. And insecurity.

Let’s start with fear. It is far, far easier to conform to the norms than to step outside the lines. And plenty of research has shown that we go to much greater lengths to avoid pain, anxiety, and embarrassment than we do seeking pleasure. Behavioral economists and psychologists call this loss aversion.

We’ve all heard the statistic that most people fear public speaking as much as death. Of course, what we fear is that we’ll freeze or screw up or otherwise look foolish. So it’s no wonder that we go out of our way to avoid most types of fearful experiences.

And what about insecurity? It’s a first-cousin of fear. Insecurity is a lack of confidence in ourselves: who we are, our abilities, and our future. Most people can point to many sources for their lack of confidence, often related to things other people have said. Some studies show that a negative criticism has ten times the impact of a supportive comment. And most people in an insecure state tune out or dismiss the positive comments made about them, instead focusing on the damaging remarks – thus reinforcing their insecurity.

Getting back to Ware’s regrets, to be true to ourselves and lead the lives we’d like to craft requires courage. Courage to look honestly at ourselves, stay true to our ideals, and then respond in the world in a way that is aligned with our vision for ourselves. To do this, we must recognize the power of our thoughts which directly lead to either fear or joy. Once we can rule our thoughts, we become masters of our destiny.

Here is a clip of Bronnie giving a bit more background into her project and insights.