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When Breath Becomes Air: Building a values-based life Thumbnail

When Breath Becomes Air: Building a values-based life

I recently finished reading Paul Kalanithi’s posthumous memoir, When Breath Becomes AirIn it, he shares his personal journey of how, in an instant, he went from life as a highly acclaimed neurosurgeon to life as a terminally ill cancer patient. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I learned from his tragic but beautifully shared experience is this: every decision we make should be based on our values. Not on statistics. Not on someone else’s expectations. And sometimes not even on our own expectations of ourselves.

As an avid reader, I’m sheepish to admit that I was a little late to the party on this one—the book was released in January 2016, became an instant bestseller, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (what was I waiting for?!).Now that I’ve finally read it, I find myself thinking about Kalanithi’s story constantly, and I am trying more than ever to view my life through the lens of my own values. It’s an idea that certainly makes me think—and rethink—about precisely what my values are and how they are reflected in my decisions every day.

Monday offered a perfect example. After decades of planning and working toward my goal, I was able to give myself a long-wished-for (and somewhat belated) birthday gift: I paid off my mortgage. Owning my home outright was a goal I’d had ever since my late husband, Ed, and I purchased it decades ago. Why? Because being able to stand on my own two feet was—and is—a deep-held personal value. Like many women, I think I’ve always had a hidden fear of becoming a bag lady. It’s a fear that’s so common there’s even a term for it: “bag lady syndrome.” No matter how irrational that scenario may be, owning my home gives me a much-needed sense of security. It’s what drove me to pay off my mortgage even when life threw me a long series of curveballs. Ed’s stroke. Getting laid off from my “stable” corporate job. Breast cancer. Widowhood. Life happens! And yet, because my goal was driven by my values, I kept my eyes on the ball. When I received a small inheritance from my uncle, I put it all toward the mortgage. Every month I paid a little bit extra to stay on track. Finally, my diligence paid off. The result: it feels amazing! I did it! I own my home, I won’t be a bag lady after all, and I did it all because I was clear about what I valued.

Being aware of that value helped me defend my decision to pay off my mortgage to colleagues who reacted with surprise. “Why would you do that? Interest rates are so low! Couldn’t you have made more by investing in the market?” “You have so much equity in your house! Why worry about paying it off?” While it’s true that paying off a mortgage may not always give the maximum return on investment, because it mattered to me, it was the optimal solution. That’s true whether you’re deciding to pay off your mortgage, leave a legacy for your kids, pay for college for your grandchildren, or start a new business. Yes, you want to be smart about your decisions, but knowing that your choices are values-based is the key to success.

Of course, as we grow and evolve, our values will change, which means aligning decisions with values is a dynamic process. Here’s how Kalanithi explains it:

“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget…. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”

Life itself is dynamic. Even without a terminal diagnosis, our values are always changing. We are evolving. While our core values are likely to remain constant, we need to stay self-aware and continue to make decisions based on what matters most—today.

My core value of being able to stand on my own drove my decision to pay off my mortgage. It also steered me toward my career as an advisor. Helping others achieve that sense of security is my mission. Kalanithi writes, “The physician's duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face—and make sense of—their own existence.” While my duty as an advisor may not be as weighty as a physician’s, I strive to do something very similar: to help each client to stand back up, identify what matters most today, and plan for a better tomorrow.

No matter where you are in life, I hope you, too, can take time to explore your core values and be sure you’re building a plan based on that strong foundation. If you do, your path is bound to be the right one for you—even when life throws those inevitable curveballs.