John Maxwell: Being Well Is Doing Well

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 9, 2012

When the editors of SUCCESS told me this issue was devoted to the subject of well-being, I immediately began to reflect on the heart attack I experienced in 1998. I had just enjoyed a Christmas party with the employees of my company when horrible chest pain brought me to my knees.

As I lay on the floor waiting for paramedics to arrive, I felt as if an elephant was sitting on my chest. At the hospital, a team of great cardiologists saved my life that night. And for the first time in my life, I realized how important it was to pay attention to my health if I wanted to be able to do the things God put me on this earth to do.

Now, I exercise for an hour nearly every day. I usually spend that time swimming laps or doing Pilates with my wife. And I try to eat better, too.

I wouldn’t wish the experience I had with a heart attack on anyone. But I admit that I learned a lot from it because few things are as clarifying as a near-death experience.

Here are the major lessons I learned. I hope you can benefit from them—without having to experience the pain that brought them.

1. Be grateful for life.

People often get so caught up in day-to-day activity that they lose perspective on what a gift life is. That can be especially true for busy leaders. Our vision for our businesses or the demands put on us by leadership can cause us to forget how extraordinary life is.

Author Sam Lefkowitz remarked, “When asked if my cup is half-full or half-empty, my only response is that I am thankful I have a cup.” Your life may not be exactly what you want it to be, but you have life. That’s something to always keep in mind and be grateful for.

2. Focus on what you have, not what you’ve lost.

Sarah Breathnach says, “When we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s present… we experience heaven on earth.” In the minutes I was lying on the floor during my heart attack, believe it or not, I was grateful. Why? Because my wife, my children and most of my closest friends were there with me. I was able to tell them that I loved them.

I’ve written often about attitude, because I believe it is the difference-maker. If you believe you have a good life—regardless of your circumstances—you will have a good life. People who focus on what they have live longer and have more enjoyable lives.

3. Be a good steward of your body.

I confess this is an area where I still struggle, and I don’t believe that I have the credibility to give you much in the way of specific advice about how to eat or exercise. But I will say this: Get the advice of someone who knows how to help you. Talk to your doctor. Read up on nutrition. Join a gym or hire a trainer.

4. Place your family first.

Near the end of life, many people regret what they neglected to do with their families. As the saying goes, nobody on his deathbed wishes he had spent more time at work.

National Basketball Association coach and executive Pat Riley said, “Sustain a family life for a long period of time, and you can sustain success for a long period of time. First things first. If your life is in order, you can do whatever you want.”

I think that is true. When you put your family ahead of yourself and your career, it creates the right priorities in your world. Your home becomes a refuge, and you live with fewer regrets.

And if you sustain your family as Riley suggests, it just keeps getting better as your children have children. Few things in life compare to being a grandparent.

5. Develop a team around you.

One of the healthiest things you can do for your well-being is to make yourself dispensable. Most leaders don’t do that. They want to be in the middle of the action. They like the feeling of being needed.

But always having to be present for your team to do its best isn’t good for your health, nor is it good for the people you lead. In the long run, it will grind you down. And it won’t help the people you lead to grow and develop.

John Ghegan, president of U.S. Business Advisors, kept a sign on his desk that said, “If I had it to do all over again, I’d get help.” That is a good idea for all of us. We need to be reminded to ask others to come alongside us so we get help, they get to learn, and we create a “margin” in our lives so we aren’t needed for everything to turn out all right.

6. Determine your personal faith.

One of the best things going for me when I thought I might be dying was my strong faith. In those moments, I didn’t worry at all about that.

I encourage you to explore your faith while you have the time, instead of waiting and worrying about it. Once you land your personal beliefs, they will guide your decisions and give you inner peace.

7. Make the most of difficult situations.

A painful or difficult experience can either make you more fearful or prompt you to change for the better. I chose the latter, and I hope that you will, too, when you face difficulty or trauma.

For several years I had the privilege of being mentored by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. One thing he repeatedly said was, “Things turn out the best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

Wooden lived by that philosophy. In fact, he did every one of the things I’ve advised in this column. And he lived to be almost 100. I may not get there. You may not either. But that isn’t the point. The idea is to make the most of what we have where we are, so that we can do all that we can.