John Maxwell: Living a Useful Life

UPDATED: July 6, 2010
PUBLISHED: July 6, 2010

When you are 80 years old, sitting in your porch rocking chair and reflecting on life, questions such as Did I live a useful life? will cross your mind. There’s no doubt this question will be important to you at 80, so it really should be important to you now.

Unfortunately, a lot of people make a habit of postponing life. They think that somehow, some way, somewhere at some time, life will get better. This rather poignant saying helps illustrate my point:

First I was dying to finish high school and start college. And then I was dying to finish college and start working. And then I was dying to marry and have children. Then I was dying for my children to grow old enough so I could return to work. Then I was dying to retire. And now I am dying and suddenly realize I forgot to live.

Isabel Moore said, “Life is a one-way street. No matter how many detours you take, none of them leads back.

And once you know and accept that, life becomes much simpler.”

I’ve understood for some time that the only day I have is today. Even so, having a heart attack a few years ago crystallized that concept in my mind. Life is a one-way street. This isn’t a dress rehearsal—it’s a live performance.

We need to take special care to live a useful life, starting now.

So what does it mean to live a useful life? For me, the usefulness of my life is determined by:

•    The relationships I form
•    The decisions I make
•    The experiences I encounter

The Relationships I Form
Relationships help us define who we are and what we can become. More than almost anything else, relationships determine the kind of a life you lead. In fact, most people can trace their failures or successes back to pivotal relationships.

Our relationships with others fall into one of four categories:

1. Addition—Some relationships add to who we are.
2. Subtraction—Some relationships take a little bit out of us.
3. Multiplication—Some relationships can multiply our strengths, results and contacts.
4. Division—Some relationships can divide us.

Think about the people in your life. Where do they fit into these categories? I’m sure it wouldn’t take long to put names beside each category, right? Many of the sorrows we experience spring out of relationships with the wrong people. But it is also true that some of the greatest joys we experience in life develop as the result of our relationships with the right people. With that in mind, work to increase the time and energy you invest in the relationships that improve your life.

And, perhaps above all, work on becoming a person who improves others’ lives.

The Decisions I Make
Our decisions also determine the usefulness of our lives. One of my favorite quotes on making decisions comes from the great John Wooden, who said, “Make each day your masterpiece.”

There are two ingredients necessary to make every day a masterpiece: decisions and discipline. Decision-making takes care of goalsetting, but discipline also takes care of goal-getting. Decisions and discipline can’t be separated; one is worthless without the other.

Since I’m talking about living a useful life, let me share what I consider to be a few of my own life-changing decisions.

•    I am committed to continual personal growth. I believe growth is happiness, it is essential. Out of my growth I live, and out of my growth, I give.
•    I will give and serve on the front end. Many of the blessings I enjoy today are the result of the decision my wife, Margaret, and I made to try to live a life of giving with no strings attached.
•    I will exhibit a great attitude, regardless of the situation.

Virginia Satir said, “Life is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.” It’s not the circumstances life deals us that determine our success or failure. It’s our response to it.

The Experiences I Encounter
Finally, the experiences we encounter on a daily basis impact our ability to live a useful life. Joseph Campbell put it best, “People say that what we’re all seeking is meaning for life…. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”

Our experiences determine how fulfilling our life is, and there are four realms to every experience:

1. Entertainment—Absorbing experience through the senses
2. Educational—Participation of a person’s mind or body, sometimes both
3. Escapist—Completely involves the person, like going to a theme park
4. Esthetic—Immersion in an environment but not affecting it

Jim Gilmore was spot-on when he said, “The richest and most compelling human experiences draw from all four realms.” If you are a leader or a communicator, ask yourself: When I am communicating with or leading people, do I involve all four experiences?

Final Thoughts
If you’re not doing something with your life, it doesn’t matter how long it is. If you’re doing something with your life, it doesn’t matter how long it is. Life does not consist of years lived, but of its usefulness.
If you are giving, loving, serving, helping, encouraging and adding value to others, you have a useful life!