by John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Recently, a psychologist asked a sample of 95 year olds, “If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?” Three answers emerged and dominated the results of the study. These were: “If I had to do it over again I would: risk more, reflect more and do more things that would live on after I am dead.”

Last time we reviewed Cicero’s analyses of man’s most drastic mistakes. Most of these are self-defeating beliefs about how people and their worlds interact. The last is a strong recommendation to develop and refine the mind by acquiring the habit of reading and contemplation. In general, I prefer “to dos” rather than “don’t dos” for the obvious reason that the former are proactive and the latter reactive. Evidence suggests that when we take action, things usually work out better.

Returning to the general assumption that most of us are always working to be in control of our lives, we can see that if we are passive — that is reactive — we are more likely to always be responding to the actions and initiatives of others. Whereas, when we are proactive, a couple rather favorable outcomes occur. First, we are not reacting to others, quite the reverse; this increases our sense of personal mastery. Likewise, when we take action, the action taken, regardless of its effectiveness, is likely to open opportunities by altering the situation.

The ability to do this is often labeled risk-taking and seems to be highly related to a wide range of behaviors we label successful. Another positive result of being action-oriented is that it gives us more feedback from the environment and we adapt more quickly. This improvement in performance is related to a corresponding improvement in our self-confidence. This is the nature if a virtuous cycle.

Risk-taking is a double-edged sword; impulsive, thoughtless, unconsidered risks usually produce poor outcomes. However, considered, measured risks often produce highly satisfactory results. There is compelling evidence that effective risk takers analyze the opportunities and threats in a manner that maximizes their ability to be successful by framing the action as not really that risky. It is important to note that the development of effective risk-taking probably results from multitudes of small decisions made in a wide variety of situations over a long period of time.

There is also evidence that reflection or introspection seems to be another critical element present in those who are successful throughout their lifetimes. The ability to look at oneself realistically and use the information as a basis for improvement seems to be a critical element of leadership and the ability to manage one’s own life. Recent studies on leadership emphasize that leaders are not defined by a set of characteristics but rather use a cognitive process involving reflection and iterative development over what may be an extended portion of a lifetime. The process itself often seems to be initiated by some type of personal crisis researchers refer to as a crucible. This explains why leadership, unlike management, is much harder to define. It also offers the opportunity that leadership is largely a result of one’s personal interaction with the world and not some magical property that we cannot understand.

The third result of the study, “do more things that would live on after I am dead,” is difficult to support with any research that I am aware of at this time. It seems, however, that this characteristic may be related in some fundamental way to wisdom. Wisdom is the ability, developed through experience, insight and reflection, to discern truth and exercise good judgment. Wisdom is sometimes conceptualized as an especially well-developed form of common sense. It is distinct from the cognitive abilities measured by standardized intelligence tests. Wisdom is often considered to be a trait that can be developed by experience, but not taught. The status of wisdom as a virtue is recognized in cultural, philosophical and religious sources.

The ability to recognize the existential finality of life and to act in a manner that attempts to extend positive influence beyond the end of life certainly is a highly evolved form of wisdom.

When a colleague showed me the three outcomes of this study, my first reaction was this must have been an exceptional sample of people. There are powerful lessons to be learned. A successful life is most likely the result of a huge number of small events. These events occur across a large portion of the lifespan. The culmination of these events is a common good that extends beyond one’s lifespan. These are interesting ideas to reflect upon as a new year begins.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.