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Choosing a Life That Matters
Read by John C. Maxwell
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We all have a longing to be significant. We want to make a contribution, to be a part of something noble and purposeful. But many people wrongly believe significance is unattainable. They worry that it’s too big for them to achieve. That they have to have an amazing idea, be a certain age, have a lot of money, or be powerful or famous to make a real difference.
The good news is that none of those things is necessary for you to achieve significance and create a lasting legacy. The only thing you need to achieve significance is to be intentional. And to do that, all you need to do is start. You can’t make an impact sitting still and doing nothing. Every major accomplishment that’s ever been achieved started with a first step. Sometimes it’s hard; other times it’s easy, but no matter what, you have to do it if you want to get anywhere in life.
In Intentional Living, John Maxwell will help you take that first step, and the ones that follow, on your personal path through a life that matters.
Table of Contents
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Your Life Can Be a Great Story
What's your life story?
When I meet people for the first time, as soon as the introductions are out of the way, I ask them to share their stories—to tell me who they are and where they're from, where they've been and where they're going. I want to understand what matters to them. Maybe you do the same. The telling of our stories becomes an emotional connecting point for us. It bridges the gap between us.
Why is that?
Everyone loves a good story—we always have. Stories tell us who we are. They…
- Inspire us.
- Connect with us.
- Animate our reasoning process.
- Give us permission to act.
- Fire our emotions.
- Give us pictures of who we aspire to be.
Stories are us.
Every day millions of people watch movies, read novels, and search the Internet for stories that inspire them or make them laugh. Every day we listen to our friends tell us about the dramatic or funny things that happen to them. Every day people take out their smartphones to show pictures and share stories. Stories are how we relate to others, learn, and remember.
As a communicator, I spend a good portion of my days sharing stories. People don't care a lot about cold facts. They don't want to look at pie charts. They want excitement. They like drama. They care about pictures. They want to laugh. They want to see and feel what happened. Statistics don't inspire people to do great things. Stories do!
What's Your Story?
So I'll ask you again: What's your story?
I wish I could sit with you right now and hear it from you. When you get to the end of this book, I'll tell you about a way you can share your story with me and with others. But before we get to that, I want you to think about your story so far. What kind of story is it?
We all have a bit of humor in our stories, as well as some drama. We all have our ups and downs, wins and losses. There's a bit of comedy, tragedy, and history in all of us. But overall, each of our lives tells a larger story. What do you want yours to say?
I believe that no matter what "plot" each of our stories may follow, deep down we all want one thing. We want our lives to matter. We want our stories to be of significance. Nobody wants to feel like the world wouldn't miss him if he'd never lived. Are you with me?
Have you ever seen the classic movie It's a Wonderful Life? It's the story of George Bailey, a man who dreams of traveling the world and building things, but who instead stays home in Bedford Falls, because he repeatedly chooses to do what he believes to be right for others. A point occurs in the movie where George experiences a moment of crisis, and he comes to believe that everyone around him would be better off if he had never been born. What he's really saying is that his life doesn't matter.
The great twist in the story occurs when, with the help of an angel, George gets a chance to see what his town and others' lives would look like if he had never existed. Without him, it's a dark and negative place. George comes to recognize the positive impact he had made because, time after time, he took action to do what he knew was right and helped other people. As Clarence the angel tells him, "Each man's life touches so many other lives." George had touched many lives in small ways and made a difference.
Have you looked at your life from that angle? Have you thought about what you want your life story to be? Do you believe you can live a life of significance, that you can do things that really matter? Can you make your story great?
With all my heart, I believe the answer to these questions is yes. You have it within your power to make your life a great story, one of significance. Every person can. Regardless of nationality, opportunity, ethnicity, or capacity, each of us can live a life of significance. We can do things that matter and that can make the world a better place. I hope you believe that. If you don't now, I hope you will by the time you're finished reading this book.
Don't let the word significance intimidate you. Don't let it stop you from pursuing a life that matters. When I talk about significance, I'm not talking about being famous. I'm not talking about getting rich. I'm not talking about being a huge celebrity or winning a Nobel Prize or becoming the president of the United States. There's nothing wrong with any of those things, but you don't have to accomplish any of them to be significant. To be significant, all you have to do is make a difference with others wherever you are, with whatever you have, day by day.
To be significant, all you have to do is make a difference with others wherever you are, with whatever you have, day by day.
Back in 1976, I received a gift from Eileen Beavers, who was my assistant at that time. As I unwrapped it, I saw it was a book, and I was intrigued by the title: The Greatest Story Ever Told. I couldn't wait to read it.
But when I opened it, I was shocked. The pages were blank.
Inside was a note from Eileen that said, "John, your life is before you. Fill these pages with kind acts, good thoughts, and matters of your heart. Write a great story with your life."
I still remember the excitement and anticipation that surged through me when I read her words. For the first time it made me think about how I was the author of my life, and I could fill every "page" with whatever I wanted. It made me want to be significant. It inspired me to do whatever I could to make my life matter.
So what's the secret to filling the pages of your life? What's the key to a life that matters?
Living each day with intentionality.
When you live each day with intentionality, there's almost no limit to what you can do. You can transform yourself, your family, your community, and your nation. When enough people do that, they can change the world. When you intentionally use your everyday life to bring about positive change in the lives of others, you begin to live a life that matters.
When you intentionally use your everyday life to bring about positive change in the lives of others, you begin to live a life that matters.
I vividly remember watching Reese Witherspoon's emotional acceptance speech after she won the Best Actress Academy Award in 2006 for portraying June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. Witherspoon said that people often asked June how she was doing, and she'd say, "I'm just tryin' to matter!" The actress went on to say that she understood exactly what June meant because she too was trying to make her life matter—by living a good life and doing work that meant something to somebody.
And isn't that what all of us want? To make our lives matter? So if that is true, why doesn't it happen for everybody?
Get into the Story
Most people want to hear or tell a good story. But they don't realize they can and should be the good story. That requires intentional living. It is the bridge that crosses the gap to a life that matters. I'll explain this in detail in the next chapter, but right now I'll just say this: when unintentional people see the wrongs of the world, they say, "Something should be done about that." They see or hear a story, and they react to it emotionally and intellectually. But they go no further.
People who live intentionally jump in and live the story themselves. The words of physicist Albert Einstein motivate them: "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing."
Why do so many people do nothing? I think it's because most of us look at the evils and injustice around us, and we become overwhelmed. The problems look too big for us to tackle. We say to ourselves, "What can I do? I'm just one person."
One person is a start. One person can act and make a change by helping another. One person can inspire a second person to be intentional, and another. Those people can work together. They can become a movement. They can make an impact. We should never let what we cannot do keep us from doing what we can do. A passive life does not become a meaningful life.
Not long ago I read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Don Miller. He eloquently writes about seeing our lives as stories. He explains, "I've never walked out of a meaningless movie thinking all movies are meaningless. I only thought the movie I walked out on was meaningless. I wonder, then, if when people say life is meaningless, what they really mean is their lives are meaningless. I wonder if they've chosen to believe their whole existence is unremarkable, and are projecting their dreary lives on the rest of us."1
If you are reading these words and thinking to yourself, That's me. My life is meaningless. My existence is unremarkable. I wish my life were less dreary, then I have good news for you. This doesn't have to be your story. Your story can be about a life that matters.
Don Miller also writes, "You can call it God or a conscience, or you can dismiss it as that intuitive knowing we all have as human beings, as living storytellers; but there is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness."2
No matter what your beliefs are, I can tell you this. If your story isn't as meaningful or significant or compelling as you want it to be, you can change it. You can begin writing a new story, beginning today. Don't settle for being merely a teller of stories about significance. Decide to be the story of significance. Become the central character in your story of making a difference!
If your story isn't as meaningful or significant or compelling as you want it to be, you can change it.
Your Story, Not History
I have to admit, this notion goes against everything I learned in college. It may go against your education, too. In the courses I took on speaking, the professors taught us to take our stories from history, not to draw upon personal experiences to illustrate our points. They believed to do anything other than that appeared egocentric.
As a bourgeoning communicator, however, I observed that the greatest speakers didn't just tell better stories. They actually made the stories better by living them first. Their stories came from their experiences. They were at the heart of their best stories.
And that's what I want for you. I don't want you to be merely a storyteller of significance. I want you to be a story liver! Your story still has many blank pages. You can write on them with your life. When you get right down to it, intentional living is about living your best story.
One of the biggest comedy acts of the sixties and seventies was the Smothers Brothers. I remember a routine they performed on their television variety show that went something like this:
"What's wrong, Tommy?" asked Dick, who was the straight man. "You seem a bit despondent."
"I am!" replied his brother Tommy. "I'm worried about the state of our American society!"
"Well, what bothers you about it? Are you worried about the extent of poverty and hunger in the land?"
"Oh no, that doesn't really bother me."
"I see. Well, are you concerned about the growing threat of nuclear war?"
"No, that's not a worry of mine."
"Are you upset about the use and abuse of drugs by the youth of America?"
"No, that doesn't bother me very much."
Looking rather puzzled, Dick asked, "Well, Tom, if you're not bothered by poverty and hunger, war and drugs, what are you worried about?"
"I'm worried about our apathy!"
Apathetic people will never make their world different. Indifferent people will not live a life that matters. Passive people take themselves out of the greatest of all stories—their own. Maybe they want to see themselves in the story, but they exist as mere observers on the sidelines. They wish for more, but they fail to become active participants. Why? Because they are unintentional.
How to Start Writing Your Significance Story
If you're like me and want to make a difference and have a significance story to tell by the end of your life, I can help you. I'm going to show you the simple pathway toward intentional living. But first, you need to be willing to take an important step forward. And that comes from a change in mindset, from a willingness to start writing your story by approaching your life differently.
1. Put Yourself in the Story
No one stumbles upon significance. We have to be intentional about making our lives matter. That calls for action—and not excuses. Most people don't know this, but it's easier to go from failure to success than from excuses to success.
In a famous study by Victor and Mildred Goertzel published in a book titled Cradles of Eminence, the home backgrounds of three hundred highly successful people were investigated. These three hundred people had made it to the top. They were men and women who would be recognized as brilliant in their fields. The list included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Winston Churchill, Albert Schweitzer, Clara Barton, Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud. The intensive investigation into their early home lives yielded some surprising findings:
- Three-fourths of them as children were troubled by poverty, a broken home, or difficult parents who were rejecting, overpossessive, or domineering.
- Seventy-four of the eighty-five writers of fiction or drama and sixteen of the twenty poets came from homes where, as children, they saw tense psychological drama played out by their parents.
- Over one-fourth of the sample suffered physical handicaps such as blindness, deafness, or crippled limbs.3
Adversity tried to knock these people out of their stories, but they didn't allow it to. Why? They were highly intentional. They had a strong why—a purpose—which drew them forward even if the road wasn't wide and smooth. (I'll tell you about finding your why in chapter four.)
Look at the lives of people who have achieved significance, and you can hear them calling you to put yourself into your story. Perhaps they didn't use those exact words, but if you look at what they've said, you can sense the call to action:
"To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself."
"If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?"
—T. S. ELIOT
"Be the change you want to see in the world."
"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.… Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."
People ask me all the time for advice about how to write a book. I tell them to start writing. Many people would love to write a story, a poem, or even a book, but they never do. Why? They're afraid to start.
To have a life that matters, you have to start. Start with yourself. Your best story begins when you put yourself back into it. Be in the picture. Stop looking—start living! Not only will that change your life and help others, but it will also give you the credibility and moral authority to inspire and team with others to make a difference. (I'll talk a lot about this throughout the book.)
Once, while walking through the Orlando Science Center, I read these words on a sign: "Experiment—Experience—Explore. Do not touch isn't in our vocabulary." I love that philosophy, not only for a science center, but also for life. Dive in! You never know how well you can swim until you are in over your head.
2. Put Significance in Your Story
A well-written story is built using elements that people think are important. When we live for significance, we are telling people around us that it is important to us. Almost everyone wants to live a life of meaning and significance, whether or not they express the desire.
To put significance in our stories, we must do things out of our comfort zone. And we must make changes that we may find difficult. We often avoid trying to make those changes. But know this: though not everything that we face can be changed, nothing can be changed until we face it.
To put significance in our stories, we must also take action. Being passive may feel safe. If you do nothing, nothing can go wrong. But while inaction cannot fail, it cannot succeed either. We can wait, and hope, and wish, but if we do, we miss the stories our lives could be.
We cannot allow our fears and questions to keep us from starting. Are you tempted to wait until an ideal time? Do you worry that if you start on this journey without knowing exactly where it will go you might not do well? Are you concerned that you might fail?
Let me help you by telling you something you need to know. You won't do well the first time you do anything. You don't know what you're doing when you start. Nobody is good at the beginning of doing something new. Get over it. Novelist Ernest Hemingway said, "The first draft is always crap." (Only he didn't say crap!) And he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you want to live a life that matters, don't start when you get good; start now so you become good. I've never known a star athlete who started out good. All start out as beginners, and with practice, some become good. Others become great.
If you want to live a life that matters, don't start when you get good; start now so you become good.
Everyone starts out bad, regardless of what they're practicing for. We start so we can improve. We start before we're ready because we need and want to get better. The idea is to deliver our best each time we try until one day, we become good. And then one day, we may even have a chance to be great. That's growth. But we can't evolve if we don't start.
Your story won't be perfect. A lot of things will change. But your heart will sing. It will sing the song of significance. It will sing, "I am making a difference!" And that will give you satisfaction down to the soul level.
3. Put Your Strengths in Your Story
Recently I had an enlightening lunch with Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. We were speaking together at an event in Las Vegas, and after catching up for a few minutes, we began to talk about the meaning and impact of significance.
"Jim," I asked, "what is required to bring about positive life-change to a community?" I knew he had done a lot of research on the subject of transformational movements, and I was very interested to hear his answer.
"There are three questions you need to ask and answer to test your readiness to be a catalyst for significance," Jim replied. "They are:
- Can you be the best in the world at what you do?
- Are you passionate about what you are doing?
- Do you have the resources to change your world?"
Since our conversation that day, I have spent a lot of time thinking about those questions. Here is what I discovered. The first question is about talent. You have skills and abilities that can help others. Can you be the best in the world using them? Maybe, maybe not. Can you be the best you in the world using them? Absolutely! No one else has exactly your skills and experiences, opportunities and obstacles, timing and gifts. You are unique, and have a unique chance to make a difference only you can make—if you're willing to get into your story. Your talent will become the leverage in your life for creating the significance story you want to live.
The second question is about heart. Significance begins in the heart when we desire to make a difference. We see a need. We feel a hurt. We want to help. We act on it. Passion is the soul of significance. It's the fuel. It's the core.
The third question is about tools. No doubt you already have many resources at your disposal. My desire is that this book will be another one. It will show you the way so that you can become highly intentional and live a life that matters according to your heart and values.
4. Stop Trying and Start Doing
"I'll try my best." This is a statement most of us have made at one time or another. It's a way of saying, "I'll work at having the right attitude and I'll work at the task, but I won't take responsibility for the outcome." But is trying to do your best enough for a life of significance? Can we move from where we are to where we want to be just by trying?
I don't think so.
Trying alone does not communicate true commitment. It's halfhearted. It is not a pledge to do what's necessary to achieve a goal. It's another way of saying, "I'll make an effort." That's not many steps away from, "I'll go through the motions." Trying rarely achieves anything significant.
If an attitude of trying is not enough, then what is?
An attitude of doing!
There is enormous magic in the tiny word do. When we tell ourselves, "I'll do it," we unleash tremendous power. That act forges in us a chain of personal responsibility that ups our game: a desire to excel plus a sense of duty plus complete aliveness plus total dedication to getting done what has to be done. That equals commitment.
An attitude of doing also helps us to become who we were meant to be. It is this doing attitude that often leads to the things we were meant to do. While trying is filled with good intentions, doing is the result of intentional living.
As you read this, you may be thinking, I'm not sure if I'm ready to make such a commitment. Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, identifies this reluctance. He calls it resistance. He writes, "There is a force resisting the beautiful things in the world, and too many of us are giving in." An attitude of doing helps us break through that resisting force, and the world needs that. It needs for us to live our stories and contribute to the greater story that's happening around us.
Discoveries in Your Story of Significance
I hope you will take steps to put yourself fully into your story and begin writing your life of significance—or to increase your significance if you're already doing significant work. From the moment you start, it will have a positive, lasting effect on you. If you're still not sure if you're ready to take that first step, let me help by telling you what it will do for you:
It Will Change You
What is the number one catalyst for change? It's action. Understanding may be able to change minds, but action changes lives. If you take action, it will change your life. And that change will begin changing others.
Entrepreneur and speaker Jim Rohn said, "One of the best places to start to turn your life around is by doing whatever appears on your mental, 'I should' list." What task to help others keeps popping up on your "I should" list? I want to challenge you to develop the discipline of doing in that area. Every time we choose action over ease we develop an increasing level of self-worth, self-respect, and self-confidence. In the final analysis, it is often how we feel about ourselves that provides the greatest reward from any activity.
In life, it is not what we get that makes us valuable. It is what we become in the process that brings value to our lives. Action is what converts human dreams into significance. It brings personal value that we can gain from no other source.
Action is what converts human dreams into significance.
When I was in college, I felt that I should do something positive in the poorest section of the city where I lived. Often I would hear others say that something should be done to help the people who lived there, but I didn't see anyone doing anything about it. So I decided to lead a clean-up effort in that area. For one month, volunteers did work to spruce up the neighborhood. Then we began helping the people who needed medical assistance. Soon people began to take ownership of the neighborhood and things began to change. I vividly remember walking through that area with a great deal of pride of accomplishment. I was full of joy knowing that I had been part of a group of people who had made a difference in that community. As a result, the change inside of me was as great as the change in the neighborhood.
When you take responsibility for your story and intentionally live a life of significance, how will you change?
- You will reaffirm your values. Acting on what you value will clarify those values and make them a permanent priority in your life.
- You will find your voice. Taking action will give you confidence to speak and live out what you believe in front of others. You will begin to develop a moral authority with people.
- You will develop your character. Passive people allow their character to be influenced by others. Active people struggle to form and maintain their character. They grow and develop because of that struggle.
- You will experience inner fulfillment. Contentment is found in being where you are supposed to be. It's found when your actions are aligned with who you are.
When we live our lives intentionally for others, we begin to see the world through eyes other than our own, and that inspires us to do more than belong; we participate. We do more than care; we help. We go beyond being fair; we are kind. We go beyond dreaming; we work. Why? Because we want to make a difference.
- "Thought-provoking and encouraging...with hundreds of questions designed to help readers in their quest for personal and professional growth. Clear and inspiring, this is a great approach to leadership."—Publishers Weekly on Good Leaders Ask Great Questions
- "An intriguing look at leadership with practical advice makes this book beneficial to. . .anyone who wants to develop and improve their skills."—Library Journal on Good Leaders Ask Great Questions
- "The first time I met John Maxwell, I could tell that he and I shared the same values. He cares about people and he wants to help them. One of the best ways to do that is to teach people how to overcome failure and adversity. That ability turned my life around. If you read Sometimes You Win--Sometimes You Learn, you will learn that valuable skill. I highly recommend this book."—Ben Carson, M.D., pediatric neurosurgeon and NYT bestselling author of America the Beautiful and Gifted Hands, on Sometimes You Win--Sometimes You Learn
"Millions of individuals--myself included--have been inspired by the words and works of John Maxwell. Now, in The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, John again shares his remarkable insights and wisdom into how each of us can reach our full potential and make a positive difference in the lives of others."
—Elizabeth Dole, former U.S. Cabinet Secretary, Senator and President of the American Red Cross, on The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth
- "As a coach and leader, I am always looking for ways to teach my players how to grow. Thanks to my good friend John Maxwell, you hold in your hands the instruction manual for taking next steps of growth. Embracing these laws will cause you to grow individually and in your contribution to those around you. This book is a must-read for anyone responsible for helping others to grow."—John Calipari, Head Basketball Coach at the University of Kentucky, on The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth
- "John has been a mentor and teacher for me for many years and what I love most about him is that he has pushed and helped me personally go through The 5 Levels of Leadership!"—Kevin Turner, COO, Microsoft, on The 5 Levels of Leadership
- "John Maxwell's books have been required reading for my leadership team for years. I can't think of anyone better at distilling decades of leadership experience into practical, approachable principles that anyone can apply at any level of leadership."—Dave Ramsey, host of The Dave Ramsey Show and best-selling author of The Total Money Makeover, on The 5 Levels of Leadership
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- Oct 6, 2015
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