Three Questions About Your Life

Lee Eisenberg’s book, “The Number,” contains an interesting exercise which I thought I’d share with you. Eisenberg describes his time with financial planner George Kinder, one of the pioneers of “life planning,” a discipline that tries to go beyond simply helping you figure out how much money you need, and into why you need it. The climax of his training occurs when he asks three simple questions:

1) Assume you have all the money you could ever need. What would you do with it? How would you live?

2) Your doctor discovers that you have a rare illness. You’ll feel perfectly fine, but you will die within 5 to 10 years. What would you do?

3) Your doctor tells you that you only have 24 hours to live. What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

According to George Kinder, who asks these three questions, the first two questions produce long lists and concern material wants. The third question is almost always about something qualitative, and that is the answer that really matters.

How would you answer these questions?


I noticed that nobody has answered the questions yet. To provoke some thoughts, I’ll give you my answers:

1) If I woke up rich, my life would be pretty similar except for three things:
a) I would take a nap every day.
b) I would never wash a dish, mop a floor, or pick up dog excrement again.
c) I might actually blog more often.

2) If I discovered that I was going to die in 5-10 years, I would put two things at the top of my priority list:
a) Spending time with loved ones
b) Writing and otherwise securing my legacy
Of course, I would probably also try to funnel billions of dollars into research for a cure!

3) If I discovered that I had only 24 hours to live, I would miss not being able to help my children grow up. I would miss not being able to see my grandchildren. I would miss being able to spend the time with my wife that we always assumed we’d be able to spend later in our lives. And I would regret all the things that I’d have to leave undone, including a number of things that I hope would have had an impact on making people’s lives better (as opposed to just increasing shareholder value).

7 thoughts on “Three Questions About Your Life

  1. This is like “What did you regret not doing when you were 18?”

    I wonder what the effect of negative-based questions is versus positive.

    Question number 3 could be: What did you do that really made you happy? Who do you love? What do you cherish?

  2. I’m always leery of these types of questions, since they beg “why wasn’t I more frenetic” types of responses. After all, there are frenetic times and slow times, and the slow, contemplative times can be as valuable and important to one’s life as the caffeinated, going-a-zillion-miles-an-hour times.

  3. Ben:

    I think that asking a question in the negative is more apt to elicit an honest response.

    If you ask people, “What really makes you happy?” or “What really matters to you?” you generally get a canned response. It’s like athletes who talk about the importance of giving 110% and taking it one day at a time.

    The exercise of imagining an imminent death shocks you out of your normal groove and thus is more likely to draw out a spontaneous and honest response.

    It’s like an old trick for making a decision–flip a coin, then see whether you’re happy or sad with the result.

  4. foo:

    Actually, I think that it’s unlikely that most people will say, “I wish I had been busier.”

    It’s like the old saying: No one lies on their deathbed and thinks, “I should have put in more time at the office.”

    It’s more likely that a person will wish they had devoted more attention to the slow, contemplative times.

  5. Chris, while I agree in principle with the point about asking a question in the negative, and believe it can be more effective than the positive on things like “What did you regret not doing when your turned 18”, look at your answer to number 3 — a broader life question.

    I am certain it’s totally genuine and very Chris. But it’s also what you would expect someone to say. “I’d miss family” and “I wish I could have given back a little more”.

    I think the honesty of the answer has less to do with how it’s phrased than whether it’s posed in public or in private.

  6. 1. I would likely begin by living a somewhat increased standard of living. But candidly, I would probably experience standard creep whereby I would want more and more….

    2. Get a job to get me JUST enough money to get by and spend as much time with my daughter as possible.

    3. My daughter growing up. I’m not sure who I didn’t get to be because I believe it was meant to happen that way. The one thing I didn’t get to do is probably visit India. I really want to go there.

  7. Tim,

    Thanks for sharing your answers. I do think it’s funny about visiting India….

    I nearly spent a year in India at one point (back when I was young), but ended up opting for another exotic location instead (Cambridge, MA). I’ve wondered what it would have been like.

    On the other hand, after reading Ben’s travelogue, I have to admit that my enthusiasm has been pretty effectively dampened.

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