“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
― Mae West
Fifteen years ago, I was lucky enough to witness the humble, elegant, peaceful passing of my 89-year-old grandpa. As I sat quietly in his hospice room alongside my grandma and other family members, his nurse smiled softly and said, “I can see he lived well. People his age often pass just the way they lived.”
And as I drove home that evening, a couple questions kept cycling through my mind…
“Am I living well?”
“What do I want to be able to smile about on the inside when I’m on my deathbed?”
These questions are tough, especially the second one. At the time, I desperately struggled to envision myself on my deathbed—just thinking about it stressed me out. So I simply avoided the question and the healthy soul searching it demanded of me. I distracted myself for a few more years until I found myself back in a hospice room with my 90-year-old grandma (who was the most amazing human being I’ve ever met, by the way).
On the final day of her life, I sat with my grandma for the entire day, in silence, in laughter, in tears, and in awe of a woman who was still smiling and sharing stories despite incredible weakness and pain. Her mind was amazingly strong even just a few short hours before her death. So, I gave her my undivided attention—I soaked up her wisdom one last time.
And I was all ears until she asked me a version of that question I had avoided a few years earlier. “Do you know why I’m smiling right now?” she asked me.
“Because you lived well,” I said.
She smiled even wider, and then she spent the next hour speaking softly and passionately about her life and the reasons for her present happiness. It was without a doubt one of the most enlightening and unforgettable hours of my life. Immediately afterward, she took a nap—one of her final naps—and I wrote a journal entry about everything she spoke of.
Although I’ve shared many of her insights and quotes with blog subscribers and course students in the past, today would have been my grandmother’s 101st birthday, so I’d like to honor her once again. And to do so, I’m going to share an expanded version of the notes from that specific journal entry I wrote in her hospice room 11 years ago. It’s her wisdom with my twist. I’ve done my best to convey what she told me in five inspiring points—the five reasons my grandma actually smiled on her deathbed:
1. My grandma never talked herself out of doing her thing.
One of my grandma’s favorite quotes was by Walt Disney: “Around here, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious—and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
It inspired my grandma for decades, and it still inspires me every day to write and create—to move on to my next piece of work, even when I catch myself judging my last piece of work as “not good enough.”
For example, it’s been nearly 14 years now that I’ve been publishing new articles every week on marcandangel.com. Sometimes the ideas and words come easier than others, and there have been plenty of times when I’ve felt like my work was sub-par.
“I thought this was a great article. Why aren’t people reading and sharing it?” Or I’ll feel like I fumbled through an article only to watch it receive 10,000+ shares on social media. Regardless of which outcome I’m dealing with, my grandma’s wisdom always reminds me of one key point: As human beings, we are often terrible judges of our own work. We are just too self-critical to see the truth most of the time.
And not only that, it’s not our job to judge our own work. It’s not our job to compare it to everyone else’s work, or to how we thought others would perceive it. There’s no use in doing that.
Instead, it’s our job to create. Our job is to share what we have right now in this moment. Our job is to come as we are and give it our best shot, every single day. That’s how my grandma lived her life. She was a true artist in that way.
Realize that there are people in nearly every career field who make each day a work of art simply by the way they have mastered their craft. Yes, almost everyone is an artist in some way. And every artist will have the tendency to judge their own work. The important thing is to not let your self-judgment talk you out of doing your thing and sharing your creative and unique gifts with the world.
Just like Walt said, the key is to “keep moving forward.”
2. My grandma vividly remembered persevering through life’s many challenges.
Sadly, most people give up on their life stories far too early. They come out of school or college wanting to change the world, wanting to build an enterprise, wanting to make lots of money, wanting to start a family and live happily ever after. But they get into the middle of it all and discover it’s way harder than they anticipated. They encounter many setbacks, and they can’t see anything over the distant horizon anymore. So they wonder if their efforts are moving them forward. None of the trees behind them are getting smaller and none of the ones ahead are getting larger, at least not fast enough. So they take it out on their family and friends, or themselves, and they go aimlessly looking for an easier path that doesn’t fulfill them.
Don’t be one of these people.
My grandmother had a Winston Churchill quote hanging in her home office that said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
And she strongly believed that good things don’t come easy. “True strength consists of what you do on the third, fourth and fifth tries,” she told me. Take this to heart!
Never give up on your journey. Don’t ever give in. Don’t ever stop trying. Don’t ever sell out or sell yourself short. Life is tough, but you are tougher. Your journey isn’t supposed to be easy, it’s supposed to be worth it. To never struggle is to never grow. It doesn’t matter what’s happened or what you’ve done; what matters is what you choose to do from here. Accept the circumstances, learn from them, and take another step forward.
3. My grandma spent much of her life focused on the present, appreciating the little things.
“Remember, you don’t know what the future will bring. So your best bet for living is to make the best and most positive use of the present,” my grandma said.
The universe is always talking to us—sending us little messages, causing coincidences and serendipitous events, reminding us to stop, to look around, and to believe in something special, something more.
But this special something isn’t somewhere else. It’s right where you are.
Sometimes you have to stop searching, and just BE. You aren’t missing anything anywhere else. You’re only missing the goodness in front of you.
Let me assure you, you could run around trying to do everything, and travel around the world, and always stay connected, and work and party all night long without sleep, but you could never do it all. You will always be missing something, and thus it will always seem like something amazing might be happening elsewhere. Focusing on this is obviously futile.
Hustle, work hard, and seek adventure, but do it with your eyes wide open and focused on your present step.
You have everything right now. The best in life isn’t somewhere else—it’s right where you are at this moment. Notice it, and make it memorable.
4. My grandma had the peace of mind that comes with letting go.
This point is a perfect successor to the previous one. Letting go isn’t about having the ability to forget the past—it’s about having the wisdom to embrace the present.
Truth be told, the more you talk about it, debate it, rethink it, rehash it, cross-analyze it, get paranoid about it, track it, respond to it, contend with it, complain about it, immortalize it, cry over it, kick it, insult it, gossip about it, pray over it, put it down or dissect its motives… it continues to fester and rot in your mind.
It’s time to accept that it’s over! It’s dead! It’s gone. It’s done. It’s time to bury it because it’s stinking up your life, and no one wants to be near your rotted corpse of bad memories, or your decaying attitude. Be the funeral director of your past life and bury that thing once and for all!
“Every difficult life situation can be an excuse for hopelessness or an opportunity for growth, depending on what you choose to do with it right now,” my grandma told me. “We have to let go of the ideas, outcomes and expectations that aren’t serving us.”
Take pause when you must. Realize that holding on is being brave, but letting go and moving on is often what makes us stronger and happier in the end. Give yourself this gift so you can grow and smile again, and again. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Happiness” and “Adversity” chapters of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
5. My grandma was well read and incredibly generous with her knowledge.
My grandma’s personal heroes were educated visionaries and dreamers—those beautiful people among us who invest in themselves and then use what they’ve learned to make the world a better place than when they found it, whether in tiny ways or enormous ones. Some succeed, some fail, most have mixed results, but it’s the effort itself that’s heroic, as she saw it. Win or lose, my grandma admired those who intelligently fight for the greater good. And I couldn’t agree more with her sentiment.
Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop investing in yourself. Study. Read. Devour books. Engage with people, including those who think differently. Ask questions. Listen closely. And don’t just grow in knowledge. Be a person who gives back. Use what you’re learning to make a difference.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The purpose of life is not to simply be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
I want to leave you with a poem by Bessie Anderson Stanley that my grandma used to have hanging on the side of her refrigerator when I was growing up. I think it perfectly embodies the overall message of this post, and the overall reason my grandma was smiling:
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;
Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
Who has left the world better than he found it,
Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration;
Whose memory a benediction.”
If you’re feeling up to it, Angel and I would love to hear from YOU.
Which point mentioned above resonates with you the most today, and why?
What else do you want to be able to smile about down the road?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
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