Assessing quality of life
Updated: Feb 3, 2019
In his final 2018 blog post on Gates Notes, philanthropist Bill Gates, 63, said he still assesses the quality of his work, but the questions are very different from the ones he would have asked in his 20s.
Here they are:
Did I devote enough time to my family?
Did I learn enough new things?
Did I develop new friendships and deepen old ones?
Do the people you care about love you back?
The fourth one is tossed in for good measure from his friend and mentor, Warren Buffett.
Normally, I take stock of my year from a vocational and avocational standpoint. That is, my day job as a content strategist and writer, where I have to pull together all the information I need for my year-end review. Then there's my avocation as a nascent novelist, when I look at what I set out to accomplish with my creative writing that year and compare it to what I actually achieved. I use to share that more publicly, but now, I find it is more useful for just me to see and review it, and use it as a springboard for the following year.
You will no doubt have noticed that the Gates questions have nothing to do with what many people usually do at the beginning of a new year. Instead, they are focused on one's personal life. What a change! Switch up the perspective of our "accomplishments".
The Gates questions ask us to reflect on what we do to impact other people's lives because that is what matters most as a quality-of-life metric. Last time I looked, I could not check the billionaire box à la Gates and Buffett so, I can use the questions to view achievements from a wholly new perspective. That is, without billions of dollars, what am I doing to make people's lives better within my sphere of influence?
This blog post is an attempt to answer that principle.
Answer to Number 1:
Last year was a boon for my family life. Unfortunately, we lost a cousin in his 80s, but in the process, I met his siblings, my second cousins, when I accompanied my mother to the funeral in Windsor, ON. She got to see cousins she hadn't seen in 60+ years and I got to meet them for the first time. It was just a few days, but we enjoyed each others company tremendously.
In August, from my dad's side, we had our first ever family reunion in Vancouver, B.C. It was fantastic! I got to see cousins I hadn't seen for decades. Between backyard parties, sightseeing, and wine tasting, we had a ball.
In October, my sister, new sister-in-law, and me took my mother to Europe to celebrate a milestone birthday. We spent a few days in Belgium and the rest of the month, traipsing about Italy, and spending time with my mother's side of the family. My mother thoroughly enjoyed her trip and all her birthday celebrations. It was quite special to have this all-girls trip.
At the end of the year, my mother had cataract surgery and I was there with her through it and a few days after. If I hadn't been on sabbatical (see Number 2), I would not have been able to spend as much time with mom and family in the latter part of this year so I am ever grateful that I had the opportunity to do so. As time marches on, spending time with family, even if it is occasional, is so precious. How often do we want to pose a question or enjoy a hobby or break bread with a relation who has passed on? The more time we spend with family should mean we're less lonely or sad when they are no longer in the flesh because we'll know that we did spend good quality time with them.
Answer to Number 2:
I took a sabbatical from working a day job this past autumn so I could spend more time working on my creative writing projects. I learned more about what truly motivates me to finish projects than I ever have. Without that time off—despite many obstacles that kept me from writing as much as I wanted—I would not have recognized certain traits within myself that will become the cornerstones of my life as a full-time novelist when I am ready to make that happen.
Instead of beating myself up for not learning more and doing more creatively, I patted myself on the back for what I was able to do. Focus on the positive, not the challenging. Having time to just sit and think feels like a luxury, but I realized it is as crucial to my creativity as much as physically creating something is. The best part? I'm so grateful for the support of my family and friends in understanding this kind of self-care.
Answer to Number 3:
I spent more time deepening existing friendships rather than expanding my circle. This was absolutely intentional. One of the "new things I learned" is that I keep more of my commitments and reach my goals when I focus on fewer things or to-dos. That was certainly true this year and it paid off in spades. I did meet a few new people via social media and in-person, especially on my travels. I even went so far as helping two people with critical feedback on their work-in-progress. The comments I received back let me know that they appreciated the time I devoted to provide such detailed feedback though I think the jury is still out on whether some of that outreach will convert acquaintances to friendships.
I'm glad I did it though. I didn't do it for any gain; rather, to give back in a small way. This is also part of growing—to teach. Not something I think I'm very good at (yet?) so I don't often seek out ways in which I can practice. Agreeing to help strangers is always a risk, but as the poet Goethe once said (I used to include this in my signature line at work): The greatest risk is the risk of riskless living.
Answer to Number 4:
"The only way to get love is to be lovable", or so says Warren Buffett. He also said, "At my age (88), you really measure your success in life by how many people you want to have love you actually do love you." (emphasis is mine)
I have never felt the need to seek out love in large numbers. A handful of close family and friends that really know and love me for who I am is all I've ever needed. I am satisfied that by that measure, I have love in abundance. If I looked at my spheres of influence, there are a lot of people who are on the farthest edges of my spheres. Many of them have told me how much they value me in their lives and have even said they love me. Their words and sentiment touches me deeply, even if I don't always express it back to those on the periphery of my influence. Part of me is guarding my time so much that I might be missing out on giving and receiving more love from those further away from me.
In 2019, this is the area I'm going to devote more time to and see if I can make more of an impact in the lives of people on the periphery, even if all they want me to do is lend an ear in times of trouble. Sometimes fulfilling such a basic need is the hand up many seek and I might not realize I need.
This tidbit from French philosopher, Simone Weil, is particularly poignant since today, February 3rd 2019, is the 110th anniversary of her birth: "Attention is the rarest and purest form of grace." A useful guide to grace in 9 words, and a simple quality-of-life metric we can all apply all year, all life long.
How does assessing your quality of life with the Gates questions help you? Are they a valuable metric for taking stock of a year's worth of activities and accomplishments? Do Simone Weil's words move you? If so, how?
Let me know in the comments below.