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You are bigger than your life

I have a million stories like this: I knew a guy. A brilliant mathematician. He used his intelligence and education to start a business showing the Navy how it could make its submarines super-silent. Fascinating, important stuff, and he made a fortune. He came to me, sad. “I wish I’d been an anthropologist,” he said.

Want another one? World War Two landed on my mom like a ton of bricks. She was a poor Jewish peasant girl in Poland. Just married in 1939 when the Nazis invaded. Escaping the Nazis was her Sweet Sixteen party. My brother was born as she fled east into Russia. I was born four years later in Uzbekistan. My mom was twenty. By the time we came to America—the lower east side in New York City—she worked in a factory and needed a husband. She found one, they opened a lamp store, and that storefront was her life.

Turns out she was really smart, but the little lamp store sucked all the energy out of her, with only a fourth-grade education. What could she have been? A CPA? An investment banker? A math teacher? Who knows? A terrible war squeezed a big woman into a small life.

But this is true for all of us. There’s a whole article about this in the Dec. 14 New Yorker. Check it out! I could have been a physicist or an artist. I’m glad I’m not, but there they are, alternate might-have-been me’s that never were.

My husband? Somewhere out there in might-have-been universes there’s a jazz drummer, a poet, a philosophy professor, and much more that never were and never will be, instead of what he is.

What does this have to do with you and me now, today? Well, we’re a year into the pandemic lockdown, and a lot of us are thinking about the things we’d hoped to accomplish that we just haven’t. Plus New Year’s is looming with its tempting promises of new beginnings, or at least new resolutions.

The one thing we know, even if we’ve not put it into these words, is that we’re bigger than our lives. We could have and can do more. Be more.

And often the thought of something more or different for ourselves and our lives leads us to wonder, shouldn’t we just love ourselves and accept ourselves for who we are? Aren’t I fine just the way I am?

Let’s untangle the knots here. Of course you ARE fine just the way you are. You don’t have to be ambitious to be a good, worthwhile person. You don’t have to make use of every single part of yourself that’s worthwhile to justify your existence. You don’t have to get down on yourself just because there’s some “should” hanging out there telling you to be more.

But! Suppose you do feel that you’re bigger than your life and it really bothers you. Then what? Then why not accept that about yourself. There is something more and different you need to add to your life. Not to finally make you a worthwhile person. You’re that already. shall I put it? To complete the picture.

Even better, to prevent regret. Regret prevention is a good way to go through life. If you suspect you’re going to regret doing something, don’t do it. If you suspect you’re going to regret not doing something, then do it. Now for sure regret is a big waste if you can’t change something you did in the past. It’d be pretty dopey of me to sit around eating my heart out for all the sights I didn’t see when I was a student in London fifty years ago. But hey!, if you can prevent regret, go for it. Jump on it!


You may well know. Many of us are carrying around in our heads some step—big or not so big—we’ve been thinking of taking for quite a while. Learning French. Dance classes. Going back to school. Writing a play. Starting a webcast. Learning how to cook really well. A step big enough to push you and maybe the person you live with out of your comfort zones. The old routine is always so much easier. Believe me, I know!

So don’t take that step! Just understand: If you don’t do it, it’s as if you’re writing a no-regret contract with your future self. “Dear Me-in 20-Years. I decided I’m not going to write that novel. Just wanted to let you know. So you’re not allowed to regret my not having written it. Got it? Good! Love, your self”

But if you want to go forward with your big step but find it daunting, or you don’t know how to go forward, or maybe you just don’t quite know what the big or not-so-big-step is, please check out our book The Gift of a Year. It’s written exactly, specifically for you.


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