Book Reviews

Book Review: The Earned Life – Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment

Ganesh Chella | Updated on: Jun 24, 2022

The pursuit of an earned life is not a goal for a distant time but a way of living every moment

The churning of the celestial ocean of milk is one of the best-known events in Indian mythology. The symbolism and metaphors offered by this event appear to have several similarities with the global pandemic. The churning of the ocean is similar to the way every single person in the world saw their minds churned.

The coming together of the devas and asuras to churn the ocean was perhaps the reconciliation of the duality in each one of us and the search for our true selves during the pandemic.

The poison that emanated was like the negativity and greed many tried to rid themselves of and the wonderful amrita or nectar is maybe the eternal truth about what matters in life and the countless treasures that were unearthed, to my mind, are the new realisations, the new ideas, new ways of living, new world views and decisions, push for strong relationships, family ties, gratitude, search for meaning, desire to do good, care for one’s health, care for the environment, mental well-being and so on.

On March 5, 2020, Marshall Goldsmith and his wife Lyda began selling their home of 32 years in the San Diego suburbs and moved into a one-bedroom apartment ten miles away.

It was a major decision and lifestyle change, he says. The plan was to stay in this apartment and look for a home in Nashville so they could be near their daughter Kelly and their five-year-old twin grandkids and see them grow up. The idea was to enjoy their grandparenting years.

Six days later all their plans collapsed. When NBA announced the suspension of the rest of their season, it was clear there was big trouble. The pandemic happened. They waited 15 months before moving out.

A pandemic book

So, this book emanated from the pandemic and the churn that it appears to have caused in Marshall’s mind. In his own words, it was written at a moment in his life when he still had not done all that he wanted to do and time was running out. He wanted to use his remaining time to maximise fulfillment and minimise regret. His offering to the world arising out of his own inner churnings is a book that can perhaps get people to start thinking about using their time providentially and finish with no regrets.

In fact, Marshall maintains that our lives toggle back and forth between two emotional polarities. At one pole is the emotion we know as “fulfillment”. He sees fulfillment governed by six factors: purpose, meaning, achievement, relationships, engagement and happiness. He sees regret as the polar opposite of fulfillment.

He quotes Kathryn Schulz, who talks about regret as “the emotion we experience when we think that our present situation could be better or happier if we had done something different in the past”. He sees regret as a devilish combination of agency and imagination; that we create it and imagine how life would have been if we had made another choice.

Marshall clarifies that he is talking here only about large existential regrets and not micro-regrets or missteps. So, how do you maximise fulfillment and minimise regret? By living the earned life. His operative definition of an earned life is as follows: We are living an earned life when the choices, risks and efforts we make in each moment align with an overarching purpose in our lives, regardless of the eventual outcome.

He emphasises the importance of the phrase “regardless of eventual outcome”. This brought to my mind one of the most read and valued verses in the Bhagavad Gita which reminds us that ‘to work we have the right, but not to the fruits thereof’.

In fact, he calls it the great Western disease of “I will be happy when…….”. Again, a place where I could connect instantly because I have ever so often seen the dysfunctionality of Western models of rewards and motivation and chasing labels of pay, position, power, title, recognition and so on.

Life of earned rewards

Marshall goes on to call this a life of earned rewards and sees its futility. This is where he brings in the notion of impermanence which he ascribes to his inspiration from Gautama Buddha. His very first chapter is on what he calls the “every breath” paradigm. The notion that the emotions, thoughts and material possessions we hold now do not last and can vanish in an instant — as brief as the time we need to take our next breath.

Against this paradigm of impermanence, he sees the Western model as frustrating and instead urges that we value the present moment rather than the moment before or after. He also sees the pursuit of the earned life not as a goal for a distant time but a way of living every moment.

In his very last chapter he says, “In the end, an earned life doesn’t include a trophy ceremony or permit an extended victory lap. The reward of living an earned life is being engaged in the process of constantly earning such a life.” This in my view is the heart of the book, the central message.

Before you conclude that this is a philosophical book about an existential theme, remember that Marshall Goldsmith is a coach and is keen to get you to contemplate, reflect deeply and then commit to act. A good part of the book is therefore devoted to helping the reader move toward action. Each chapter ends with a reflective exercise bearing relevance to the theme of that chapter.

Many of the chapters focus on the mindset required to achieve the earned life. There is a chapter on understanding what is stopping you from creating your own life. In the chapter called the earning checklist, Marshall outlines six items that are must-have considerations for the earned life.

In the chapter titled original story, Marshall stitches together the things that he believes finally give the much-needed structure to bring about change, things he has relied on in his coaching practice. He calls them the epiphanies and lists seven of them.

The chapter on LPR — Life Plan Review, what he calls the most important chapter, looks at how one can on a daily basis bridge the gap between what anyone plans to do and what they actually do.

Seeking purpose

Now, one might wonder if things like fulfillment will need to wait until the more urgent things in life like economic stability are achieved. Is it a luxury? Well, my understanding of the situation at least in India is that more and more young professionals are seeking meaning and purpose — much more than perhaps the more senior professionals.

Maybe they are making those big decisions with a sense of liberation that their senior counterparts are unable to. So, seeking an earned life does not seem to be driven by age.

One might wonder if it is a coincidence that two acclaimed American authors have almost at the same time published books on regret. Like the pandemic, is regret in the air? Daniel Pink talks about the power of regret and Marshall Goldsmith talks bout losing regret and choosing fulfillment. So, are they disagreeing, saying different things? (I must confess I have only read Dan Pink’s book summaries and listened to his podcast)

Well, in my mind no. They are saying the same thing in different ways. This is how I see it. Regret is a powerful emotion and carries with it a lot of energy. In fact, a book on fulfillment would not deliver the punch without regret in it. If we can use that energy to learn and move forward and make good decisions that give us the well-being we aspire for, that is great.

The reviewer is Co-Founder & Managing Director, CFI and Founder, Totus Consulting

Check out the book on Amazon

The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment by Marshall Goldsmith
Publisher: Currency
Pages: 304
Price: ₹1,970 (HB)
Published on June 24, 2022
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