This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Who Will Cry When You Die?" by Robin Sharma. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What advice does Robin Sharma share in his book Who Will Cry When You Die? What tactics can you use to seize back control of your life?
Throughout their lives, many people tend to focus on things like money, work, prestige, and other superficial goals. However, those are also amongst some of the biggest regrets that palliative care nurses hear from their patients. That’s why Robin Sharma put together a book of advice that anybody can follow that will help you take back control in your life and focus on the things that really matter, before it’s too late.
Here’s an overview of the key takeaways from the book.
Advice From Robin Sharma
In the book Who Will Cry When You Die?, self-help guru and author Robin Sharma argues that most people prioritize the wrong things in life—money, success, and status, for instance—and then end up filled with regret at its end, having not made a positive impact on the world or those around them. His goal is to convey the importance of seizing control of your life so you can lead it in a way you won’t regret.
To help you seize control, Sharma presents digestible and diverse life lessons based mainly on existing wisdom, philosophy, and personal experience. In this guide, we’ll first present Sharma’s proposal that most people waste their lives, but that they can seize control of it by defining their purpose. We’ll then present his advice for how to seize control, which we’ve grouped into eight tactics that apply to many realms of life.
Stop Wasting Your Life by Seizing Control of It
The book is founded on Sharma’s belief that humans have lost sight of what really matters in life. We’re caught up in unimportant details, such as career success and social status, rather than the big-picture considerations that make life worth living, like family, love, and community.
(Shortform note: Sharma provides a few examples of the big-picture priorities that make life worth living, but mainly lets the reader decide what their own top priorities should be. Others specifically recommend the pursuit of purpose, proper use of time, maintenance of health, and strengthening of relationships as life’s most critical priorities.)
If you want to look back on your life with satisfaction, Sharma says, first understand that you and only you are in control of your life. To lead a life you won’t regret, take action to make that possible: Seize control of your life.
(Shortform note: Sharma tells you to take control of your life, but this can be difficult for someone with an external locus of control. The locus of control indicates how in-control of their own life a person feels. An external locus means a person doesn’t believe they have much control, while an internal locus indicates that person feels in control. You can shift your locus of control internally by taking responsibility for your actions, strengthening your belief in your agency, and viewing failure as a learning opportunity.)
To Seize Control, Set a Purpose
Understanding that you’re in control of your life is only helpful if you know what you want your life to look like, writes Sharma. To understand how to craft a life you’re proud of, figure out what your life’s purpose is. Your purpose is the special ability you were born with that you can use to make the world a better place. If you’re not sure of your purpose, Sharma suggests you ask yourself what strengths you have and how you can put them to good use—that’s your purpose.
(Shortform note: Sharma recommends finding your purpose or special ability, but this is easier said than done—especially if, due to low self-esteem or lack of confidence, you struggle to see what your strengths and abilities are. If you struggle to define your purpose, consider reading more. Adolescents who read poetry and fiction have a greater sense of purpose because they access new ideas that can unlock the door to their purposes. You might also find your purpose by helping those who’ve suffered in the same ways you have. If, for instance, you’ve always struggled with anxiety, you might help others with it.)
The Tactics | Tactic 1: Stay Focused on Your Purpose
We just described Sharma’s belief that humans waste their lives by prioritizing the wrong things and discussed how you can stop wasting your life by determining its purpose. Now, we’ll discuss the first tactic to seize control of your life, according to Sharma: staying focused on your purpose at all times. We’ll cover two strategies to maintain focus on your purpose each day.
Strategy #1: Every Morning, Align Yourself With Your Purpose
First, Sharma advises you to take 30 minutes of each morning to align yourself with your purpose. This ensures that everything you do that day is in service of achieving that purpose. A tool to aid with this alignment is a written set of personal principles, says Sharma. Write down the values you hold most dear and the precepts you want to govern your conduct and thoughts, and refer to this every morning.
(Shortform note: Sharma dives into greater detail on the importance of mornings in The 5 AM Club, describing a morning routine that differs from the written alignment exercise he recommends here. In The 5 AM Club, Sharma recommends breaking the first hour of your day into three equal parts: exercise, reflection, and growth. The reflection and growth portions are similar to what Sharma advocates for here: time to reflect on your purpose and ensure you’re pursuing it. However, he also feels that exercise produces worthy health and cognitive benefits and that you should therefore allocate 20 minutes to it.)
Strategy #2: Set More Goals to Keep Pursuing Your Purpose
To constantly pursue your purpose, Sharma recommends setting plenty of goals. Goals are the bite-sized chunks of your overall purpose you can tackle every day. By setting goals, says Sharma, you give yourself the agency to accomplish them.
For instance, if your purpose is to be a caring parent, your goal might be to spend one screen-free hour with your child every evening. Now that you’ve set a goal, you won’t wait around for your child’s tablet to break, for example, to organize screen-free time. Instead, you’ll actively make room for that hour.
(Shortform note: Sharma advocates strongly for setting goals but doesn’t elaborate on what to do if you fall short of them, which is an inevitable and normal part of life. Tony Robbins’s Awaken the Giant Within makes room for the inevitable failure by saying that even when you fall short of a goal, you still learn something from the experience of striving for it. Plus, failure may re-orient you to pursue a more rewarding and even more purposeful goal.)
Tactic 2: Live Every Day Fully
Sharma’s next tactic is living fully every day to be maximally in control of your life. According to Sharma, living fully means imbuing every moment with intention and significance. You don’t have to start grand, world-changing projects, like founding a charity, to live fully, assures Sharma. You actually live most fully in the small moments—like in a supermarket queue. Rather than scrolling through social media, strike up a conversation with someone in line or notice a baby smiling at you. Use the moment to form connections or find joy.
|Other Ways to Live Fully|
Sharma defines a full life as one in which you make every moment—especially the small moments—meaningful and intentional. Others, though, think you live most fully when you invest in strong relationships: In the 83-year old Harvard Study of Adult Development, findings showed that social connections, more than anything else, were predictive of personal happiness and health—two attributes you can view as synonymous with “living fully.” And it’s not the number of relationships a person has but rather the relationships’ quality that leads to greater happiness and longer-lasting health.
Rather than making every moment in your life matter, therefore, you might solely make your relationships more meaningful.
Tactic 3: Be Mindful
Mindfulness is another key tactic Sharma recommends to seize control of life. If you’re mindful of the task at hand, you execute it to the best of your ability, he says. You gain more control over what you do and your impact.
(Shortform note: Intense focus on the present can be helpful in your work life, too, according to Cal Newport in Deep Work. Newport’s concept of deep work is an activity that demands all your concentration. As we move toward an economy in which deep work is more necessary than shallow work, honing your ability to do deep work increases your workplace value.)
Sharma recognizes that it’s hard to concentrate because our world is full of distractions. But you possess the power to concentrate: Learn to control your thoughts and focus. If you can’t, your attention will constantly shift, and you’ll never progress toward your purpose.
(Shortform note: Sharma’s advice to control your thoughts and avoid distraction has much in common with Buddhist teachings. In Buddhism, “Right Concentration,” the ability to focus on a single activity or idea, is part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path that leads to enlightenment. Buddhist teachings add that learning to concentrate intently on negative desires or feelings, such as revenge, does not lead to enlightenment. Your state of mind must be pure and open-hearted, with a desire to attain a higher level of awareness.)
Tactic 4: Cope Appropriately With Difficulty
Sharma’s fourth tactic for gaining control of your life is to handle difficulties with grace. Challenges and hardship are an unavoidable part of life, but you don’t have to let them wrest control from you. We’ll cover two changes to your thinking that will help you cope more effectively with challenges.
Change Your Thinking by Focusing on the Present and Future, Not on the Past
To handle difficulty more gracefully, Sharma demands you exert mental energy only on what you can improve in the present and future rather than on the past. Beating yourself up over unchangeable mistakes only prevents you from moving on.
Instead, says Sharma, figure out what lessons you can derive from your mistake. View mistakes as blessings because they provide you with insights that help you become a better person.
(Shortform note: Sharma tells you to avoid backward-looking and non-productive thinking. This specific type of thinking is called rumination: the act of dwelling on or obsessing over negative events or situations. One way to combat rumination is to orient your focus toward the positives of a situation—similarly to Sharma’s recommendation to view mistakes as lessons, rather than shortcomings. For example, if you feel you made a social gaffe, frame it as a learning experience. You wouldn’t have gained the knowledge to do better next time without this failure.)
Change Your Thinking by Seeing Difference as an Asset
Sharma’s second recommended mental adjustment to cope better with problems is to stop finding fault in things and people that aren’t completely to your liking. See divergence and difference as beautiful and critical to the functioning of the world, not as impediments.
(Shortform note: Since the publication of this book in 1999, celebrating diversity and difference and promoting inclusion have become foundational concerns to the way we live—and especially to the way we work. Businesses usually promote diversity through educational programs and diversity and inclusion groups. For organizations, this ensures employee understanding of difference and compliance with diversity projects, as employers can’t guarantee employees will make the necessary mental adjustments themselves.)
Tactic 5: Seek Help From Others
Sharma’s fifth tactic for taking the reins of your life is to benefit from the wisdom of others. Sharma believes that you can’t possibly accrue all the experiences you need to pursue your purpose first-hand. However, you can gain the learning you’d acquire from those experiences second-hand from others. We’ll talk about two specific ways to gather the wisdom and support of others.
Refer to Your Personal Panel of Imaginary Mentors
Sharma’s first recommendation for gaining input from others is to create an imaginary panel of specialized mentors and turn to them for guidance. When you need advice on a tough problem, imagine what a mentor would tell you.
You don’t have to know these mentors, and they don’t have to even be alive, assures Sharma. They should just be figures you admire and who have something to offer to your life. For instance, your panel might consist of Steve Jobs for advice on innovation, Oprah for advice on self-care, and the Dalai Lama for advice on spirituality.
(Shortform note: Sharma recommends heeding the (imaginary) advice of a panel of specialists in their fields. But David Epstein, author of Range, would argue that it’s wiser to heed the advice of generalists, rather than specialists. Generalists, he feels, are better equipped to handle unpredictability and adapt to novel circumstances than specialists. Therefore, when building your panel of mentors, consider including some generalists who can “advise” you on many areas of life.)
Refer to Your Personal Panel of Real Supporters
In addition to creating your imaginary panel of supporters, Sharma also recommends building an active group of three to four people who offer mutual support in achieving goals. Pick a few friends who have a good head on their shoulders and to whom you, in turn, have something to offer. Set up a weekly meeting with this group to talk through current challenges.
(Shortform note: Sharma recommends creating a support group of at least three to four trustworthy people. Not everyone may know four such people, though, and studies even showed that in 2004, many Americans had no close friends. To meet more people to add to your trusted group of supporters, expand your network of casual friendships and acquaintances. Casual acquaintances can eventually become trusted confidants.)
Tactic 6: Be More Disciplined
Sharma’s sixth tactic for getting a handle on your life is to develop your self-discipline. He believes that in developing discipline, you choose to make active decisions in your life, rather than letting life happen to you—a form of seizing control. We’ll discuss how you can see discipline as a form of self-care, rather than self-punishment.
See Self-Discipline as a Form of Self-Care
Sharma argues that being disciplined is a form of self-care. When you exert discipline over yourself, you make choices that are unpleasant in the short term but better for you in the long term. These hard choices also often guide you toward your purpose. Additionally, by putting in the work to improve yourself, you don’t wait around for the world to force you to improve—an experience that’s usually more painful, claims Sharma.
(Shortform note: Sharma’s a big believer in self-discipline, but others take a more critical stance toward it. Some feel that self-discipline stems from deep-seated anxiety over not finishing projects on time or a sense that your worth is completely based on your performance. Self-discipline, therefore, might not confer greater benefit to you in the long run, as Sharma believes, because you never give yourself the chance to enjoy the fruits of your labors. You’re too busy working to avoid guilt or anxiety over the next project.)
Tactic 7: Practice Kindness
Sharma feels that practicing kindness towards others and oneself is a tactic integral to seizing control of your life. This is because when you show kindness, you more effectively pursue your altruistic purpose in life. Let’s say your purpose is to add value to your community. When you perform community service with a kind disposition, you add more value than if you had a sullen or even neutral disposition.
(Shortform note: Beyond enabling you to more effectively pursue your purpose, practicing self-kindness has other benefits. Being kind to yourself turns off your body’s threat response, thereby calming your heart rate and reducing damage to your immune system. In this relaxed, unthreatened state, your body can regenerate and heal. Being kind to others, in turn, can have a positive impact on your mood and self-esteem.)
Tactic 8: Let Go
Sharma’s final tactic for seizing control of life is to use downtime and mental breaks to be more in control and pursue your purpose more productively.
Sharma recommends incorporating several types of intentional breaks in your daily life, including a weekly personal break to reconnect you to your purpose. The point of these breaks is to refresh your mind and energize you to live the rest of your day or week in service of your purpose—not to disengage from reality, for instance, by scrolling through social media feeds.
(Shortform note: In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown elaborates on the idea that we need intentional breaks in our days by introducing the acronym DIG. People who DIG are good at taking intentional breaks: They’re Deliberate in their choices of what to dedicate their energy toward, Inspired to make things better for themselves, and get Going to act on that inspiration. Applying DIG can help you more proactively take the right kind of break when you need it.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Who Will Cry When You Die? summary :
- Why most people end up leading lives they’ll regret
- How to seize control of your life and turn it into one you’ll look back on fondly
- How and why you should set intentional breaks in your daily life