In April, renowned executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith visited CCL’s global headquarters in Greensboro, NC. Goldsmith, who made best-seller lists in 2007 with What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, talked with CCL President John Ryan about his newest best-seller, Mojo: How To Get It, How To Keep It, How To Get It Back If You Lose It. In this excerpt from that conversation, Goldsmith reflects on what matters most for leaders.

This is my favorite coaching exercise. Imagine that you are 95 years old and you’re just getting ready to die. You’re on your deathbed, but before you take that last breath, you’re given a wonderful gift, a beautiful gift — the ability to go back in time and talk to the very person you are right now. What advice would come from the wise 95-year-old you, who knows what is really important in life and what isn’t, what matters, what doesn’t, what counts and what does not count? What advice would that wise old person have for the you that is here right now? And I ask people to answer two questions. No. 1 involves professional advice. That old person wants you to be a great professional. And No. 2 involves personal advice. Then I tell people, “Whatever you are thinking now, do that.”

A friend of mine got to interview old folks who were dying and got to ask this question. Three themes come up, on the personal side, in the answers of old people facing death. Theme No. 1, be happy now — not next week, not next month, not next year. The great Western disease is “I’ll be happy when. When I get the status, the money, the car, the promotion. When I retire. I will be happy when.” A learning point from old people is “I got so wrapped up looking at what I did not have and missed what I did have. I had almost everything. I wished I had taken a few more minutes to appreciate it.”

Learning point No. 2. Friends and family. Many people have wonderful companies that they work for. But when you are 95 years old and look around the deathbed, ain’t no employees waving goodbye. You start to realize those friends and family kind of matter.

Learning point No. 3. If you have a dream, go for it. Because when you don’t when you are 25, you may not when you are 85. It doesn’t have to be a big one, maybe a little one. Go to New Zealand. Speak Spanish. Other people may think your dream is goofy. Who cares? One thing I talk about in the book — the only person who can define happiness for me is me. And the only person who can define meaning for me is me. Other people can’t tell us what our dreams are. We got to figure those out ourselves.

Business advice isn’t much different. No. 1: Have fun; life is short. No. 2 is people. Do whatever we can to help people. The main reason to help people has nothing to do with money or status or getting ahead. The main reason to help people is because 95-year-olds will be proud of you because you did it and embarrassed or disappointed if you don’t.

I’ve interviewed a lot of retired CEOs and ask the question, “What are you proud of?” So far none of them have ever told me it’s how big their office was. All they ever talk about is the people they helped. That’s a good thing about the Center for Creative Leadership; you help people do better with people. Sometimes I get asked a question in business, “Does this people stuff matter?” When you are 95, you know what you learn? That’s all that did matter. That’s the only thing that mattered. And the other advice is saying, “Go for it.” The world is changing. The industry is changing. Old people seldom regret the risk they took and failed. They almost always regret the risk they failed to take.

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