A Lesson Before Dying

Posted on January 30, 2012


In my classes I often try to use simple, real life examples as a means to consider management theory from a different prospective.  For example, I think Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People can serve as a model for how successful companies might run.  Recently, I stumbled upon an article by Bronnie Ware in The Huffington Post called, Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.  I thought it was extremely interesting piece on a personal level but perhaps it may reveal some truths for arts organizations?

Working in palliative care for many years and spending time with people at the very end of their lives; she noticed that when questioned some common themes continually emerged from her patients. The most common of regrets were:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier

Yes, these are great points to keep in mind but do they apply to arts organizations?  I think so.

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This is probably the most obvious and it speaks volumes to the notion of Mission Statement or Statement of Purpose.  Being true to yourself is about standing by your values and beliefs whether it be as a person or an arts organization.  If you sacrifice your purpose you lose your vision of the life ahead of you.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard. This may not be so obvious.  As arts administrators we love to regal each other with stories of how long we worked, how late we stayed up doing it, and obviously how heroic and great our deeds were.  Working all day and night may sound like the thing to do but are we working smart?  Are you really being productive on the top three or four major goals of your organization or are you wasting time in meetings or pursuing irrelevant outcomes? Everyone needs to go home and unwind.  It is during these times we often unexpectedly find our “ah-ha moments” that solve weighty problems.  We need to go home, read, watch a movie, see a play, go to the gym. No one works effectively under duress.  And it is not good for your personal health either.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. This again speaks of the first regret.  If you are running an organization that is true to its mission, secure in its beliefs and values, than you should not be afraid of expressing yourself regardless of the perceived outcomes.  Perhaps if more arts leaders spoke their minds more freely and honestly to the NEA, Arts Council Executives, Foundation Grant Managers, corporate sponsors, perhaps a better and honest understanding of the industry would exist.  When you bend over backwards to get a NEA funding but sacrifice your mission and beliefs to do so, you are forever held to that falsehood.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.  I immediately thought of fundraising when I read this, but it also applies to the entire organization.  As arts administrators we must always be in touch with the people who are important to the organization, our stakeholders, no matter how small or large their contributions to the company. Artists, administrators, audience members, community members, and donors all deserve our attention.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.  I have always felt that arts organization are very good at telling people how bad things are and have placed ourselves in a constant stooper.  Life is hard and we will have our up and downs, but if we celebrate the ups and learn from the downs we might actually enjoy what we do much more.  Wouldn’t that be something?  There are a lot worse places to be living and working, so maybe we should buck up and be grateful for what we do have and the ability to produce the work that we do.

Is this too much a stretch for this?  I am not sure.  But if life in the arts is as hard, bad, and fading as people seem to make it out to be, perhaps we should try something different?