The one question to keep asking yourself in 2023 (review of Marshall Goldsmith’s The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment)

Skip the usual New Year’s resolutions that you’ll break within weeks and instead spend 2023 asking yourself one question over and over again.

Am I being the person I want to be right now?

Write that question out on an index card.

Put the card in your wallet.

And take it out whenever you need a reminder of how to behave and what to say and do at work, home or out in the community.

“Do this once with an affirmative answer and you’ll discover that you have earned the moment,” says Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and author of The Earned Life. “Do this habitually and continually and you will create a string of many earned moments, stretching from days into months into years, that add up to an earned life.”

So what’s an earned life?

“We are living an earned life when the choices, risks and effort we make in each moment align with an overarching purpose in our lives, regardless of the eventual outcomes,” says Goldsmith. “In the end, an earned life doesn’t include a trophy ceremony. The reward of living an earned life is being engaged in the process of constantly earning such a life.”

Cover of The Earned Life by Marshall Goldsmith

The alternative is going through our careers and lives on autopilot. We’re focused on action and ambition and completely ignore aspiration. We make a pile of money and get every promotion but sacrifice everything else. Or we have big dreams to make the world a better place but accomplish little or nothing at all. We overestimate risks or rewards and make questionable short-term decisions with lousy long-term consequences. And then we’re surprised, angry and disheartened to find ourselves drowning in the regret of what we could’ve, should’ve and would’ve done differently.

Goldsmith has other suggestions for avoiding this fate and leading an earned life instead. We can go beyond the one question on our index card and start answering a half dozen more  that Goldsmith promises will improve our lives.

At the end of every day, ask if we did our best to set clear goals.

Did we make progress toward achieving our goals?

Did we do our best to find meaning?

Be happy?

Maintain and build positive relationships?

And be fully engaged?

Answer each question on a scale that measures effort but not results. Ten is maximum effort. One is next to no effort. “Segregating effort from results is critical because it forces you to acknowledge that you can’t always control your results (stuff happens) but you have no excuse for not trying,” says Goldsmith.

He also recommends sharing our results each week with a group. “Don’t do this alone. Common sense should tell you that reviewing your plan in the select company of others is vastly superior to reviewing your plan alone. Why would you try to adhere to an ambitious life plan and refuse to share the experience with anyone else, especially if you didn’t have to? What added value does going solo bring to the endeavor? It would be like baking a birthday cake to eat by yourself or giving a speech to an empty room.”  

Choose your group wisely and set some ground rules, says Goldsmith. Recruit a diverse group of five to eight people who are all committed to getting better. “It’s a gathering of successful people with shared goals for the future, not a gripe session for unsuccessful people with problems,” says Goldsmith. “You’re looking for people of any and every stripe who share the same optimism about getting better. They are not victims or martyrs.”

The rules are simple. Show up each week and steer clear of judgement, negativity and cynicism, especially when reporting on how much effort you put in during the past week. Don’t beat yourself up, says Goldsmith.

“Accomplishing something with the help of a chosen community resonates more resoundingly, affects more people and is often an improvement on the solo act because of the contributions of the many. Would you rather be the soloist or sing with a choir behind you?”.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Marshall Goldsmith’s Triggers – Creating Behavior That Lasts



Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming The Person You Want To Be

By Marshall Goldsmith

Crown Business


Want to witness the worst version of me at work?

Sign me up for a day’s worth of training that kicks off with an ice-breaker followed by endless hours of role-playing with colleagues.

It won’t be fun for me, you or the workshop facilitator.

You can look forward to a master class in passive aggressive behavior. Without saying a word, I’ll let you know that I’d rather have a vasectomy, colonoscopy and root canal before a live studio audience.  I’ll doodle, constantly check my digital pacifier and stare at the ceiling. We will never make eye contact. I’ll never volunteer an answer.

Even if you don’t ask, I’ll remind you that this is my least effective way of learning. Skip the corporate reindeer games and just give me a book or a guest speaker.

But here’s the rub. I know I should pull up my big boy pants. I’m leading by bad example. My fellow introverts play along to get along and I’m nothing special.

My employer’s investing good money on my professional development.  There are far harder, and much worse, ways to spend a day and there lots of people who’d happily trade places with me.

And above all, it’s disrespectful. The facilitator who’s working hard to engage the room deserves better than dealing with a sullen 40-something who should know better.

So I’m past due for a behavior change. It’s not easy for adults to pull off but it can be done, says Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach with 35 years experience and author of Triggers and the best-selling What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

“It’s hard to initiate behavioral change, even harder to stay the course, hardest of all to make the change stick,” says Goldsmith. “I’d go so far as to say that adult behavioral change is the most difficult thing for sentient human beings to accomplish.”

Here’s one way to make it happen. Introduce a new evaluation form at the end of meetings, workshops and training days. Don’t ask us to weigh in on speakers, facilitators and presentations. Challenge us to evaluate ourselves instead.

“Here’s my radical suggestion,” says Goldsmith. “From now on, pretend that you are going to be tested at every meeting. Your heart and mind will thank you for it. The hour that you spend in the meeting is one hour of your life that you never get back. Why waste that hour being disengaged and cynical? By taking personal responsibility for your own engagement, you make a positive contribution to your company and begin creating a better you.”

Goldsmith recommends that we ask ourselves four questions that put the onus squarely on us:

  • Did I do my best to be happy?
  • Did I do my best to find meaning?
  • Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  • Did I do my best to be fully engaged?

For each question, rate how hard you tried on a scale from one to 10. Instead of measuring outcomes, evaluate effort.

Outside of meetings, ask yourself two more daily questions.

  • Did I do my best to set clear goals?
  • Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals?

Daily self-questioning is one way to trigger behavior change, says Goldsmith. “If we fall short of goals eventually we either abandon the questions or push ourselves into action. We feel ashamed or embarrassed because we wrote the questions, knew the answers and still failed the test. When the question begins with “did I do my best to…” the feeling is even worse. We have to admit that we didn’t even try to do what we know we should have done.”

If you have a few regrets at work or on the home front, Goldsmith shows how to finally mend your ways with the people you respect and love.

“The pain that comes with regret should be mandatory, not something to be shooed away like an annoying pet. When we make bad choices and fail ourselves or hurt the people we love, we should feel pain. That pain can be motivating and in the best sense triggering – a reminder that maybe we messed up but we can do better. It’s one of the most powerful feelings guiding us to change.”