The Five Things You Must Know before you die

The Five Things You Must Know before you die

Life is a one-time adventure, so why not learn from those who’ve already experienced it and can share their wisdom?

By John Izzo, 2009, 235 pages.

Chronicle and summary of “The Five Things You Must Know before you die”

This book comes from a TV show with the same name, both created by the author: “The Five Things You Must Discover Before You Die.”

The Five Things You Must Know before you die


The author wrote this book because he spent his whole life searching for the meaning of a happy and meaningful life. His quest became even more important when his father died when he was just 8 years old. This made him realize that life can be short, and we should learn the secrets to happiness as soon as possible.

As a young person, he had the opportunity to be with people who were close to the end of their lives and noticed that some of them were content while others were full of regret. He began to understand what made the difference between these two groups.

One day, a woman named Margaret told him that she tried to live her life as if she were an old woman sitting on her porch, looking back on her life and seeking advice from her older self. This idea stayed with the author.

So, he interviewed 235 people ranging from ages 59 to 105, from various backgrounds and beliefs, to find out what we should know about life before we die. Surprisingly, they all shared similar secrets to a fulfilling life, showing that what truly matters transcends differences like religion, race, or social status.

This book’s main message is that we don’t have to wait until we’re old to become wise and discover life’s secrets. We can start learning them at any age, and the earlier we do, the more fulfilling our lives will be.

Chapter 1: Why do some people find meaning in life and die happy?

“Wisdom outweighs any wealth” – Sophocles

To live wisely, we need to understand two important facts about life. First, we don’t know exactly how long we’ll live; it could be a long time or a short time. Second, we have countless options for how we spend our time, and these choices shape our lives. There’s no manual for life, and the clock starts ticking from the moment we’re born.

Knowledge versus wisdom

Finding happiness in life doesn’t just rely on knowing facts; it’s more about having wisdom. Wisdom is different from knowledge and is even more crucial. These days, we keep learning more and more facts, but wisdom is quite rare. Knowledge is about recognizing what’s important and what’s not. Until we figure out what truly matters, we won’t understand the real purpose of life.

People don’t all experience the same kind of death. Some pass away with a strong sense of purpose and few regrets, feeling like they’ve lived a fulfilling life. Others die with bitterness because they missed what truly counts.

The two things we want above all else:Find happiness and meaning to our life!!

When I talk about “finding happiness,” I mean that all of us want to feel happy and truly content. But as humans, we desire something more. I think we also want to uncover the purpose of our existence. Above all, we yearn to understand that our presence on this Earth matters and that there’s a meaningful reason for us to be alive.

Are these secrets mysterious?

In the author’s interviews, he discovered that people who lived happily had knowledge of these secrets. However, having this knowledge alone isn’t enough. We all know things like exercise is good, a balanced diet is healthy, smoking is harmful, and relationships matter more than possessions. But what sets these happy people apart is that they not only know these things but also actively apply them in their lives.

Chapter 2: Why did I talk about life to the town barber?

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is the noblest; second, by experience, which is the bitterest; and third, by imitation, which is the easiest. “- Confucius

Life is like a journey, and we only get one chance to go on this journey, at least in the way we experience it now. Some people regret their journey just as much as those who find profound happiness in it.

How did we choose these wise people?

Out of 15,000 people, 235 of the wisest were chosen. They were asked various questions such as: “What makes you happy? What gives life meaning? What’s not worth your time? If you could start over, what would you change? What are your secrets, and how do you use them every day? Can you share pivotal moments that shaped your life? And what are your thoughts about death?”

Our elders are precious

“In our society, it’s not very common that we turn to our elders to shape our lives. Our culture is youth-oriented, and we value what is new and current.”

The author was fortunate to spend a significant amount of time with various tribes in Tanzania. It was during these encounters, where respect for elders was paramount, that the idea for this project took shape. In one of these tribes, an individual becomes part of the council of elders at the age of 50, and they spend their entire lives preparing for this role, making important decisions for the tribe.

The group of 15 men who accompanied the author, most of them in their 50s, felt somewhat embarrassed because in their own society, there wasn’t a strong tradition of honoring elders. They explained that in their society, older people often ended up in nursing homes or lived separately from the younger generation, and youth seemed to be more valued. This surprised and concerned the tribal elders, who couldn’t understand why.

After discussing this among themselves, the tribal elders strongly recommended that the group return to their own society, establish a council of elders, and “make their voices heard by the youth.”

Why choose people over 60?

“As we went through the interviews, we realized that it was around the age of 60 that people started to look back on their lives in hindsight.”

Chapter 3: The first secret: Stay true to yourself and live with intention

What sets apart those who have a good life and a happy death from many of us is that they regularly ask themselves if they are living the way they truly desire, and they listen to their hearts to seek the answer to this question.

Choose to live awake

‘’Unless you continually think about your life to make sure you don’t deviate from your path, there is a good chance that you find yourself living someone else’s life, which means you’ll realize at the end of your life that you lead a life that was not yours…’’

The 3 questions that really matter

So, how can we live in a way that’s authentic to ourselves?

The key is to live with purpose, constantly asking three important questions:

  1. “Am I following my heart and being true to myself?”
  2. “Is my life focused on what really matters to me?”
  3. “Am I the person I want to be in this world?”

Is your life well targeted?

In the Bible, the word “sin” has its origins in the Ancient Greek sport of archery. Essentially, it means “to miss the target,” just like when an arrow doesn’t hit its intended mark. The biggest sin, in this sense, is to miss the mark of what you want your life to be.

The author’s grandfather, a wise figure in his life, used to talk about feeling “good tired” at the end of a day, as opposed to what he called “bad tired.” He explained that “good tired” comes from a life centered on the things that truly matter to us. Happy people understand what makes them happy and prioritize those things.

Find a destiny

Listening to your heart can mean several things: it’s about having a job that matches your deep interests, staying genuine in the path you’ve chosen (and staying honest about what you truly want), and making time to heed the small inner voice that signals when you’ve strayed from your deepest desires.

Following your heart is like finding an activity that makes you so engrossed that you lose track of time!

It takes courage to follow your heart

To follow your heart, you sometimes need to tune out other voices that push you toward different dreams. Ron, who was in his seventies when we met, came from a family of doctors where medicine was the expected career choice. But he discovered chiropractic care during a visit to a skilled chiropractor just before starting medical school. He was drawn to this natural body-healing discipline, which emphasized the value of touch and resonated with him.

Ron shared, “I felt an immediate connection to this profession, and I knew that if it resonated so deeply with my soul, then I should follow my heart and choose it. But chiropractic medicine was not well-understood at the time, and when I revealed my decision, my friends criticized me, calling it a quackery. However, I knew it was my path, and I didn’t let their comments affect me.”

Being true to yourself means listening to that inner voice, even if others can’t hear it.

Here are four questions to ask yourself every week to embrace this secret in your life:

  1. “Was this week or day fulfilling?”
  2. “Did I live as the person I want to be this week?”
  3. “Am I currently following my heart?”
  4. “How can I deepen my connection to this secret in the coming week?”

Chapter 4: The second secret: Leave no regrets

“The bitterest tears shed over graves are from words left unsaid and deeds left undone” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

Our greatest fear is usually regret; we don’t want to look back and wish we had done things differently. According to the author’s 30 years of learning and these interviews, death isn’t what we fear the most. When we’ve lived fully and achieved our goals, we can accept death with grace. What terrifies us most is not having fully lived, reaching the end of life, and saying, “I should have…”

In the end, we don’t regret the risks we took, even if they didn’t turn out as planned. No one says they regret trying something and failing. Instead, many regret not taking enough risks. Failure isn’t the haunting regret; it’s the regret of never taking the chance.

We can’t guarantee success, but we can guarantee failure by choosing not to try anything.

To live a life of no regret, you have to take more risks.

‘’Every time we play it safe, we move a little farther away from our true selves. Whenever we choose not to strive towards what we want, we plant the seeds of future regrets.’’

Over 50 years, Dr. Izzo collaborated with many influential individuals. He found that, for many older folks, the most significant regret they might have at the end of their lives is not pursuing their dreams or taking chances. People tend to regret the opportunities they missed more than the ones they took. Their foremost regret is often playing it safe and avoiding mistakes.

The secret to no regrets

‘’When I asked this old man how he had taken significant risks, he told me, ‘Every time I evaluated a risk, I began to imagine all the good things that it could bring me. I would imagine all the things that could be true if I succeeded. And then, I thought of the worst that could happen to me. I would ask myself if I could overcome it and I answered each time in the affirmative’.”

Contrastingly, many of us tend to do the opposite. When confronted with a risk, we often imagine the worst-case scenario, and these thoughts dominate our thinking.

Choose the path that makes the best story

Last year, the author had a chance to spend a month in East Africa with 15 other middle-aged men. Their plan was to meet elders from various tribes and camp in the wilderness. It was a dream come true, but it happened during the busiest time of the year for him, and going on the trip meant delaying a lot of work. However, he decided to visit the wise old man on his porch.

The old man told him, “When you get to my age, you won’t regret the money you didn’t make this month, but Africa will stay in your heart.” With those words in mind, the author went on the trip. During his journey, he encountered fascinating cultures, witnessed breathtaking landscapes, and felt the absence of his family, which made him realize how important they were to him. While in Tanzania, he had meaningful conversations with indigenous elders, and this experience sparked the idea for his current project. If he had let his busy schedule get in the way, he would have missed out on one of the most significant experiences of his life.

Live as if time were running out

It’s possible that we only have six months left to live, and pondering how we’d live if time were short can guide us toward a life free of regrets.

Let your regrets go

Sometimes, what comes after a failure can greatly influence our happiness in life. We’ll always face challenges, and often, that means taking risks. Even if we’ve been hurt or ignored, we should be willing to love again. Even after experiencing failure or rejection, we should be ready to try once more.

Here are four questions to ask yourself each week to embrace this idea:

  1. “What risks would I be willing to take if I knew I had only one year left to live?”
  2. “How am I currently handling the setbacks in my life?”
  3. “Did I act on my beliefs and values this week?”
  4. “What action would I take right now if I could overcome my fear and show courage?”

Chapter 5: The third secret: Become love

“Love is life. And if you miss love, you miss life.” – Leo Buscaglia

‘’The hundreds of conversations we had made it clear that love, both the love we give and the love we receive, is the fundamental component of a happy and meaningful human life.’’

You can adopt this secret in three ways:

  1. By deciding to love ourselves.
  2. By deciding to treat our loved ones with love.
  3. By deciding to embody love in all our interactions.

First, love yourself

We don’t have much control over how others love us, but we have complete control over how we love ourselves. If we become more loving individuals, it’s natural for others to love us in return.

As humans, we have a remarkable inner conversation with ourselves, with about 45,000 to 55,000 thoughts each day. While many of these thoughts are harmless, some deeply affect how we see ourselves. When we say things like “I’m a failure, I’m not friendly, I’m unattractive, or I’m a bad parent,” we undermine our self-esteem.

A beautiful legend from the Navajo tradition tells of an old man explaining to his grandson that he feels like there’s a battle within him. This battle involves two wolves. One wolf represents negativity, such as anger, guilt, resentment, fear, and excuses. The other wolf symbolizes positive qualities like joy, peace, love, hope, and forgiveness. The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” The grandfather replied, “The one I choose to nourish.” In other words, it’s our choice which wolf within us we feed and nurture.

Make love a priority

One person in the interviews had a realization: “I dedicated most of my life to material possessions. People were always a lower priority. Now, I understand that my BMW isn’t visiting me in the nursing home where I reside.”

Choose to see others with kindness

A study conducted by a large university found that in typical households, the balance between negative and positive comments is 14 to 1. This means that for every positive comment we say to a family member, we tend to say about 14 negative ones. Similarly, research suggests that one key factor in long and happy marriages is maintaining a seven-to-one ratio of positive to negative communication with one’s spouse.

Here are four questions you should ask yourself each week to embrace this idea:

  1. “Did I make space in my life for friends, family, and relationships today?”
  2. “Which of my inner ‘wolves’ did I nourish today or this week?”
  3. “Did I spend time with people who uplifted my spirits?”
  4. “Have I filled my mind with positive thoughts, or have I allowed negativity to take root?”

Chapter 6: The fourth secret: Live the present moment

“Life lived for tomorrow will always be just a day away from being realized.” – Leo Buscaglia

One of the things people often say in these interviews is, “Time flies by so quickly.” When you’re young, it might seem like 60 years is an incredibly long time, but when you actually reach 60, you realize it passed by in the blink of an eye. We tend to believe we have endless time ahead of us, but eventually, we come to understand that this isn’t true.

Choose to be present at all times

If we want to live life to the fullest, we should remove the word “BORING” from our vocabulary and make an effort to fully engage with every moment, taking advantage of what the present has to offer.

Remember that every day is a gift

Instead of telling ourselves we’ll be happy if or when certain things happen, we should strive to find happiness in the present moment. While it’s okay to plan and desire future experiences, true happiness often comes from living in the here and now.

Live as if you were watching your last sunset

People who have faced serious illnesses like cancer often experience a shift in how they perceive time. It can seem to speed up and slow down simultaneously. Every moment becomes precious, and they learn to savor life fully. This perspective can be seen as a “gift,” even in the face of a terminal illness, because it helps them appreciate the infinite value of each day.

The present moment is the only moment

Dwelling on the past, especially regrets, steals the happiness from the present. As Leo Buscaglia once said, “Worry never takes away tomorrow’s sorrow, but it always steals today’s joy.”

Here are four questions to ask yourself to embrace this idea:

  • “Did I fully appreciate everything I did today?”
  • “Did I savor all the pleasures available to me today?”
  • “Did I catch myself saying, ‘I would be happy if…’?”
  • “Did I truly live in the present moment today?”

Chapter 7: The fifth secret: Give more than you take

‘’An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.’’ – Martin Luther King 

Funerals that lasts 10 minutes or 10 hours

Funerals can be as short as 10 minutes or as long as 10 hours, but what really matters in life is what we leave behind and the impact we make on the world.

Happy people are givers, not takers. While they might not be as selfless as Mother Teresa, they’ve discovered that giving brings them great happiness. The more they give, the happier they feel.

Ask life what it expects of you

Victor Frankl, a psychotherapist who survived a Nazi concentration camp, wrote about his experiences in a book called “Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” He discussed the issue of suicide in the camp and found that trying to convince someone to stay alive by promising future happiness doesn’t work. However, when individuals realize that the world expects something from them, that they can make a positive difference, they usually choose to live. Frankl concluded that people who understand what the world expects from them rarely consider ending their lives.

The ultimate task in life: to lose oneself

During the months when the author talked to people over 60, he gradually realized that we live in a world that’s borrowed from the generation before us, and we’re entrusted with taking care of it before passing it on to the next generation.

Chief Ralph, a 60-year-old leader of an Aboriginal tribe, shared a meaningful story from his youth. They used to fish for salmon to sustain their community through the winter. One year, when they had already caught plenty of fish, his teenage brothers and he wanted to catch even more. But their father said, “No, we’re done. We must leave some for others.” Instead, they spent the next few days helping fellow tribe members repair their nets so they could have enough. That’s what Chief Ralph remembered.

As teenagers, we often focus on accumulating experiences and possessions, thinking that’s where happiness lies. However, with time, we discover that love, kindness, and our connections with others are the true nourishment for our souls. Ralph’s father understood that the most important lesson he could teach his sons wasn’t just about fishing, but about the immense joy of giving to others.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself

The happiest individuals in the interviews had discovered the importance of caring about the world’s well-being, whereas the unhappiest ones remained focused on their own problems.

Here are four questions to ask yourself each week to embrace this idea:

  • “Did I contribute, even in a small way, to make this world a better place this week?”
  • “Was I kind, generous, and charitable this week?”
  • “Did I prioritize my own needs over the greater good this week?”
  • “How can I better incorporate this lesson into my life?”

Chapter 8: Knowing and acting (putting the secrets into practice)

‘’The problem with common sense is that it is not common’’ – Mark Twain

Knowing is not the problem

Consider all the knowledge we possess but fail to apply. We understand that smoking, lack of exercise, unhealthy eating, and stress can harm us. We recognize the significance of interpersonal relationships, yet we often take them for granted. We’re aware that money doesn’t guarantee happiness, life is brief, and negative thoughts can undermine our well-being. The issue isn’t our awareness; it’s our failure to take action.

Natural learning: how to make changes in your life?

Humans have a natural way of learning through observation, listening, and experimentation. When we’re young, we don’t receive formal lessons in language; instead, we watch our parents name things, hear them talk to each other, and gradually learn how words fit together. With a few minor corrections, we pick up vocabulary and start forming sentences.

If awareness is the first step in this natural learning process, it means that we take action based on what we know. This simple idea can significantly impact how we make changes in our lives. Essentially, we become what we focus on. The more we keep something in our awareness, the more likely we are to act upon that knowledge.

What we pay attention to grows

We can all improve our lives by simply taking some time each week to answer a set of questions about the five secrets.

Union creates strength

Christian monks have a saying: “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” When we pause to reflect, we often find the answers we need within ourselves. Listening is a crucial practice. We only have one life, and by taking the time to reflect and listen, we prevent it from drifting away from our intentions.

What are the rituals in your life?

‘’Be careful of your thoughts, because they become your words. Be careful with your words, because they become your actions. And be careful of your actions, because they become your habits. Be careful of your habits, because they become your character. Your character becomes your destiny.’’

Remember, taking action without a clear vision is a waste of time, and having a vision without taking action is like daydreaming.

Chapter 9: A final lesson: It’s never too late to live according to the secrets.

The timing of discovering the secrets isn’t as crucial as actually uncovering them. Regardless of our age or past mistakes, when we embrace these secrets, our life starts to transform.

To conclude, there’s a Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second best time is today.”

CONCLUSION of “The Five Things You Must Know before you die”

This book “The Five Things You Must Know before you die” is remarkable and has made a significant impact. Unfortunately, the author lost their grandparents early in life, missing the opportunity to learn from their wisdom. The book compiles insights from over 200 individuals aged 60 or older, offering valuable wisdom. While some of these principles align with the author’s life choices, reading the book reaffirmed their decisions, such as pursuing entrepreneurship and prioritizing self-listening over external influences.

The elderly individuals emphasize two critical aspects: taking risks to avoid lifelong regrets and listening to one’s inner voice. The concept of heeding one’s inner voice resonated strongly, leading the author to realize that they had been neglecting essential aspects of life, like family, love, and friendships due to excessive work.

Consequently, the book played a pivotal role in the author’s recent life decision to cease their business, which was generating approximately €10,000 per month. They have chosen a new path aligned with their aspirations.

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