Buyers & Sellers, Contributor Article, Investing & Personal Finance

Striving for A-plus can be setup for failure

Book Review: 'Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's Work'

Book Review
Title: "Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work"
Author: Eric C. Sinoway with Merrill Meadow
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, 2012; 288 pages; $24.99

We often are prodded by self-help gurus, pastors, and life coaches to think about what we might regret about our lives if we kicked the bucket, say, now. The idea is that our answers to this question suggest the direction we should take with our lives, without further ado.

Similarly, there are tons of articles and books devoted to the insights of the dying that try to render the above hypothetical even more concrete, by asking people who are actually knocking at death’s door what they would have done differently, shaking the rest of us by our shoulders and trying to help us reset our priorities before it’s too late.

A new book, "Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work," was prompted by the diametrical opposite of the typical "dying regrets" stories. Author Eric Sinoway decided to write the book when his friend and beloved Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson had a life-threatening heart attack and, upon recovering, related that he had no regrets.

Stevenson explained that "a person has regrets when his life doesn’t match up with his expectations, or when he has dreams he hasn’t vigorously pursued," and that had he died, he would have done so "with no major regrets over things I’d done or not done."

Sinoway and co-author Merrill Meadow wrote "Howard’s Gift" in an effort to capture and convey Stevenson’s wisdom and "thought tools" on how to plan and live a career and life that are satisfying, not just successful, in a way that can be used by anyone, in any line of work, at any time of their life. Here are a few of those nuggets on how to live — and when the time comes, die — with no regrets.

1. Create a business plan for your life’s work. In Stevenson’s philosophy, your life’s work is about much more than just your job, or how you make a living. "[O]ne’s life’s work means the totality of who we are: the interwoven strands of our labors, our loves, our hopes, and our tangible needs and wants; the interdependent elements of our lives that we sometimes try to wall off into independent silos that we name "the job," "the family," and "the rest of my life."

Being able to spot the patterns of elements that made the business plans of his Harvard Business School students successful over the years empowered Stevenson to do the same with plans for whole-life satisfaction.

Understanding and acknowledging what your true life goals are, beyond financial success, is the most important strategic step in planning out your life’s work and — almost more importantly — navigating the various opportunities, crises and resource allocation decisions that every single one of us will face over a lifetime. Stevenson calls this "starting at the end."

2. Recognize and take advantage of the gift of an "inflection point." Sinoway cites Intel CEO Andy Grove’s definition of inflection points as "event[s] that fundamentally change[] the way we think and act," whether they be societal, political, economic or even personal, as when our employer downsizes the workforce.

Stevenson points out that inflection points — whether they seem positive, negative or neutral — give us the opportunity to pause and rethink what it is we truly want in our lives, then to reset our course of action. The problem is that most people, according to Stevenson, "overlook or ignore" this opportunity until the chance to do something has passed.

Stevenson elaborates: "Very few people see inflection points as the opportunities they often are: catalysts for changing their lives; moments when a person can modify the trajectory he or she is on and redirect it in a more desirable direction."

After exploring Stevenson’s sage advice around inflection points more fully, Sinoway provides compelling case narratives of two very different business visionaries and the ways they harnessed inflection points to create stunningly satisfying lives and careers.

3. Understand that the laws of time and space will not bend to your aspirations. Stevenson points out that many high-achiever types crave to get an A-plus on every dimension, in every area of interest in their lives. This, he believes, is simply not possible and is actually a setup for chronic disappointment and failure. Rather, Stevenson believes that at different times in our lives, we should set different targets for performance in various areas.

For example, when he was launching a company, he and his wife expressly decided he would spend time away to secure the family’s financial future, but he also decided that when he was at home he would never turn a child away when he or she asked for his attention.

Being OK with an A-minus or B-plus average across the areas of your life that you choose to engage in — and across your life span — is a core part of Stevenson’s prescription for satisfaction with your life’s work at your life’s end.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website,


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