Suzy Welch's best-selling new book 10-10-10 carries the provocative and promising subtitle "a life-transforming idea."
Welch is the wife of General Electric magnate Jack Welch, and her celebrated self-help book builds a decision-making method around the simple premise that we make better choices when we get out of the heat of the present moment and consider how we will feel about our actions further down the road.
The three "10s" in the title refer to 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years — and effectively are meant to help people think longer term.
To get beyond impulse-driven decisions, Welch asserts, we need to stretch out our temporal frame of reference, considering the short-, mid- and long-term impact of our choices. How will I regard this particular choice 10 minutes from now? How about after 10 months? What about after 10 years? She makes her point with a series of stories and anecdotes from her own life and those of others, illustrating the breadth of applicability of her "system."
Welch's book doesn't propose what criteria we should use to evaluate our actions, preferring the less controversial (though more relativistic) goal of helping us "identify and live according to our deepest goals and values."
We cannot ask everything from a book, of course, and, as far as it goes, Welch's idea is sound. So many times we act out of passion, impulse or sheer whim — and later regret our decisions. A little more reflection about the consequences of our actions would do us all good.
Imagine how our lives would change if before uttering a biting word we were to say only what we would like to have said 10 minutes from now, when our anger and pride have calmed down.
We would have far fewer regrets. Imagine the effect of behaving at a party or on a date the way we will be proud of 10 hours from now. We would be holier and more temperate. Imagine what our lives would be like if before breaking off a relationship with a brother or sister we were to consider how we will feel about that 10 years from now. Our decisions would be more prudent, careful and loving.
Still, in Welch's method, I cannot help but think that the most important reference point is missing.
In the Christian tradition, we learn to evaluate our actions not only by the light of the future, but especially by the light of eternity. In his truly life-changing Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola included a meditation on death. This did not stem from some gruesome medieval fixation with skulls and skeletons, but reflected the very wise principle that we should try to evaluate our present actions by what we will appreciate on our deathbed.
It's spiritually healthy — Ignatius reasoned — to live now the way we would like to be found at death, when we will look back on our lives from God's perspective. What will we value then? What will we regret? What will seem most precious, and what will seem simply a lamentable waste of time and talents?
This wisdom didn't begin with Ignatius, of course. Jesus himself often recommended to his disciples to "be prepared" — not just like Boy Scouts ready for an unexpected night in the forest, but ready at a moment's notice to meet our Creator and render an accounting of our lives. He warns us that that day will appear "like a thief in the night" and reminds us that no one knows "the day or the hour."
The great medieval mystic Thomas à Kempis offered similar advice to Ignatius', drawing on Jesus' teaching. In his spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, he presents his readers the following sage counsel:
"In every deed and every thought, act as though you were to die this very day. If you had a good conscience, you would not fear death very much. It is better to avoid sin than to fear death. If you are not prepared today, how will you be prepared tomorrow? Tomorrow is an uncertain day; how do you know you will have a tomorrow?" (Book I, Chapter 23).
An eternal perspective puts a whole new spin on Welch's method. Instead of considering our present choices by what we will value some minutes, months or years from now, how about considering them from what we will value when this short life is over? At that moment, what will I prefer: to have perfected my golf swing or to have learned humility and patience? What will seem more important: to have made millions of dollars or to have loved God and served my brothers and sisters? What will I value more: Sunday Mass or the Friday night banquet at the country club?
Such thoughts shouldn't turn us into joyless fuddy-duddies, but into true Christians. Every good thing has its place, but when we look back on things from eternity, we will desire above all to see a beautiful life, a life well lived. To cite Thomas à Kempis once again, "How happy and prudent is he who tries now in life to be what he wants to be found in death!"
There is nothing wrong with Suzy Welch's 10-10-10 method. Well applied, it can help us to make better choices and eliminate many regrets. Better still is to choose now according to eternal values — the ones that count now and in the life to come.
Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams is Vatican analyst for CBS News
and professor of theology and ethics at the Regina Apostolorum College in Rome.
His most recent book is Knowing Right From
Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience