The 7 lamps of living

In that spirit, if someone were to put a gun to my head and say, “Give me the seven keys to the life well-led or else!”, this is what I’d say.

By Marty Nemko

Published: Sun 23 May 2021, 11:32 PM

Something as complex and individualised as the life well-led cannot be reduced to seven keys or even 50 keys.

That said, amid our information overload, such lists may have value, if only as a starting place for our contemplating how to live our lives.

In that spirit, if someone were to put a gun to my head and say, “Give me the seven keys to the life well-led or else!”, this is what I’d say.

Decide cosmically

It’s not enough to follow the rules or even decide whether to keep or break a rule to take care of family. The life well-led involves striving to make cosmically wise decisions, that is, decisions that will do the most good for the most people without violating an individual’s fundamental right, for example, the right to not be killed. (I’ll leave the death penalty issue for another day.)

For example, let’s say you’re a psychotherapist and your client is considering divorce. You’ve asked all manner of questions to help the client decide. But after that, the client insisted: “No! Tell me what you think.” The therapist who decides to answer should consider not just what’s best for the client but for the spouse, kids, and perhaps surprising, society. Let’s say the spouse is a medical researcher with the potential to save many lives but is an emotionally fragile person who, in a divorce, would be devastated, likely requiring a long time to recover, and therefore do a worse job at work. That could be worth considering.

Responsibility is key

The life well-led includes working diligently and ethically. Anathema would be people who make the least effort they can get away with and who cut ethical corners, both in professional and personal life. The good news is that responsibility doesn’t require people to choose a career they find difficult. Rather, a responsible, contributory career builds on natural strengths and acquired knowledge, thus making the career not too difficult.

Treasure time

It’s cliche but true that time is our most valuable and ever evaporating possession. And while nearly everyone agrees with that statement, some people waste so much time, for example, hours each day on puerile TV or video games or shopping until they’re dropping. The life well-led includes spending much time making a difference, however you define it. To that end, until it’s habitual, when deciding whether and how to do spend a chunk of time, you might ask yourself, “Is this a good use of time?”

Communicate effectively

Communication is more difficult than many people think.

Listening requires attention to what’s said, what’s underneath, deciding whether to stay focused on what the person is saying or if you can think ahead to what you’ll say in response, when to be blunt and when to be tactful (usually), and whether to interrupt (usually not.)

Speaking requires concision, weighing what your listener(s) wants and needs to know, and as appropriate, using ethical tools of persuasion, for example, valid logic, statistics, anecdotes, examples, and analogies.


Many people ruminate excessively, letting fear of failure blind them to the wisdom of taking at least low-risk actions, which usually yield more success or at least lessons that can be applied later.

Balance gratitude with striving

Too much gratitude causes inertia while too much striving can sacrifice ethics. Balance is required. For example, the fundraiser who is living the life well-led works hard to raise money for a worthy organisation but doesn’t push unduly: exaggerate the likely benefits of a donation nor push potential donors beyond what they can comfortably afford—even it that means s/he doesn’t win “fundraiser of the month.”


No, it’s not necessary to ever plod on the educational treadmill, but part of the life well-led is to spend a reasonable amount of time continuing to learn what’s important, ideally in pleasant ways. For example, the aforementioned psychotherapist might want to start or join a patient review group. All of us can distract ourselves from maddening traffic by listening to a career-related or personal-growth audiobook. Or would you enjoy taking a course, in-person as Covid lifts, or online? Tens of thousands of courses on every imaginable topic, most with syllabi and student reviews, are searchable on websites such as,, and

Marty Nemko has been career and personal coach and author of 13 books

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