Why Your Peak Experiences Create a Rewarding Life

Mar 3, 2022

“I don’t live to work; I work to live.” Although this quote is attributed to Noel Gallager, I first heard this expression years before living in Spain. A Spanish friend told me that he observed this startling difference when comparing our two cultures and what constituted a rewarding life. He said, “you Americans live to work, while we Spaniards work to live.” I should have listened closer to my friend’s wise words as I look back.

There is a saying that a job is a job. A job is a way to pay for a living, but that’s its extent. Don’t let your job define your happiness. You work to live, not live to work. Work on what brings you joy.

Both Gallagher’s quote and this expression mentioned above are foundational to discuss the importance of Life’s experiences and how you can create a rewarding and happy life.

The story of Kai-Fu Lee

Kai-Fu Lee may not be a household name, but he excelled as an executive at Apple, Google, and Microsoft. This is his story of discovering why a rewarding life was not formed by work but rather from peak experiences.

Lee would become a father for the first time on December 16, 1991. Shen-Ling, his wife, lay on a hospital bed, battling the physical and mental exhaustion of giving birth to another human being. Because the baby was in the sunny-side-up position, with her head facing the belly rather than the back, the attending doctor warned him that labor would be difficult. His wife might need a cesarean section as a result of this.

On the big day, he paced the room nervously, even more so than most expectant fathers. He was concerned for his wife and the baby’s well-being, but his thoughts were elsewhere. That’s because he was due to give a presentation to John Sculley, Apple’s CEO and one of the most prominent men in the technology industry, on a new speech recognition software technology.

Picture of Kai-Fu Lee for John R. Miles blog

His wife’s labor progressed, and he kept checking the time, hoping that she would deliver the baby so he could attend the birth and return to headquarters in time for the meeting. His coworkers called, asking whether they should cancel the appointment or have his lieutenant give the presentation to Sculley. But he told them no, assuring them that he would make the meeting.

However, as the labor progressed, he became increasingly concerned that he would not make it in time, and he was torn between staying by his wife’s side to witness the birth of his daughter and hurrying off to the meeting. He thought that seeing his first child born would be fantastic, but he tried to argue with himself she would be born whether he was present or not. If he missed the work presentation, things could possibly not go as he intended. He also worried that Scully would put his peer in charge of the entire project if someone else did it.

He was in the middle of these mental computations when the doctor informed him that a cesarean section would be performed immediately. His wife was rushed to the operation room, and they were both holding their baby daughter within an hour. They spent some time together before he went for the presentation, which he did with little time to spare. The meeting went well, and that decision opened the door to new opportunities for Mr. Lee due to its success.

For Lee, the accomplishment felt after success and monetary incentives instilled in him a sense of personal pride. This desire for recognition propelled him further in his career. However, when he later examined his Life, it wasn’t those professional accomplishments that he remembered. It was the scene in the hospital room. He was well aware that at the time his child was born, if he had to choose between the birth of his first child and the Apple meeting, he would have most likely selected the latter.

He later admitted that he considered this humiliating and was distraught about his decision. Lee realized it was not just about one encounter. It was simply a result of his preference for a work-first attitude. He was valuing material possessions and achievements over Life’s incredible experiences, and he resolved to make a conscious change for the better.

Growing from a materialistic mindset into an experiential mindset

As we consider Kai-Fu Lee’s story, many lessons apply to so many of us. The biggest being the trade-offs we make and what comes from them. For Lee, work had become his life.

While it is customary to spend time working to have the financial means to acquire possessions – clothes, shoes, houses, cars, gadgets, boats, and so on, these things are all comforts that society educates us are important. But the problem occurs when we value possessions above our relationships, self-identity, and personal experiences.

As a result, we risk the real chance of missing life’s true joys and the happiness those peak experiences bring us when we focus on accumulating indulgences instead of focusing on the actual experiences that make life such a joy to live.

Kai-Fu Lee would rarely take a vacation. When he did, he would spend one or two weeks with his mother in Taiwan or his family in Beijing and return to work soon afterward. At one point earlier in his career, even though he had to spend two weeks in bed after undergoing surgery, he could not give up putting work first in front of his health. Lee actually had a metal crane constructed that positioned the monitor above his pillow, enabling him to work. Within a few hours following his surgery, he was back in his hospital bed, responding to emails.

Lee desired his persona to be an unstoppable force for production, and he wanted the financial rewards that came with it, too. Being an unstoppable force enabled his career to prosper. At the forefront of research with a Carnegie Mellon PH.D., he was a global commercial leader, and he was a superstar in his own right. His career skyrocketed, and Time Magazine named him to their prestigious list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2013.

But then, his life changed completely. After being diagnosed with stage IV follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in September of that year, it caused Lee to take a step back and reassess his life. The sickness shined a new light on his career and what was most important to him. He realized that although he had a career many would die for, it wasn’t rewarding, and he had missed out on some of the most critical peak experiences.

Quote by John R. Miles on peak experiences

When lee suddenly faced death, he realized that the most challenging part of confronting death wasn’t the things you left behind but the experiences you would never have and can’t get back. Fortunately for Lee, his cancer was successfully treated, and his outlook wholly transformed. We will discuss how it changed later in the discussion.

Lee’s story is a lesson for all of us and leads to some critical questions, including what is most important to you in life?

Is it your career? Your relationships? Your material possessions or awards? Your impact?

Are you living to work or working to live?

Do you want to regret not living your values?

Bronnie Ware is an Australian author and motivational speaker known best for her writings in her book The Top Five Regrets of the DyingDuring her time as a hospice nurse, she chronicled the top deathbed remorses voiced by her patients as they approached the end of life.

Her patients reflected on their lives with clarity that eluded them for most of their lives. As they reminisced, they spoke of the failure of not living their lives by their values. They also regretted focusing their lives on career aspirations and material possessions rather than on the people and experiences they could have shared with those in their lives.

At the top of the list, Bronnie’s patients wished they dared to live a life true to themself, not the life others expected of them.

Many of these people wished they had intentionally spent more time with the people they cared about and the lasting memories those experiences created, rather than hoping they spent their time trying to attain more money, awards, and amenities.

We are far more than the sum of our possessions.

These examples illustrate that we are far more than the sum of our physical possessions. Even if you believe that these things are a part of who you are, they are not a part of you. In contrast, the things you’ve encountered have become a part of you. While we quickly grow attached to our possessions, they are not the memories that define our lives. Instead, those memories are formed by our past experiences, which we remember long after the amenities have lost their value.

We must be willing to take a step back and examine where we focus our attention, who we really are, and what we want our legacy to be. From there, it’s vital to admit our shortcomings and then take actions to improve ourselves to have more life-changing and memorable experiences.

The following are some of the many reasons why it is better to spend our time and resources seeking peak experiences that lead to a rewarding life rather than long for acquiring and consuming material things.

Peak experiences improve our interpersonal relationships.

Research has shown a clear link between meaningful interpersonal relationships and shared experiences. It is the quality of these experiences that has the most important impact on our lives and our happiness. So while shared experiences elevate an occasion for us individually, they also are crucial to developing more profound, more meaningful relationships.

Shared experiences cement interpersonal relationships by creating the foundation for living a life of joy and building memories. Whether these experiences are with our spouse, partner, kids, family, colleagues, or friends, shared experience improves our quality of life.

New experiences make you happier.

According to research, experiences rather than material possessions are linked to happier lives. For instance, psychologist Emma Seppälä examines the disparity between happiness formed through material gains such as dining or buying goods and joy gained from more meaningful experiences in the book The Happiness Track. The first, which is hedonistic happiness, is often short-lived and, while it certainly makes us happy at the moment, the emotion is fleeting.

The second, more lasting happiness – eudaimonistic happiness – comes from experiences that have more importance and meaning, experiences that are beyond our own self. Eudaimonic happiness gets less awareness in Western culture as a whole but is more significant in the psychological research of happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy some hedonistic happiness. A fabulous feast or an afternoon of shopping can do wonders for the soul. But by merely sharing that feast or spending the afternoon shopping with friends, we begin to attach deeper meaning to the experience by planting it more firmly in the memory.

Experiences reduce clutter which promotes being happy.

Eventually, most of our material possessions become a burden. They occupy both physical and mental space in our homes and minds. They necessitate a great deal of attention, care, maintenance, and organization. When it comes to experiences, on the other hand, there is almost no physical evidence of their existence. Moving memories around are as simple as doing so in your head.

I recently interviewed Gretchen Rubin, the author of the New York Times bestselling books The Happiness ProjectHappier at Home, and The Four Tendencies. In Outer Order, Inner Calm, Rubin describes why orderly surroundings are so important for our happiness. When we declutter our lives, it helps us to keep only what can serve us now and allows us to release the past to make room for a better present. She explains, “Outer order isn’t a matter of having less or having more; it’s a matter of wanting what we have.

Experiences reduce the comparison of oneself with others.

Furthermore, according to research done by professors Ryan T. Howell and Graham Hill, experiences result in less comparison with others, which results in more happiness than material possessions. When we stop comparing our own lives to those of others, we are freed and begin to live our best lives.

Their work found that when people spend their money on experiences rather than materialistic goods, it results in more personal fulfillment and brings more happiness to others. According to Howell, “These findings support an extension of basic need theory, where purchases that increase psychological need satisfaction will produce the greatest well-being.”

Experiences provide better memories.

According to Meik Wiking, the author of The Art of Making Memories, “By traveling back to happier times, we can counteract negative feelings like anxiety and loneliness and meaninglessness.” Wiking indicates that having a reservoir of happy experiences is significantly associated with current happiness.

While possessions go out of style, memories are timeless. Experiences are all memorable in their own way, and we cherish them all. Wiking found that memories follow patterns, and we are able to use those memories “to become memory architects and control what we and those around are, and are not, going to remember.”

Experiencing the best of life through peak experiences

So you may wonder how did Kai-Fu Lee change his life following his revelation. Lymphoma’s devastating diagnosis put Lee’s Life into sharp focus and turned his self-indulgent self-pity on its head. He stopped asking why he had to go through the sickness or wishing that all of his accomplishments would be enough to save him.

What new questions did he begin to ask? Why was he so obsessed with becoming a workhorse and amassing as much material wealth as possible? Why was he so oblivious to the very essence of who he was?

He retraced his steps, baffled as to how he’d managed to miss out on so much of his life. He vowed to himself that he would not become a machine, no matter how much time he had left. He would not rely on internal algorithms or seek to maximize his daily life variables. With all the love he had received from others, he would do his best to spread love as much as possible and enjoy the many beautiful moments that life had to offer by giving to others.

Likewise, when you finally begin to value and spend more time acquiring peak experiences rather than consuming material things, you will realize that life will generally become more prosperous and more meaningful. And whenever you feel you are starting to return back to old patterns of prioritizing work and material possessions over the relationships and experiences you could be having, remind yourself that you won’t be here forever and that the only things that would really count in the end are those great memories that will forever live on.

Realize, then, that the peak experiences of life far outweigh any material possessions you may have. Take the advice in this article to heart and make a concerted effort to enjoy as many experiences as you can while you are still here.

“Think of the most wonderful experience of your life: the happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly being hit by a book or painting, or from some creative moment.” – Abraham Maslow.

This quote by Maslow is about the transcendent aspect of peak experiences that come from enjoying a rewarding life. You may think you have forever to start living yours, like Kai-Fu Lee, until you don’t.

Will you look back on your life in your last moments, wishing you had done things differently?

You may wish that life will change on its own – and try to read/attest/implore your way to a finer one, or you can be courageous and take the first step to live life intentionally.

I hope you do.


Listen to the Passion Struck Podcast anywhere you listen to podcasts online.

Are you having trouble prioritizing yourself? John discusses where you invest your love; you invest your Life in Episode 104

John Explains how your environment influences who you become in episode 102.

Do you know the science of healthy habits? John explores this in-depth in Episode 108.

Suppose you missed our interview with Jen Bricker-Bauer on Everything is Possible. Don’t panic! You can catch up by downloading it here.

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