Readers Share the Startling Wake-Up Calls That Changed Their Outlook on Life

What do you do after hearing the blaring alarm of a wake-up call?

In the last edition of The Profile, I wrote about wake-up calls. You know the type: the ones that shake you awake from the monotony of life and typically show up in the form of something unpleasant — an unexpected death, a breakup, a sickness, or some sort of loss.

Dozens of Profile readers weighed in with their own stories about events that shook them up and changed their outlook on life. Below is a selection of stories that touched me, and I hope they act as a wake-up to all of you as well.

1. Understand that life is impossibly fragile

One of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that time is abundant.

We take time for granted, we wait until we're "ready," and as a result, we end up delaying dreams that may never solidify into reality. We're not intentional about spending time with loved ones because, well, we assume they'll be here next week, next month, and next year.

Reader C.B. learned that time is a luxury not all of us can enjoy when he was moving from Denver to North Carolina. He was in the car driving through West Virginia when he got a call from his boss.

He writes:

Jumping right into the conversation, thinking it was about work, I wasn't anticipating the somber reply I received.

"Our friend is no longer with us."

Huh? I thought.

"He was killed in a bicycle incident. While crossing an intersection during a green light, he was hit by a car."

I choked upon hearing this. I was right there just a week earlier with him. During this time, my late friend was pedantic about safety. Helmet on, look not two, but three times before crossing, travel at a safe speed. While he did everything in his will to reduce every possible risk of an injury, he could not escape death.

That could've been me, I thought.

This was a friend who lived adventurously. Traveled to 6 continents. Always pushed colleagues to become better. Gone in an instant.

Before that phone call, C.B. had heard the cliché of "life is short," but this time he felt the reality of it in his bones. It was a wake-up call to become more intentional with how he spends his time.

"I spend more time with family now," he says. "I call my grandmother more. I understand how precious life is and do not take it for granted. There is no greater time to do something than the present — for an opportunity may no longer exist afterward."

2. Time is our most precious resource

My husband likes to joke that before I even finish talking about an idea, I'm already working on making it a reality. It's not that I rush through the days, it's that I'm hyper-aware of how few of them we have and how many of them we waste.

But in times of uncertainty, many of us sit back and pump the brakes. Waiting becomes the new normal. Waiting for the pandemic to end. Waiting for the economy to normalize. Waiting for the right time to start something new. Waiting for some semblance of certainty.

While we're waiting, the clock is ticking. B.T. felt the sharp blade of this type of stress in March of 2020.

"The world was full of uncertainty in a global pandemic," he writes, adding:

“In March through May of 2020, I went through a lot as I’m sure most people did. We had just moved countries, and were starting a new life away from my home country where crime was skyrocketing. I had a one-year-old daughter, and my wife was pregnant. We were awaiting her green card for years, and she was unable to work. I was attempting a career change, all our money was tied up into the equity of a house we were trying to sell and could not get it sold as everything was crashing in price.

“Long story short, I discovered the work of your husband and yourself, our house got sold, much to my wife’s dismay, and we hit the reset button. It was a very difficult decision but it was driven by a need for time, some money to figure things out, and the freedom and stress relief that can come with being able to have the luxury of that time.

“This is why I continue to say that the work you guys do has drastically changed my life and changed how I go about my days. It was a reminder of what was important in life and that happiness should be a high priority on that list. It was encouragement in betting on myself, and a belief that with the work ethic you guys display, the right content to consume, persistence, and just a little time, anything was truly possible.”

3. Don't get lost in the meaningless minutiae of everyday life

One thing I've noticed recently is how the narrative has changed from a collaborative, "We disagree, so let's respect our differences," to a "Your beliefs are toxic, so I can't be around you." The former repairs conflict, while the latter lets it fester.

In an article I wrote about the keys to a successful relationship, psychologist John Gottman said that happy couples do many of the same things unhealthy couples do, but at some point, they have a conversation where they recover from it. People who have healthy relationships "prevent negativity from escalating out of control.”

Unfortunately, many of us don't have the ability to stay emotionally sober during the heat of an argument, and we often end up letting a tiny annoyance get out of hand — until it's too late.

Reader J.K. recently lost her father, and it forced her to reflect on all the time she spent angry at him over things that could've ultimately been put aside in favor of preserving the relationship.

She writes:

“We were so much alike, and I think that’s why we fought so much these last few years. I would tell him he’d lost his mind believing conspiracy theories on TV, but I think it just scared me to see someone who taught me how to think go a completely different way.

“I wasted so much time decidedly not talking to him because I didn’t want to argue anymore. I did make it home to tell him how much I loved him. I hope he felt that in his final days.

“I now tell my nephew and my sister how much I love them all the time. You would have thought I would have had this wake-up call earlier — I’ve had three open-heart surgeries — but sometimes it takes losing a pillar in your life to change your outlook."

Reader L.S. has had a similar wake-up call after falsely believing in the abundance of time. Her sister was diagnosed with ALS (also known as "Lou Gehrig's disease") one year ago. "I’m guessing she has a year left," L.S. says. "It is a fast and cruel disease, and at this point has left her barely able to speak, and almost reliant on a wheelchair, and has to be careful what she eats or drinks, or she will choke. The progression has been swift."

Now, L.S. is left feeling the dull pain of regret. She spent most her childhood and 20s being angry with her sister. They are both now in their 50s, and they haven't been able to spend too much meaningful time together.

"And now I want to see her, and spend time with her, but it is too late," L.S. says. "I find when we are together, we are somewhat detached, as I have, at least, a resistance or a shyness toward her. There is no great bonding sort of feeling. And of course on top of that, she is angry and depressed, which is normal, but makes the situation even worse."

L.S. is left asking herself: Why didn't I try harder to spend more time with her earlier in my life? But unfortunately, the clock of our lives only goes forward, never back.

She writes:

“So these last months I have to spend with her, I want to make count, but I feel it is too late to start something different emotionally with her, as those kinds of things are built over a period of time. I guess I thought she would always be there and I would always be able to see her. I didn’t appreciate her all this time, and I took the relationship for granted.

“And although this is about my sister, she is the last one I have out of the other immediate family members. Dad is gone a month ago, mom has severe dementia, and my other sister is not in my life.”

Learn this lesson today before it's too late: When someone says something that rubs you the wrong way, assume good intent.

Breakdowns in communication can create confusion, hurt feelings, and unnecessary hours spent being angry. There’s a useful heuristic to remember called “Hanlon’s Razor.” It sums it up like this: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect or ignorance.” In other words, when someone makes a mistake, it’s possible they’re simply clumsy or careless or inarticulate.

Here are the words of the ever-so-wise Shane Parrish:

“When someone messes up around us, we forget how many times we, too, have done the same. We forget how many times we have elbowed someone in the street, knocked over a drink at a relative’s house or forgotten to meet a friend at the right time.

“When a situation causes us to become angry or frustrated, it can be valuable to consider if those emotions are justified. Often, the best way to react to other people causing us problems is by seeking to educate them, not to disdain them. In this way, we can avoid repeats of the same situation.”

4. Create a snowball effect of positive change

Reader Charlie Bleecker has thought a lot about the type of "wake-up calls" that leave you desperately defeated on your bathroom floor. Five years ago, she went through a brutal and messy breakup.

"It did shake me to my core, but it wasn't that one thing that changed my approach to life," she says. "It created a snowball effect of positive changes because I was finally able to think about the big picture. When something horrible happens, we're finally able to go off autopilot for just a second and question what the hell we're doing with our lives."

Getting herself off of autopilot is exactly what she needed to create meaningful change in her life after hearing the blaring alarm of a wake-up call. She calls it "the snowball effect of positive change."

Here's how it works:

“In my darkest moment, a friend suggested I read The Untethered Soul to help me get out of my head. It led to a new realization that had nothing to do with the breakup and everything to do with my relationship to food and body image. Which led me to read a book about intuitive eating. Which led to yoga and cooking real food. Which led to meditation and solitude. I quit my job and moved away from LA and my partying friends.”

She says: "Once you’ve created momentum and positive feedback loops in your life, serendipity pokes its head up and takes you by the hand." She turned her entire life around thanks to one event that forced her to look inward. (Read more about her story here.)

Reader L.C. had that introspective moment after her son was diagnosed on the spectrum for autism. His doctor told her he needed a minimum of 40 hours of Applied Behavior Analysis therapy per week. She left her career in private equity and threw herself into creating a regimen for him. In two years, he dropped his diagnosis and was deemed to be "neurotypical."

But after those two years, L.C. was not the same. She writes:

"Upon finding out that my son could return to more of the life we envisioned for him, something was activated inside me. I felt that I needed to capitalize on the time that was given back to me — I was also different. I was bolder, stronger, vocal, and not willing to tolerate a lot of what I put up with earlier in my career.

"The challenge that I took on was to form my own firm, backing female founders and under-represented founders (back in 2015-16). I was not going to stop until we had made an impact. I wasn't doing it for myself as much as I was pushing to create the path for the next generation.

"If I didn't have the guts to step out and do this, who would? We have multiple wake-up calls in our lives, don't we?"

5. Never lose sight of what actually matters

Wake-up calls are simply reminders of values we've always held but have been ignoring. It's not that you actually care about the minor inconvenience that the barista messed up your coffee order, it's that you've lost sight of what really matters.

S.M. was 20 years old, working as an intern at Morgan Stanley in New York City ("and hating it"). By societal standards, she was considered successful in the most ruthless city on the planet, but she was left wondering if this was all there was to life.

That summer, there was a terrorist attack in her home country of Bangladesh. "It was an ISIS hostage situation at a local restaurant a few blocks from where my cousin lived, and one I had just visited a couple of months earlier before coming to New York to start my internship," she says. "At first, I thought it was sad but didn’t think too much of it."

As more information came out, she found out that three of her high school friends were some of the hostages. They were ultimately killed in the attack, and they were only 19 and 20 years old.

"That was Friday night at 3 a.m. when we all found out our friends didn’t make it.

"I went to work Monday, basically crying every hour. I told my manager what happened. And he told me to go home, that none of the work mattered. To take care of myself.

"And I remember heading back to my apartment in the city thinking he was right. None of the work I did mattered. I wanted my work to matter. For my life to matter.

"So I make a lot of choices today with that day in mind. My friends didn’t get the opportunity to do all the things they should’ve. So I try to lead my life knowing it’s short and I was given the opportunity to make the most of life."

Shortly after graduating from college, R.C’s father was unexpectedly diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer. This prompted her to resign from her new job and take a year off and move back in with her parents.

She spent that year taking her dad to all of his appointments and often staying with him in the hospital where they would pass the time by watching their favorite TV shows and ordering takeout.

“These were long and hard days, but incredibly meaningful. I actually spent my birthday that year with him in the hospital,” R.C. says. “Someone called to wish me a happy birthday and they said to me, ‘Oh, I’m sorry that this certainly isn’t your best birthday.’ I remember smiling and saying, ‘Actually, it is.’”

Although she faced a lot of criticism for veering from the path she had planned for herself, she says she would “make the same decision 1,000 times over again.”

R.C. writes:

“Think about what really matters and what you will really remember. Try and let the suffering in your life make you softer, more compassionate, and not bitter.  You might be surprised by how your perspective changes, and what makes a birthday the best kind.”

When she was in her 20s, S.B. found herself inches away from death after a bacterial infection nearly took her life. Some people would describe it as the worst day of her life, but she describes it as one of the best. "The wake-up call comes for all," she says. "I was lucky mine happened when I was so young."

After she got a second chance at life, she had the profound realization that the things that ultimately matter the most are the ones decided by us and no one else.

She writes:

“I realized that in the end, you really are alone. I let go of others’ expectations of who I should be. I realized what mattered to me. I let the rest fall away. This changed the trajectory of my life.

“I worried less what others thought and lived more the way I wanted. I listened to myself. I did things others thought were unwise. I married a man much younger than me. I moved across the country several times. I started a business in the middle of an economic downturn. I became an executive coach when no one even knew what it was.

"Though many considered those decisions hard things, my life became easier."

As S.B. accurately notes: "The wake-up call comes for all." It doesn't spare anyone, and it doesn't care about your plans, hopes, or dreams.

But perhaps the most important thing about wake-up calls is that it's what you do after them that matters. Will you let them defeat you or will you create meaningful change within yourself?

As Thoreau said, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."

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