The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die | Life’s Gifts For All Who Seek Them

Book review and summary of “The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die”: The journey of life only happens once: why wouldn’t we listen to those who have already gone on this journey and who can teach us what they learned?

By John Izzo, 2009, 235 pages.

Note: This guest review was written by Guillaume, from the blog, Komment devenir riche, in which he passionately shares his knowledge as a financial advisor and entrepreneur.

Chronicle and summary of “The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die”

If you prefer video to text, I have prepared an illustrative book review in video 🙂:

This book is based on a television series that the author did, identically titled: “The Five Things You Must Discover Before You Die”


The author wrote this book because of his lifelong search for what it means to live a full and meaningful life. When he was young, he wanted to know the secrets that would allow him to live well and die happy.

This search seemed to him even more urgent when his father died at the age of 36, when he himself was 8-years old. Life can be short, and we never know how much time we have left to discover the secrets to happiness.

Early in his life, he had the privilege of spending time with dying people and observing that these individuals had very different ways of dying. Some people ended their lives with a great sense of satisfaction and with little regret. Others died with bitterness or lived with sad resignation, thinking of the life that could have been theirs. In his early twenties, he began to understand what distinguished these two groups of people.

Many years ago, a middle-aged woman named Margaret told him that she had been trying to live her entire life as “an old woman sitting in a rocking chair on her porch”. She told him that every time she had to make a decision, she imagined she was that old woman on her porch, looking back on her life. She then asked this old woman to advise her on the path she should take.

An idea began to germinate in the author’s mind. Could it be that, at the end of our lives, we discover things that we could have greatly benefited from if we had been aware of them sooner?

So, he interviewed 235 people from the ages of 59 to 105. From the town barber to the teacher, from the business owner to the writer, from the priest to the poet, from the holocaust survivor to the aboriginal leader, from the Muslim to the Hindu, from the Buddhist to the Christian… they sought to have the answer to various questions, the most important of which: what do we need to know about life before dying?

Here is one of the most profound aspects that the author and his team learned with clarity: despite the many differences that characterized these people (age, religion, culture, profession, education, economic status), they all shared the secrets to a very full life. It seems that what really matters goes beyond the boundaries that, as we often believe, separate us from one another, such as religion, race or social status.

This book is based on a single premise: there is no need to wait to be old to become wise. We can discover life’s secrets at any age and the sooner we do it, the more fulfilling our life will be.

Chapter 1: Why do some people find meaning in life and die happy?

“Wisdom outweighs any wealth” – Sophocles

To live wisely, we must recognize that there are two fundamental truths in the life of every human being. The first is that the duration of our life is limited and indeterminate; it can last 100 years or 30 years. The second is that during this time, we have a virtually limitless choice of ways to use that time, and it is these choices that ultimately define our lives. We are not born with an instruction manual, and the clock starts ticking as soon as we arrive in this world.

Knowledge versus wisdom

To fully enjoy this life requires wisdom more than knowledge. Wisdom is different and fundamentally more important than knowledge. We live in a time when knowledge (the number of facts) doubles every 6 months while wisdom is rare. Knowledge is the ability to recognize what is important and what isn’t. As long as we do not discover what matters, the true meaning of life escapes us.

The Five Secrets

Human beings do not all die the same way. Some people die after living a life of deep purpose and with little regret. These people come to the end of their lives with the intimate feeling of having lived a full life. Others die with bitterness because they have missed what really matters.

The two things we want above all else:Find happiness and meaning to our life!!

“By ‘finding happiness’ I mean that every human being wants to experience joy and a deep sense of satisfaction. However, happiness is not enough for us, human beings. I believe that we also want to discover the meaning of life.”

We want more than anything to know that our presence here is important: to find a reason to be alive.

Are these secrets mysterious?

During the interviews the author did, he found that people who were happy through their way of life knew all these secrets.

However, knowing these secrets isn’t sufficient. We all know things that we don’t put into practice: exercise is good for us, a balanced diet leads to good health, smoking is harmful, relationships are more important than material goods, etc.

These people know all of this, but more importantly, they put it into practice.

Chapter 2: Why did I talk about life to the town barber?

By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is the noblest; second, by experience, which is the bitterest; and third, by imitation, which is the easiest. “- Confucius

Life is similar to a trip. We go on life’s journey only once, at least in this form. There are as many people who regret their journey as there are who get a deep sense of happiness from it.

How did we choose these wise people?

From 15,000 people, 235 were selected among the wisest. They were asked a series of questions, including: “What brings happiness? What gives meaning to life? What is a waste of time? And what would you do differently if you could start your life over? What are your secrets, and how do you put them into daily practice? What were the key moments that gave a new direction to your life? And what are your thoughts on death?

Our elders are precious

“In our society, it’s not very common that we turn to our elders to shape our lives. Our culture is youth-oriented, and we value what is new and current.”

The author had the privilege of spending a lot of time with several tribes in Tanzania. It was by rubbing shoulders with these people, who honor their elders, that the idea of this project occurred to him. In one of these tribes, an individual joins the council of elders at the age of 50.

They prepare for their entire lives to be part of this council, a group that makes important decisions for the tribe.

The group of 15 men who accompanied the author, mostly in their 50s, explained with some embarrassment that they did not really have a council of elders; that in our society, seniors were often placed in nursing homes or lived in isolation from the youngest population. They told them that we live in a society that values youth more than old age.

The elders of this tribe expressed their consternation: how could that be! After consulting with each other, they strongly recommended that the group return home, form a council of elders and “make themselves heard by the youth”.

Why choose people over 60?

“As we went through the interviews, we realized that it was around the age of 60 that people started to look back on their lives in hindsight.”

Chapter 3: The first secret: Stay true to yourself and live with intention

What distinguishes those who live well and die happy from most of us is that they constantly ask themselves if they’re leading the life they want, and they follow their hearts to find the answer to the question.

Choose to live awake

‘’Unless you continually think about your life to make sure you don’t deviate from your path, there is a good chance that you find yourself living someone else’s life, which means you’ll realize at the end of your life that you lead a life that was not yours…’’

The 3 questions that really matter

But how to live true to ourselves?

The secret is to live with intention, to systematically and regularly ask three crucial questions:

“Am I following my heart and being true to myself?”

“Is my life focused on what really matters to me?”

“Am I the person I want to be in this world?”

Is your life well targeted?

In the Bible, the word “sin” comes from a word of Ancient Greek belonging to the sport of archery. Literally, the word means “to miss the target”, like an arrow that doesn’t hit its intended target. The biggest sin is to miss the target of what you want your life to be.

The author’s grandfather was one of the wisest elders to be part of his life. He used to talk about “good tired” at the end of a given day, as opposed to what he calls “bad tired”. He told him that “good tired” resulted from a life focused on the things that really matter to us.

Happy people know what brings them happiness and make it a priority.

Find a destiny

Following one’s heart means many things: it’s doing a job that suits our deepest interests; it’s being true to oneself in the life one has chosen (and to remain honest with what one wants); it’s taking the time to listen to the little inner voice that tells us that we have missed the target of our deepest desires.

Following your heart is finding an activity during which you lose all notion of time!!

It takes courage to follow your heart

“To follow our heart, we sometimes have to silence other voices that encourage us to pursue other dreams. Ron, who was in his seventies at the time of our meeting, had grown up in a family where medicine was the profession of choice. His uncle had been a respected doctor in the community, and when Ron also went into medicine, his family and friends applauded his decision. Just before going to medical school, he went to see a gifted chiropractor as a patient.

follow your heart

During the treatment, he discovered a discipline that focuses on the natural regenerative power of the body, a discipline that advocates the value of touch, which he intuitively found appealing. Here are Ron’s words and thoughts: “I was immediately attracted to this profession, and I knew that if it pleased my soul that much, then I would be following my heart by choosing it. But chiropractic medicine was still a mystery for many people at that time, and when I announced my intention to go in this direction, my friends let me have it. They said, ‘So, do you want to become one of those quacks now?’ But I knew it was my path and I didn’t have to pay attention to their remarks.”

Being true to oneself is to listen to that voice that calls you even if others cannot hear it.

Here are 4 questions to ask each week that will help you integrate this secret into your life:

Was this week or this day satisfying?

“Was I the kind of person I want to be this week?

“Am I following my heart right now?

“How do I want to live this secret more deeply next week?”

Chapter 4: The second secret: Leave no regrets

“The bitterest tears shed over graves are from words left unsaid and deeds left undone” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

Regret is probably what we fear the most; we don’t want to look back on our lives and wish we had done things differently. From what the author has learned over the last 30 years, which has been confirmed by these interviews, death is not what we fear the most. When we have lived fully and accomplished what we hoped to accomplish, we can accept death gracefully. What we are most afraid of is not having lived to the fullest, of coming to the end of our life and having to say these words: “I should have…

At the end of our lives, we don’t regret the risks we took, even if they didn’t work out as we hoped. No one says they regret having tried something and failed. On the contrary, many people say they have not taken enough risks.

Failure is not the regret that haunts most people; rather, it’s the fact of not having risked failure

We cannot guarantee success, but we can guarantee failure by choosing not to try anything.

To live a life of no regret, you have to take more risks.

‘’Every time we play it safe, we move a little farther away from our true selves. Whenever we choose not to strive towards what we want, we plant the seeds of future regrets.’’

For 50 years, Dr. Izzo worked with many great decision-makers. He discovered that for many older people, the biggest regret they can have at the end of their lives is not having realized their dreams, not having tried their luck. People regret what they didn’t do much more than what they did do. Their biggest regret at the end of their lives is playing it safe and not making mistakes.

The secret to no regrets

‘’When I asked this old man how he had taken significant risks, he told me, ‘Every time I evaluated a risk, I began to imagine all the good things that it could bring me. I would imagine all the things that could be true if I succeeded. And then, I thought of the worst that could happen to me. I would ask myself if I could overcome it and I answered each time in the affirmative’.”

Many of us live by doing the opposite. When a risk arises, we imagine the worst and it’s these thoughts that we hold in front of us…

Choose the path that makes the best story

Last year the author was offered the opportunity to spend a month in East Africa with 15 other middle-aged men to meet elders from various tribes and to camp in the wilderness. It was a dream come true, but it was also the time of year when he was the busiest and this trip would force him to postpone a large amount of work. But this time, he visited the old man on his porch.

He told him, “When you reach my age, you won’t miss the money you lost this month, and Africa will be in your heart.” The doctor went on the trip. He discovered several fascinating cultures; saw extraordinary landscapes and he missed his family, which reminded him of how important they were to him. While in Tanzania, he spoke with aboriginal elders and it was there that the idea of this project began. Had he let his busy schedule get in the way, he would have missed out on one of the most important experiences of his life…

Live as if time were running out

It may well be that we only have six months left to live and asking ourselves how we would live if time was running out puts us back on the path to a life with no regrets.

Let your regrets go

It’s perhaps the step forward that we take after a failure that often determines happiness in life.

Of course, we will always have obstacles to overcome, and this will often require that we still take risks. We must love again, even after being hurt or ignored. We must try again, even after failure or rejection.

Here are four questions you should ask yourself each week that will help you integrate this secret into your life:

“What risks would you take if you knew that you only had one year left to live?

“How am I currently reacting to the setbacks I am experiencing in my life?”

“Did I act on my convictions this week?”

“What action would I take in my life right now if I overcame my fear and showed courage?

Chapter 5: The third secret: Become love

“Love is life. And if you miss love, you miss life.” – Leo Buscaglia

‘’The hundreds of conversations we had made it clear that love, both the love we give and the love we receive, is the fundamental component of a happy and meaningful human life.’’

There are three ways to integrate this secret:

  • by choosing to love ourselves.
  • by choosing to treat the people who are dear to us with love.
  • And by choosing to become love in all our interactions.

First, love yourself

We have little control over the love we can expect from others, but we have total control over the love we have for ourselves. If we become a loving person, others can’t help but love us.

follow your heart

Humans have an average of 45,000 to 55,000 thoughts each day, which is a phenomenal inner conversation. We talk to ourselves all day long. Most of our thoughts are innocuous, but many of them greatly affect our self-perception.

For example, whenever we say things like, “I’m a loser, I’m not friendly, I’m not attractive, I’m not a good parent”, we are committing acts that undermine our self-esteem.

There is a wonderful legend in the Navajo tradition. An old man tells his grandson that he sometimes feels like a fight is going on inside him. He says it’s a fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil. It’s the wolf of anger, guilt, resentment, inferiority, superiority, fear of healing body and mind, fear of success, fear of exploring what has been said by others to be truth, the fear of walking in the moccasins of others and glimpsing their reality in their eyes and their hearts, and using empty excuses that our heart knows to be false. The other wolf is good. It is the wolf of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, caring for those who have helped us even if their efforts were not perfect, the willingness to forgive ourselves and others, and understanding that our destiny lies in our hands.

The grandson pondered and asked, “But grandfather, which wolf wins the fight?” His grandfather replied, “The one I choose to feed“. 

Make love a priority

One of the interviewees thought: “I spent most of my life on objects. People always came far behind in my priorities. I now see that my BMW doesn’t visit me in the nursing home where I live.”

Choose to see others with kindness

A study done by a large university demonstrated that in average homes, the ratio between negative and positive comments is 14 to 1. For every positive comment we make to a member of our family, we make about 14 that are negative. A similar study showed that one of the elements that characterize long-lasting and happy marriages is a seven-to-one positive-to-negative ratio in marital communications.

Here are 4 questions that should be asked each week and that will help you to integrate this secret:

“Today, did I make room in my life for my friends, family and relationships?”

“Which of my wolves did I feed today or this week?”

“Have I spent time with people who cheer me up?”

“Have I planted flowers or weeds in my mind?”

Chapter 6: The fourth secret: Live the present moment

“Life lived for tomorrow will always be just a day away from being realized.” – Leo Buscaglia

One of the most common phrases heard during these interviews is: “it goes by so fast“.

When you’re young, 60 years old seem to be an eternity, but when you’ve lived 60 years, you realize it was only a instant. We all believe that we have an eternity before us, but we realize that this is not the case.

Choose to be present at all times

If we want to live fully, we must ban the word BORING from our vocabulary; at all times, we must simply be fully present and take advantage of all that the present moment can bring us. 

Every day is a gift

We tell ourselves that we will be happy if…or that we will be happy when…It’s not that we shouldn’t plan or desire things that we have not yet accomplished or experienced. Rather, it’s that we always find happiness when we are able to live in the present moment.

Live as if you were watching your last sunset

Over the years, the author has met several people with cancer. They generally agree that, at the time of diagnosis, two things happen. Time doesn’t seem to have the same dimension anymore. Suddenly, it seems to be speeding by. And simultaneously, it seems to slow down. Suddenly, every moment and every day are cherished and lived fully. Often, for the first time in their lives, these people enjoy every moment. This is why, in some support groups, cancer patients compare their illness to a “gift”. Although it’s difficult to imagine that one can feel gratitude for a terminal illness, it’s a gift to realize that each day is infinitely precious and should be lived fully.

The present moment is the only moment

Dwelling on the past, and especially on our regrets, only robs the present moment of its happiness.

As Leo Buscaglia said: “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, but it always robs today of its joy!”

Here are 4 questions to ask yourself that will help you integrate this secret into your life:

“Did I fully appreciate everything I did today?”

“Did I enjoy all the pleasures that were available to me today?”

“‘I would be happy if…’? , did I find myself saying this ”

“Did I live the present moment today?”

Chapter 7: The fifth secret: Give more than you take

‘’An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.’’ – Martin Luther King 

Funerals that lasts 10 minutes or 10 hours

People who were interviewed often said that what really matters in life is what we leave behind, the difference we’ve made in the world.

Happy people are always givers, not takers. They may not be as selfless as Mother Teresa, but they have discovered that the more we give, the more we find great happiness.

Ask life what it expects of you

Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychotherapist, was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp from 1942 to 1945. He recounted his experience in a book entitled “Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning”. One of the important sections of the book deals with the issue of suicide.

The Five Secrets

Mr. Frankl recounts that many prisoners were thinking about suicide, which is not surprising given that they were all tormented, deprived of their freedom, their lives, their homes, their families and their dignity. He found that you cannot convince someone to stay alive by telling him that the world has something to offer him, that some happiness awaits him in the future. However, if we can help an individual to see that the world is expecting something from him, to make him understand that he can do good around him, he almost always chooses life. Victor Frankl concluded that people who know what the world expects of them never end their lives.

The ultimate task in life: to lose oneself

During the months when the author listened to these people over the age of 60, he gradually realized that we live in a borrowed world. Each generation “borrows” the world from the one that preceded it and administers it before yielding to the next generation.

Ralph, a 60-year-old, was elected leader of an aboriginal tribe on Vancouver Island in Western Canada. He didn’t inherit this title; was chosen by his people because of his personal qualities. And he told a great story about an experience he had as a teenager.

“We lived on the Pacific Ocean coast and each year there was a large salmon migration. We looked forward to the fishing season because we needed the fish to feed us during the winter. One year, my two teenage brothers and I got on the boat with my father early in the morning. The salmon were so abundant that it took us only a few hours to fill the boat. My brothers and I were very excited and couldn’t wait to get in, get the fish off the boat and go back out and capture more.”

Chief Ralph continued, “When we told my dad we were ready to go back out”, he said, ‘No, we’re finished.’ We asked him why. We knew there were still a lot of fish, but my dad said, ‘No, we have enough. We must leave some for others.’ So, we spent the next few days helping other members of the tribe repair their nets so that they, too, would have enough. That’s what I remember.”

These teenagers represent so much of what we believe to be true when we are young. We want to catch as many fish as possible. We believe that happiness lies in the number of experiences we have or the possessions we accumulate. Later, often too late, we discover that love, altruism, and relationships with the world are the true food of the human soul. Ralph’s father knew that the most important lesson he could give to his sons was not about fishing techniques, but about the fact that giving is the greatest pleasure that a human can experience.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself

The happiest people who were interviewed had learned to care about the fate of the world, while the most unhappy people continued to feel sorry for themselves.

Here are 4 questions to ask each week that will help you integrate this secret into your life:

“This week, did I contribute, even in a small way, to make this world a better place to live?”

“Have I been kind, generous and charitable this week?”

“This week, did I care more about the needs of my ‘small self’ than those of my ‘larger self’?”

“How do I want to better integrate this secret?”

Chapter 8: Knowing and acting (putting the secrets into practice)

‘’The problem with common sense is that it is not common’’ – Mark Twain

Knowing is not the problem

Think about all the knowledge we have that we don’t put into practice. We know that smoking can kill us, as does lack of exercise, poor eating habits and stress. We know that interpersonal relationships are important and often fragile, but that doesn’t prevent us from neglecting them frequently. And we know that money doesn’t buy happiness, that life is short and that negative and destructive thoughts can undermine happiness.

As we know so many things; however, knowing is not the problem…inaction is.

Natural learning: how to make changes in your life?

Human beings naturally learn by observing, listening and experimenting. This early acquisition of language is not the result of formal teaching, rather we observe our parents call things by their name. We listen to them talk to each other and learn how words are arranged. With only a few minor corrections, we learn the vocabulary and then put those words together to form sentences.

If awareness is the first step in the natural learning process, then we can say that we act on what we know. This simple idea can have a great influence on how we make changes in our lives. We become what we pay attention to. The more we maintain something in our consciousness, the more likely we are to act on that knowledge.

What we pay attention to grows

We can all live a better life if we give it more thought. Just take the time each week to answer a series of questions about the 5 secrets.

Union creates strength

Christian monks have a saying: “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” When we take the time to reflect, we are often able to determine what we need to do. The answers are within us. Listening is an essential discipline. We only have one life. By taking the time to reflect and listen, we keep our life from drifting away from our intentions.

What are the rituals in your life?

‘’Be careful of your thoughts, because they become your words. Be careful with your words, because they become your actions. And be careful of your actions, because they become your habits. Be careful of your habits, because they become your character. Your character becomes your destiny.’’

Action without vision is simply a waste of time, vision without action is only a daydream…

Chapter 9: A final lesson: It’s never too late to live according to the secrets.

The most important thing is not when you discover the secrets, but that you do discover the secrets. No matter how old we are, or what mistakes we have made, when we live by the secrets, our life begins to change.

To finish with a Chinese proverb:

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second best time is today.”

Book critique of “The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die”

This book is extraordinary; it has left a lasting impression on me. Unfortunately, I lost my grandparents very early in my life, so I didn’t have the time to absorb their wisdom. This book provided me with a concentrate of more than 200 wise people that are 60 years or older. Some of the secrets are already part of my life, but reading this book truly comforted me in terms of some of my life choices: being an entrepreneur, listening to yourself rather than to others, etc.

Elders insist mainly on 2 aspects, taking risks because if you don’t take any, you will regret it your entire life; the second aspect is listening to yourself, listening to the little voice which is deep within us. It instantly clicked for me, I understood that my little voice had been telling me for a while: “Guillaume, stop working so much, you’re forgetting the essential things in life, which are family, love, friends, etc.”

Therefore, this book was decisive in my last life choice, namely to halt my business that was bringing in more or less 10 000 € / month. As a result, I am taking another path in order to live the life to which I aspire.

What does this book offer to readers?

I sincerely believe that everyone should read this book. It’s so full of wisdom that everyone will ask themselves the right questions. The questions that force you to look within yourself to know whether you have been living the life you want.

Moreover, if you still have your grandparents, I am sure you will see your elders differently. You will probably spend more time asking them questions and listening to them. They certainly have their own life’s secrets to pass on to you…

Strong points of 5 Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die:

  • This book is part of my TOP 2 books that I read and that encourage decisiveness and initiative.
  • It helped me to see more clearly about decisions that I had to make in my personal and professional life.
  • Some stories are very moving!!
  • Quick to read because it’s very engaging.
  • There are a lot of inspirational quotes and phrases.

Weak points 5 Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die:

  • Some of the ideas are redundant.
  • I would have liked to read an entire interview.

My rating: The Five Secrets The Five Secrets The Five SecretsThe Five SecretsThe Five SecretsThe Five SecretsThe Five SecretsThe Five SecretsThe Five Secrets

Have you read “The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die”? How do you rate it?

Mediocre - No interestReasonable - One or two interesting paragraphsIntermediate - Some goods ideasGood - Had changed my life on one practical aspectVery Good - Completely changed my life ! (2 votes, average: 2.50 out of 5)


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