We now have a decade of experience with advance directives since the Patient Self-Determination Act was signed into law in November 1990. With few exceptions, empirical studies have yielded disappointing results. Advance directives are recorded by medical personnel more often but are not completed by patients more frequently. The process of recording them does not enhance patient-physician communication. When available, advance directives do not change care or reduce hospital resources. The most ambitious study of advance care planning, the Study to Understand Prognoses and Preferences for Outcomes and Risks of Treatments, failed to show any change in outcomes after an extensive intervention. Investigators have attempted to identify the reasons why the optimism about the Patient Self-Determination Act has not been realized. Many interventions to facilitate advance care planning were focused on specific treatment decisions. Recent research suggests that preferences for care are not fixed but emerge in a clinical context from a process of discussion and feedback within the network of the patient's most important relationships. Clinical trials emphasizing this approach have been successful. The approach that emphasizes communication, building trust over time, and working within the patient's most important relationships offers a hopeful model for clinicians working in intensive care units.