While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Must get lonely.
-Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”
This post aims to create a lasting impression, not a superficial boost. Instead of offering up platitudes I’ve provided tricks you can use to harness your relationship with death and turn it into motivation. This doesn’t happen with skimming. It only happens with engagement. When you get to the exercises, actually do them. The time spent will be worth more than reading a hundred posts on motivation because they are tools you can take with you.
Learning to Die
The faint red of blood was fading from my vision as smoothly as the sensation of experience. The sense of touch grew less, sounds simultaneously got farther away and closer in, and every experience I ever had collapsed into infinite peace. Sensation began to fade, my grasp on existence weakened. I continued to approach pure nothingness. Just before it was there, I was awake. That was the sixth time I had woken up after being killed in a dream in two months.
It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep. – Montaigne
Remember the original Goldeneye game? It kind of reminded me of that, except without the respawn. Which, come to think of it, is kind of like going to bed without waking up.
I wasn’t dreaming when I jumped out of a plane. I was strapped to another dude with some apparently herculean straps. He had a parachute attached to his back and I had him attached to my back. Sounds safe. After sixty seconds of free-falling, watching the Earth transform from sphere to flat, he pulled a little rope and the parachute came out.
As the parachute caught wind it jerked the guy away from me. He got pulled up but I kept falling. The straps must have been connected incorrectly. I knew I was dead. “Well, this has got to be the most beautiful way to go,” I thought after I had an instant-long freak-out. All my worries instantly dissipated into perfect peace, just like in my dreams about getting shot.
Then all at once the correctly connected straps jerked me. There were a few inches of give between my tandem friend and me. I was going to live some more. But I was perfectly fine with death. At least for that moment.
After these experiences I came to believe Montaigne’s idea that death, when it comes, won’t be a big deal. Nature or God or whatever you put on the mysterious forces of the universe will make it easy for us. After Montaigne’s near-death experience described in the above quote he came to this realization:
If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.
what does your flash look like?
When we think about our end though, a fire is lit under our asses. We’ve got a limited amount of time left and it’s never going to stop running out.
Facebook and Tumblr feeds are flooded with exciting quotes of, “You’re going to die! So live!” Reminders of death are often reminders that we won’t be here for long, so quit wasting your time! When those reminders become commoditized and stuck between a picture of a friend at a bar and another pithy quote then they lose any power they had. They aren’t helping us think about our mortality. They aren’t helping us think about life either. If anything, they inject us with a feeling of, “I’m not doing enough with this life, from now on I’m really going to…” and this potentially life-changing epiphany is then cut off by a funny picture of a kitten.
Contemplating your death can be helpful if you do it well. It can infuse your life with energy, awareness, and freedom if you do it right. This post will give you tools to do just that.
Cicero said, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” which may be true, but it forgets the most important part – to learn how to die is to learn how to live. And as living humans, isn’t that what we’re concerned about?
Death has the potential to be the most powerful force to help you live a better. Let’s see how past greats have used death to live.
Dying to Live
Before we begin the thought experiments, let’s think about thinking about death for a second. Many of us may want to avoid thinking about death and that’s fine. There’s no shame in thinking about something else if you don’t believe that your life can be made better by it.
A painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than subdue it. I substitute a contrary one for it, or, if I cannot, at all events a different one. Variation always solaces, dissolves, and dissipates. I cannot combat it, I escape it; and in fleeing I dodge, I am tricky. – Montaigne
If you, like me, have an inkling of interest in using the idea of your end (impermanence! mortality!) then go on and see if you can’t benefit by taking a minute to think about it. How can we not think about it? An asteroid could hit. Lightning could strike. A car could come hurtling head-on from the other lane. A disease could decide to take hold in your system. Any of these things could happen at any moment.
With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat? – Montaigne
Tricky and inconsistent. (Good thing “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”)
Death has infinite opportunities in your life. Just look at a newspaper; lives rarely end romantically. It’s much more common to trip and have the life knocked right out of your head than it is to get eaten by a shark.
With a life that so fragile and with death so uncertain how can you not think the possibility (and eventual certainty) of what non-life means for life?
Anybody who has ever yelled, “YOLO!” before taking a shot of tequila has contemplated death. For the uninitiated, YOLO (You Only Live Once) is a phrase coined by some damn hooligan rapper named Drake.
Ever since he blasted it onto the radio people have been yelling it before they do stupid things. Maybe it precedes a smart thing every once in a while, but probably on accident.
The Lonely Island saw the other side:
Contemplating death is not always serious or worrisome. Mexico’s Dia del Muerte is a celebration of the dead. Cartoon skulls on clothing are a reminder of the impending death.
It can be easy to be surrounded by symbols, jokes, and cultural reminders of death without actually considering it. They seem lighter than the real thing somehow. Allow yourself to be brave enough to confront it head on.
Switch it up!
Death as Pre-Birth
“What’s this?” I said. “So death is having all these tries at me, is he? Let him, then! I had a try at him a long while ago myself.” “When was this?” You’ll say. Before I was born. Death is just not being. What that is like I know already. It will be the same after me as it was before me. – Seneca
Regardless of your belief in a post-human existence, try this idea on. Imagine going to bed and never waking up. There is no struggle. There are no dreams. There is only nothing.
There’s no time to regret the things you wish you did or the things you wish you hadn’t. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nobody to tell you that you should have done this or that differently. There’s nothing.
When I think about that I get a sense of supreme freedom. It gives me permission to try all the things that others might think are silly. It frees me to write more honestly. It frees me from feelings that I should have this or that thing. Those won’t matter in the end. What matters is how I use my time right now.
“Place before your mind’s eye the vast spread of time’s abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity.” – Seneca
It’s popular now to watch space videos. Especially the kind that start at a level that we are familiar with and that zoom out to a degree that we can’t fathom. It shows us just how small we are on the universal scales.
Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech reminds us of the ridiculousness of even the greatest empires when looking at Earth with a little distance. When we look at ourselves as a little dot it’s hard to imagine that every great person, empire, or happening that we learned about in history class could occur there. That every problem we have is a speck of sand next to every other problem in human history.
Our entire history is a blip of that dot’s existence.
We get the same sensation when we look at time. Consider a great redwood, like the ones in Muir Woods north of San Francisco. These trees are massive. They’ve also been around more than a thousand years. Imagine what they’ve witnessed.
When we zoom out in time and space and see ourselves from a higher place we can appreciate our current position. We get a feeling that we’re not as all-important as we might think. We also get a feeling that we’re a part of something much more massive than we are usually aware of. This vast timeline that we get to take part in needs us here in this spot. We are as vital a part of the universe as any star out there.
This gives me a feeling of connection with the world around me. It makes me feel less disconnected. It also gives me the freedom to work on my projects with more gusto. They aren’t Apple yet, and they don’t need to be. Steve Jobs himself knew he only left a “dent” in the Universe – and that might even be optimistic.
and then one day you find ten years have gone behind you
no one told you when to run
you missed the starting gun
I think I got this idea from Marcus Aurelius but I can’t find the definite source. Anyway, he did something like this. And he was a badass. So it’s worth at least trying it on.
Imagine that you just died in a freak accident – and then came back to life. You’ve been given a second chance at life.
Who are you going to call?
What are you going to build?
What are you going to stop working on?
Who are you going to stop hanging out with?
How are you going to treat the people you meet?
Imagine being reborn into this world. The awe of being delivered back to earth. Imagine the things that you used to take for granted that you wouldn’t anymore. Imagine the things that you used to scare you that don’t anymore.
Live that. Because that freak accident might happen. And you probably won’t get a second chance.
The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Imagine living your entire life over and over again. Every moment. Every action you take, thought you have, feeling you feel. For the rest of eternity you are bound to your life exactly how you lived it. Over and over again. Not in a familiar way. The exact way that you are experiencing it now. As a matter of fact, you are probably in the midst of reliving the exact life that you’ve led an infinite amount of times before and will continue to do so for an infinite amount of times after you die (again). Every detail, action, and feeling you’ve ever experienced will happen again. Forever.
Ouroboros – Google it!
This is difficult to fathom. Try this: imagine reliving the last five minutes of your life. You’ve probably been at your computer. Maybe you’re just clicking around trying to find something interesting. Maybe you’re feeling dull and searching for something to inspire you. Maybe you’re confused about where you are in life right now. Maybe you’re trying to decide what business you want to start. What is it? Would you enjoy reliving the last five minutes again? How about five more times? Ten more times? If not, then you probably wouldn’t want to spend the rest of eternity in that moment.
Notice the weight this adds to the moment. It’s no longer just a moment wasting away until you get to your next milestone. Every moment becomes important. You become acutely aware of the present moment.
Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene. – Epictetus
This heightened awareness of the present moment makes real for us something that many of these exercises do: it’s less about what you do and more about how you do it.
We all have to do “tedious” tasks. We make them “tedious”. Alan Watts has said that “Zen is not thinking about God while peeling potatoes, it’s just peeling the potatoes.” Think of the most tedious task you have. Maybe it’s answering emails. If you had to answer those emails for the rest of eternity, how would you treat them? I doubt it would be a light, frustrating experience. You’d probably care a lot more about them. You may be able to infuse them with more meaning. You may realize how much you hate email and figure out a way to stop doing it. If you are faced with doing something forever it becomes slightly less meaningless.
Maybe, if you truly learn to love your life, you will be able to say what Montaigne did:
“If I had to live over again I would live as I have lived.”
Dead in a year.
Imagine this: you check your inbox you will get a letter from Homeland Security. It reads, “Hello Sir/Madam, You have been selected to participate in our Patriot Population Protection Program. Congratulations! You’re country thanks you for your brave service in the protection of our nation’s diversity. In advance of your acceptance to the program, we’ve implanted you with a time-delayed Dutiful Death Chip. You should feel no discomfort from the procedure. The chip will be activated sometime in the next 365-400 days. When this happens you will have the sensation of falling asleep. You will not wake up. To honor your service we have included in this packet a Dove Dark chocolate bar, a sample of Crest Whitening Pro toothpaste, and a lifetime subscription to USA Today.”
You have about a year to live. What now?
Or, as Tyler Durden put it:
Fight Club 4Evur
You’re not going to die tomorrow so you don’t need to go crazy. Save the 50 Big Macs, mound of cocaine, and sex binge for later. You have to preserve yourself for a while yet. You still have time to do something.
Thinking a year out can provide us with a sense of urgency that isn’t available when we think about dying when we’re 100. I don’t even feel a sense of urgency imagining I’ll die in a decade. Ten years just seems so long. Napoleon built an empire in 5 years. Maybe it’s my (dissipating) youth, but I’ve got to think short.
I got the same email you did. That means that starting June 5, 2014, I may have my first and last bout of narcolepsy (assuming I don’t get hit by a rogue ice cream truck before then).
At first this doesn’t feel like much. I still can’t really get my head around it. It’s hard to imagine the (literally) unimaginable. Then my little sister calls.
My default hand movement when somebody calls is tapping this magical code on my keyboard: “CMND + T > R > E > ENTER”. That means that, as I say, “Hello”, I am loading the top meme on Reddit. Some might call this rude. They’d be right in most cultures (all of them that I know of).
Today is different. I’m writing about death. No silly cat diving into boxes will take this precious moment away.
Before the first word comes out of my mouth I’m already thinking about this post. All the way through the conversation my attention is on the ideas I want to write about. Stupid. One of the main dangers of writing is that you put more emphasis on the idea than what the idea means. Contemplating death isn’t useful if you just play with the ideas – it needs to inform how you act right now.
How would you treat people if you were going to die soon? How about if they were going to die soon? I bet you’d be more patient with them. You’d be forgiving, kind, and attentive. You’d actually hear what they had to say instead of running off.
Imagine what this would do to your relationships. Everyone you met would want to talk to you. Everyone you came in contact with would have benefited – and therefore would want to do more for you.
You want to know the secret to networking? Pretend they’re going to die. Don’t pity them for it, just give them your attention.
If I was going to die in a year I would immediately stop doing the things I don’t want to do. That means no more bullshit tasks that I do to appear busy. No more reading books I think I should. No more working on projects I don’t love.
When you cut out the things that suck enjoyment out of your life – bosses, tasks, boredom, mediocre TV shows – you end up with a whole lot of time. More importantly, by killing your energy-vampires you are now free to create the things you want to create. This means you will begin to naturally utilize your strengths and therefore get a ridiculous amount of work done.
Our initial reaction to impending doom is almost always selfish. “I want to accomplish this. I want to see that. I want to travel there. I want …”
When you really consider what you would want to do in the last year of your life you will probably move pretty quickly through the me-me-me and into what you will leave behind.
365 Day Legacy.
Science teachers and part-time car wash attendants who are faced with terminal cancer quit their jobs and start making meth. That’s what I learned from Breaking Bad anyway.
To provide for his family, our (anti?)hero immerses himself in an occupation he detested. Making and selling meth. I haven’t seen the whole series but when I left off (season 2 episode 4 I think) he seemed to be enjoying it well enough.
With his death imminent he had no concerns other than the wellbeing of his family.
I’m sure you’re experiencing a similar reaction (if not, then imagine a death more vivid). You have a year. That’s probably not enough time to build an empire but it’s certainly enough time to start.
It’s more than enough time to write that book you’ve been talking about.
It’s more than enough time to create the foundation of the business you want to start.
It’s more than enough time to have the house ready for your baby.
What do you want to leave behind? Don’t pretend there’s not enough time.
Imagine what would happen if you spent the next 365 days focused on building your legacy. Then imagine if you did it another year. Then another. This kind of focus compounds quickly.
Your legacy isn’t just the things you build, but the relationships you have with others. We already talked about relationships above but I want to highlight that point. If you look at the legacy you’re leaving every day it becomes obvious how powerful your interactions with other people are. You may go for a week without hitting any major milestones in your business. You might go to bed without seeing any real progress or increasing profit. Every day you can make somebody’s life better, though. You can compliment someone who’s looking unsure. You can welcome someone who feels left out.
Every time you make a day better for somebody else it passes on to the next person they meet and the person after that. You will, no matter who you are, change the world much more in your daily interactions than you ever will in your “world-denting mission”.
TL:DR – Living the 365 Life
Visualize yourself dying in a year from now. Make it as benign or brutal as you wish. Maybe you fall asleep and don’t wake up. Maybe you get your head chopped off by an armored knight’s axe as he gallops by on a warhorse. I don’t know. Make it visceral though. Feel the end.
What do you have the urge to do? Who do you want to see? What do you want to create?
For the rest of the day do the following things:
When you’re talking with someone, imagine that you’ll both be dead in a year. This will make the conversation better for you and them.
When you’re working, ask yourself if you would spend time on this if you were going to die in a year. If not, then look for a way to delegate or eliminate it.
Notice the legacy you’re leaving. Your posture, your attitude, and your interactions (spoken or not) with people are part of your legacy. You have a year to stand tall; do you really want to spend today slouching?
Before you do anything today, ask yourself, “Would I do this if this was my last year to live?”
You probably won’t die in a year. You probably won’t even die in the next two decades.
On the other hand, you might die before you finish this post.
The only thing we know is that you aren’t going to live forever. Your time in this life is precious. Treat it that way.
Concluding Our Death-Talks
Death has this much to be said for it:
You don’t have to get out of bed for it.
Wherever you happen to be
They bring it to you – free.
It feels funny to conclude a post talking about the conclusion. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the end of it all and it’s had different effects on me. Sometimes it provides me the fire I need to refocus my efforts. Sometimes it saddens me and makes me call a friend. Sometimes it just makes the leaves seem a little bit more vibrant. It’s always worth it.
For those of you who are entrepreneurs, these contemplations may help balance out your life. They may remind you what is important. They may help push you to reconnect with your family. They may help you push your company in a new direction.
For those of you who are striving to be entrepreneurs, you may gain similar insights, and you may find yourself realizing that you are worthy today. The path to being a successful entrepreneur is rugged and requires failures of all of us. Remembering that our time is limited may help push us to try faster, fail faster, and thus succeed faster.
The dead don’t fear the judgments of others, they don’t fear failure, they don’t fear the unknown. Those are burdens of the living. They are also our boons.
Allow the rush of your fears to propel you forward until you have no fear left. And then may you Rest In Peace.
What Do You Think?
Where these ideas as powerful for you as they were for me? Is there another perspective you take?
Comment below and let me know!
Thanks for taking the time to read this! Let me know what you think - the good, the bad, the ugly - in the comments below.