How do you feel about death? Does it scare you? Are you looking forward to an afterlife? Are you indifferent about it? Have you ever thought of using your death as a motivation tool? Yes, a motivational tool.
These are the 5 most powerful words in the world — You are going to die.
I think about dying, a lot. If you knew just how much I thought about death, you’d think I’m a morbid person. I’m not morbid. I love life. But thinking about death helps me take advantage of being alive. I think about death to reduce my sense of invincibility and increase my sense of fragility.
When I’m aware that I am, in fact, a mortal, it snaps me out of any funks I’m in or petty annoyances I have to deal with. Focusing on my death helps me avoid the fate I’m about to describe.
The Circus of Life
“We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.” — Charles Bukowski
This is one of my favorite quotes because it uses a phrase that perfectly describes our lives and the way we squander our time. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities and eaten up by nothing.
Life isn’t tragic in that the average person suffers major catastrophic events over and over again (although that does happen). No, you suffer “death by a thousand cuts” in the form of trivialities and petty annoyances. Your soul takes a nick each time you have to merge onto the highway communicating to your job you really don’t like. You bring that stress home and have little spats with your spouse and occasional undeserved snaps at your kids. The line in the grocery store is too long. You’re tired and you just want to go home. Your sink breaks. You forgot to pay that bill. Your neighbor hasn’t trimmed their tree and you think it’s going to fall on your yard. The PTA meeting is tonight and it’s on at the same time as your favorite T.V. show. The president said this or that. Your back hurts. Your spouse told you to do “x’ and you forgot (there’s always an x). You force laughs at your bosses dumb jokes.
A combination of inconsequential petty moments combined over a long period of time = “What the fuck happened?” Stay on the hamster wheel long enough and you’ll get so used to running that you don’t notice you live in a cage. We get caught up in the day to day because we have the wrong concept of time. “The days are long but the years are short.” We act in the reverse fashion. Then, we have a “crisis” and we realize how much time we’ve squandered.
You don’t have to become the world’s most successful person to have a successful life. But your life won’t feel worthwhile unless you spend time on things that matter to you. You can’t avoid life’s petty annoyance, but you can use your time more wisely and focus on living your day to day life in a way you’d be proud of when it’s all said and done.
We all picture ourselves dying in our sleep peacefully at age 90. We imagine knowing death is near and having the opportunity to reflect. In reality, you could get hit by a truck tomorrow, but this image is nice for serving the purpose of this section.
Put yourself in that scenario right now. You’re in hospice. You’re comfortable. Your time is coming up soon. You have family and friends coming to visit. You’ll go out with peace and dignity. You’re reflecting on your life. Think about what you will care about and what you won’t. Here are my answers.
The People You Love
My first instinct was to talk about how much I’d care about my accomplishments when I’m on my deathbed, but that won’t be the first thing on my mind. I’ll think about my daughter, wife, mom, dad, family, friends, people I’ve met in my community, and my relationships with them.
I’ve fallen prey to putting too much emphasis on my work and accomplishments. Relationships with people matter most. All the data, studies, and surveys in the world say that people put most value on their relationships when it’s all said and done.
This “death component” helps put things into perspective when dealing with people. My wife’s uncle died in his 20’s. He got into a fight with his brother, my wife’s other uncle, the day that he died. So his last memory of time spent with his brother was an angry moment. He’s now in his 60’s and still beats himself up about it. I try to think and reflect. Is this fight, tiff, or petty annoyance so bad that I’d let pride get in the way? Will I care about this when they die or will I wish I had apologized?
I had a severed relationship with my dad. He had an affair and another kid. We barely spoke for years. Not only did I not forgive him, but I tried to model myself to be the opposite of him, which had unintended consequences of its own. We’re good now. I realize that he is…a human being. And no matter what, he will always be my father. I lost years of time with my half-sister because of undeserved resentment I held toward her. No more. I decided that I wanted great relationships with everyone I loved regardless of what happened in the past.
I work damn hard at my career and I do care about my accomplishments, but I try (and struggle to) focus on “smelling the roses” from time to time. I try to have fun! Happiness is built on memories, so filling your life with as many positive experiences as possible helps you look back fondly when it’s all said and done.
Wanting to have a legacy is an odd desire. When you’re dead…you’re dead. You won’t be able to enjoy the books you wrote, companies you started, foundations you created, art you made, communities you shaped, etc. So why push to succeed and make an impact? Why not take the nihilist approach and run on the hedonic treadmill because life has no meaning?
You’re a human being, which means you’re wired to measure your life by social relationships, standards, and status.
Let me play armchair evolutionary psychologist here. Status mattered quite a bit in nomadic tribes. Lose your status and you could lose your life. Abandonment meant death. We evolved the ability to gossip about one another as a means of cooperation — if word spread you were a shit person, you’d lose status, which meant gossip was a great mechanism to keep people in line. Who had the highest status? Those who could demonstrate competence and skill. Why is it so important to get the confidence, skill, and status? Because it helped you find the best quality mate so you could pass on your genes — a literal legacy.
Everything about you is built to gain social status to find a mate order to pass on your genes to the future generation. We no longer live in nomadic tribes, but that blueprint is still there. People who try to have no goals or meditate them away go against the way they were wired. What, you think you long to be successful because of your free will? This entire book has been about understanding, accepting, and embracing your nature. I don’t need to know you to know that you want to leave an imprint. You want to feel like your life means something even if it technically doesn’t.
Even if you’re on your deathbed, having accomplishments gives you “memory happiness.” You rarely remember exactly how you felt during a given moment, but you build memories of past moments, all of which help answer the question “How did my life turn out?”
I use that question to help me stay focused at the present moment. Am I moving toward a positive or negative answer to the question “How did my life turn out?” On top of that, I meditate on my death very seriously to put even more focus on that answer.
How do you feel about the answer to that question right now?
As I said, no self-help book can be a substitute for your behavior, goals, and action toward them, but for me, focusing on my death has been a powerful motivator and it can be for you, too.
Do you want to die with a mountain of accomplishment or a molehill of petty annoyances and trivialities?
You Won’t Care About Risk
I hate the word risk. Especially because it lost its power when the context of life changed. Let me explain. Go back 50 years and doing something like starting a business, making art, or doing anything other than towing the company line was actually risky. You’d often have to take on debt to start a venture and the prospects for success were low. Conversely, you could make a living and take care of your whole family doing something boring but essentially risk-free. It actually made sense for people not to follow their dreams in the past.
This doesn’t make sense now. I’ll cover this in the strategy section of the book, but you can pretty much attempt anything you want with little to no capital and essentially zero risks, except for one. The only thing you have to risk is the shattering of your fragile ego. That’s all it comes down to. You know it and I know it. You don’t fear monetary losses. You fear rejection, embarrassment, feeling defeated, failing.
Go back to the death bed now. Will you really care about what other people thought about your dreams? Will you really put that much weight onto a few rejections? No. In fact, the only negative feelings you’ll feel about rejection and failure is your lack of facing them. You’ll kick yourself for what you didn’t do, not what you tried and failed at. I get it. It’s hard. I have to constantly remind myself of my mortality when I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone.
It boils down to me saying to myself, “You have no reason not to try this. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. And you’re going to die soon anyway. Get the hell on with it. Stop being a wimp. None of this matters so much that you should be frozen in fear. Go!”
This is the process. And this is why I put a big emphasis on the mindset section of this book. It’s easy to give you tips and strategies. But the more important part is how you feel and behave when you attempt these strategies. Self-improvement is futile. It takes repetition and reminding to move the needle at all. Still to this day, even after five years of writing and accomplishing many of my goals, I find myself scared to death and facing the flattening trivialities day after day. And I’m a self-help writer. Even I need these reminders.
You Won’t Care About Your Career
Is it just me, or does everyone on LinkedIn look like a hostage? They smile so hard it looks like someone is standing on the other side of the camera with a gun pointed at them. If I ever put the word “synergy” on my profile, please kill me.
Nobody will care about their careers when they’re about to die. They’ll only care about their vocations. There’s a huge difference. It’s okay to get rich doing something you enjoy and has meaning. But building your career for the sake of building your career does nothing more than give you “golden handcuffs.”
Remember what I said earlier in the “Society Doesn’t Want You to Succeed” section. Many careers are designed to make you subservient. Housebroken. Scan the pages of LinkedIn and you’ll see tons of professional house of cards builders. One of the regrets of the dying is having worked too hard on meaningless careers. Here’s the thing, though. If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never have to work hard, per se. You’ll expend energy, but if you find joy in your work, it won’t take much to get in the mood to do it. I use the word enjoy. Work isn’t always going to be blissful. Any vocation requires doing some things you don’t really want to do. But finding work you enjoy is crucial because…you spend a third of your life doing it.
Your work is not the end all be all. Relationships are number one. But often, you hear people talk fondly about their relationships not just as a positive reflection, but a coping mechanism for their lack in the areas of work, mission, and meaning. Most people can fall back on having good families and friends, great vacations, fun moments. But doing what you hate makes those moments brief blips in an otherwise unproductive life. Your vocation matters. Your vocation can be taking care of your family, but it won’t count unless you do that consciously. You won’t feel rewarded if you chose that option by default and out of fear.
You Won’t Care About “Society”
Most people don’t swallow the red pill until it’s too late. You’ll find yourself near the end of your life and think “What the hell was I doing following ‘the rules’”? There are no rules. There are only rules if you believe there are rules.
Don’t get me wrong, the societal machine is quite persuasive. It’s no short task to unlearn the lessons and rules of society that you’ve been taught from kindergarten to adulthood. This isn’t about being a rebel. You don’t have to buck conventional wisdom or be a contrarian because you think it’s cool. That’s just another form of mental enslavement. This is about figuring out what works for you.
What rules do you want to follow? What life do you want to live? Personally, I scoff at society’s playbook, but there are people who want to live a simple life, have a decent job, get 4 vacation weeks and do fun things on the weekend. That’s totally fine. But I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to you. I doubt you’d be reading this if you were a “normie.” I believe the vast majority of people want to break out of their rut and, not necessarily change the world, but just be able to wake up and think highly of themselves with excitement about what the day holds. Doing that over and over again makes death less scary. I still have some things to knock off on my bucket list, but I’m getting closer and closer to being able to say I’d be satisfied with my life if I died right now. Focus on death, use it as a tool, and you can reach this mindset too.
Why So Serious?
This all boils down to taking yourself less seriously. Life is an adventure. You can either treat life like a game, play it, and have fun. Or you can get locked into a rigid view of life and spend it clutching the steering wheel. You barely have any control over your life in terms of what happens to you. Think of how many times you’ve been thrown for a loop in life — countless. You can only control how you think, choose, and react.
I take pride in my work, but I remember, this is just a book. Nothing more than words on a screen or piece of paper. It’s not the end all be all of anything and in a few generations, nobody will know who I am. It’s still fun to get the ideas out there and share them.
I want to accomplish great things, but my accomplishments don’t mean everything. As long as I’m literally alive, failure can’t kill me. Not too long ago, I just said “Screw it…I’m going for it all. Life is short.”
I suggest you do the same. Why? Because you have nothing better to do.