❝How could you live and have no story to tell?❞ -Fyodor Dostoevsky
Humans, as far as we know, are the first and only species to know that we will someday die. We developed very large brains that enabled us to start playing out scenarios that haven’t happened yet, allowing us to plan for the future. It didn’t take long before we learned that if we go far enough in the future, we will eventually die.
The topic of mortality rivals money in terms of taboo topics, at least in the United States. Yet being aware of life's temporary nature can allow us to live better. In Mexico, they celebrate Dia de los Muertos, which stands for "Day of the Dead," where they celebrate loved ones who’ve passed away. Ancient Stoics (and modern Stoics) used the term memento mori (remember that you will die) to remind themselves not to take their lives for granted and to be more present. The 1989 movie Dead Poets Society popularized the phrase carpe diem (seize the day) as a reminder that time is limited and encourages us to make the most of our life and focus on what’s important to us.
So we have to die, but the positive reframe is that we get to exist in the first place. We get to experience and enjoy our lives. We can think of life as a book where we are the author and the main character.
YOUR LIFE AS A BOOK
If you think of your life as a book, then the pages that you’ve already “read” are things that have happened in the past. The page you’re currently on is today, and the rest of the book represents the future.
Average life expectancy is about 80 years (roughly speaking, it depends on the source and other factors), so if you think of each month of your life as a page, you have about a thousand-page book you are currently writing.
You can lay all pages out in a grid like this. Each full row is 60 pages, representing 60 months (five years). Two rows represent 120 pages - a decade. 1,000 months is a little over 83 years.
This represents all of your months - every page of your book.
You’ve already lived some of these pages. It started out on page 1, when you were born.
Your birth was the first word on the first page of your thousand-page book.
60 pages later, you turned five years old and started attending school.
On page 216, you turned 18 and became an adult.
This can be an interesting perspective on your life. The pages that you’ve already read are over, but you have some control over how the rest of your book plays out. What you do with the rest of your pages can be informed by people who have finished their books.
Eventually, of course, you will reach the end of your book. Many exercises encourage people to imagine their final page.
These so-called deathbed contemplations are a way to think about how you want your life to be. It helps you live in a way you would be proud of.
Author Bronnie Ware worked as an end-of-life caregiver. After having many conversations with people who were on their final page, she realized that most people regretted some aspect of their life. After having more conversations, she realized that many of these regrets tended to fall into five categories. She then wrote a blog post that turned into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Her point in writing this book was to help people learn what many people regret so they can do something about it now while there’s still time. It is her approach to the deathbed contemplation.
The top five regrets that she discovered were:
People lived inauthentically.
People worked too much.
People didn’t express themselves.
People lost touch with their friends.
People didn’t allow themselves to be happier.
Regret number one is that people didn’t live a life that was true to themselves and instead lived a life that others expected of them. This could be as simple as buying clothes or cars that other people had so that they could fit in. Or, this could be as big as being a doctor or an attorney simply because that’s what their parents wanted them to do.
Regret number two is that people worked too much or too hard. They may have even been successful. But by working so much, they found they didn’t have the time or energy to enjoy their success. Many of them even had good intentions by working so hard, but as they looked back on their book, they realized they overlooked many aspects of their life while working.
Regret number three is that people didn’t have the courage to express themselves. Perhaps they kept to themselves because they didn’t want to be judged or look stupid. They didn’t say what was on their mind when they needed to stick up for themselves. In any case, as they look back on their book, they wish they would have expressed themselves more.
Regret number four is that people lost touch with their friends and family. Humans are social creatures, and social connection is among our most important basic needs. In a classic case of “life happens,” people lose touch with their friends, thinking there’ll be more time to reconnect later.
Regret number five is that people didn’t allow themselves to be happier. For some people, this meant they didn’t realize happiness was a choice. For others, they thought that happiness would come with the achievement of some goal and thought that happiness was contingent upon meeting these goals. Then they found that achieving goals just led to setting new goals, and they eventually ran out of time.
The insight from learning about these regrets is that we don't have to wait until our final page to do something about these regrets. We can author our books so that these regrets are less likely.
The Death Attitude Profile assesses your attitudes toward death and dying. It's based on the belief that people's attitudes toward death play an important role in their overall psychological well-being and quality of life. It measures five different dimensions of death attitudes: fear of death, death avoidance, neutral acceptance, approach acceptance, and escape acceptance.
PRESENT YOU AND FUTURE YOU
This is not to say we don't have to plan for the future. Basically, two things we can do with the books we are writing. We can enjoy our life, and we can prepare for the future so that we can enjoy our life as our future selves.
There seems to be a trade-off between Present You and Future You. A common belief is that if I have fun right now, then I'm not being responsible for the future. Alternatively, many believe planning too much for the future takes away from living in the present because the future may not come.
This is not an either/or situation. We can strike a balance.
You exist in the present, and being present is part of a satisfying life. In fact, when you get to the end of your book, you'll realize that the entire book you've lived was a series of present moments.
At the same time, what you do in the present impacts what you can do in the future. You have to take care of Future You as well, though there is no single Future You. There are many different versions of Future You. There is likely a version of you that will exist 12 pages from now, 24 pages from now, and maybe even 100 pages from now. These are people that depend on Present You.
If instead of viewing this as an either/or situation, we can view this as a Venn diagram with Present You and Future You.
Spending your time within the "Present You" circle but outside the "Future You" circle means you're having fun. However, this is fun at the expense of pages you haven't gotten to yet.
The opposite would be spending time in the "Future You" circle but staying outside of the "Present You" circle. In this case, you are like Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol. This can be defined as being responsible, but you are depriving yourself of an actual life. You may be saving up resources for your future selves, but those future selves will exist in a world where they have not had any fun or enjoyment of life that they have.
You might be outside of all the circles. This is where you spend your time doing things that aren't enjoyable and also don't set you up for a better future.
The intersection is the sweet spot. This is where you do things in the present that allow you to enjoy life while also planning for a future that you get to enjoy as well.
You can use these ideas as a guide when thinking about how to write the rest of your book.
WRITING THE REST OF YOUR BOOK
Perhaps you've made some mistakes in the past. Everyone has. People have varying relationships with mistakes. Some people dwell on them, ruminating about not thinking they're good enough or beating themselves up over their previous decisions.
Others work hard to "not cry over spilled milk" because they see mistakes as happening in the past and recognize their inability to change the past.
Others view mistakes as learning opportunities. Being able to reap the lessons that come from mistakes allows you to use your new knowledge to help your future self on pages that have yet to come.
Adopting this mindset helps you move away from the world where you win or lose and towards a world where you win or learn. Nelson Mandela said that he never loses because he only wins or learns. Others make the claim that losses offer better lessons than wins.
Recognizing this allows you to capitalize on all of your experiences, including mistakes, losses, and other lessons, so that you can write an enjoyable book.
Your life is like a 1,000-page book, with each page representing a month. Some of those pages have already passed, but you get to choose how you want the rest of this book to go.
What kind of book are you writing?
You get one life; live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks
Dawkins, Richard: Unweaving the Rainbow
Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis
Ikonick: One Life Canvas
Ivtzan, Itai, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon & Piers Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology
Lindsay, James: Life in Light of Death
Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
McKay, Matthew, John Forsyth, and Georg Eifert: Your Life on Purpose
Plain English Podcast: A Mind-Expanding Conversation About Human History and Happiness With Tim Urban
Urban, Tim: Putting Time in Perspective
Urban, Tim: What's Our Problem?
Urban, Tim: Your Life in Weeks
Wallace, David Foster: This is Water
Ware, Bronnie: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
Yalom, Irvin: Staring at the Sun
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.