I Am Dying Soon.
In August of 2017, a man called Scott Riddle wrote an article on Medium called "I’m 35 and I may suddenly have lost the rest of my life. I’m panicking, just a bit."
Scott's an intelligent, hardworking guy with big ambitions. He works at google. Runs half-marathons. Has young 3 and 5 year old children. And then he was blindsided with stage 4 colorectal cancer.
"I feel like I have so many messages to deliver to the blissful masses from my now precarious vantage point, from the importance of early precautionary doctor visits to the merits of life insurance. But putting pragmatism aside, there is one thing I’d urge everyone to do.
Stop just assuming you have a full lifetime to do whatever it is you dream of doing. I know it sounds ridiculously cliched, and of course you never think it will happen to you, but let me assure you that life really can be taken from you at any time, so live it with that reality in mind."
I think about that article a lot. What would I do in that situation? What if I had a month to live? Or 3 to 5 years to live?
Part of me thinks with a month to live, I'd sell all my stuff, buy a one way plane ticket into the arctic circle, wrap myself in a giant tortilla, and leap into a starving polar bear's mouth. At least I'd be useful in death. And I wouldn't have to go to my funeral (or pay for it).
Once the emotional panic subsides, all I can think on is minimizing regret. Dying a month from now, or even 5 years from now means there's a definite end date. The clock is running. I have things to do. The pressure is on.
With the pressure of a looming death, there's a lot that no longer matters.
- Imagine having a month to live and wishing you spent more time arguing with militant liberals, bitter feminists, and alt-right maniacs on twitter.
- Spending more time reading through Facebook and Instagram.
- Consuming and reacting to the news.
- Working at a mediocre company with no purpose, with equally mediocre coworkers.
- Binge watching Netflix.
- Settling in relationships for people who happened to be there, rather than people you actually wanted to be with.
- Driving a Volkswagen Jetta or a beige 2005 camry (100% not talking from experience at all).
- Choosing to spend your time passively rather than experiencing and creating.
- Oh. And I'm sure you'd really wish you spent more time in meetings.
I'd never regret that stuff. Yet I've spent years of my 20's like this.
There'd also be a decent list of things I wish I had attempted.
- I wish I turned that crazy idea into a company.
- I wish I didn't make so many critical decisions from a place of avoiding fear or potential emotional discomfort.
- I wish I made a list of the fears and just started from the most urgent, with confronting my social anxiety.
- I wish I had pushed my physical limits to find how capable I could become while I was here.
- I wish I spent more time taking action on the things I read in all those books.
- I wish I took on small projects with faster execution, days and weeks instead of months and years.
How would I live differently?
We have limited time, and that context shifts my definition of success. It's less about living like an info product shilling entrepreneur on Instagram, or some rapper in a music video and more about who I can become before my time is up.
What would I be able to accomplish if I tried? What if I faced my fears and minimized my regrets while I'm here? I can't afford to be bored or waste time.
It's too disrespectful to the opportunities I've been given.
One of the immediate shifts I notice is that time and attention becomes incredibly valuable. Time is life. Time is latent potential.
I instinctively want to protect my attention at all costs, and suddenly social media seems idiotic. Being hard to reach is a benefit. Other people's plans for my time should cost them significantly.
When time is limited, every waking moment is used either building your life's story- or sabotaging what it could be.
Everything from work to relaxation should be intentional and high quality.
Glory in the Attempt
When you get cancer, there's not really a thing where you're "cured." It can go away. Your tests can come back clean, but it doesn't mean the cancer's gone.
I watched my grandfather go through this a few times. Bone marrow cancer in his late 60s, prostate cancer over a decade later. He was given 3-6 months to live the first go around. He's fond of saying the last 15 years are just a borrowed time bonus.
Not everyone's that lucky.
When there's no guarantee of living another year, it makes me wonder about how little sense it makes as an entrepreneur or business owner to work on projects where you don't get feedback or put anything out into the world quickly. Feedback cycles should be short.
A marathon of sprints is a good way of looking at it.
I want ambitious projects with short timelines. Stuff I can see get shared with the world.
I want 6 or 8 week years. My resolutions and goals shouldn't extend past 6-8 weeks into the future. Plans are suddenly useless, yet planning is essential.
I don't need to see all of my work manifested. But if I die early, I need to know that I was walking that path and gave it a hell of a run in the time I had.
Dare to attempt great things, especially if the worst case scenarios are reversible.
Friends: As a society, we have collectively lowered the bar in spectacular fashion. It's not that everyone sucks, but most aren't even good. I can't call a pill popping, screen addicted, vanity fed baseline as good. It's collective insanity and we call it "culture."
We're arrogant about it, too. There's an assumption that our generation is somehow superior to all who have come before us. I don't see it. We are fatter, less capable, and less independent. We are more fearful, less questioning, and it less willing to hold ourselves accountable. No one is self-accountable, but everyone is liable.
If one thing has changed, it's our ability to consume food and information as entertainment. We consume like cancer.
Why would I want to be friends with that?
For the most part though, I think that's ok for others. You don't need to be friends with everyone, and there are plenty of really incredible people out there. If I knew I had 3-5 years, I'd keep a few friends and I'd go deep. I'd want to meet and learn from a lot of interesting people, but have a small group I kept close.
But knowing I'm going to die brings me back to that earlier bit I mentioned about protecting my attention. This is what I don't get about social media. Everyone shouldn't have access to me. You should earn that through credibility, trust, competency, payment...something, much like quality information, that filters the signals from the noise.
When you know you're dying, you don't have time to listen to pundits and talking heads pushing agendas. I have no room for fearful, distracted people emotionally reacting to the latest stimuli on social media.
Girlfriend/Boyfriend: Meeting a significant other is suddenly very simple. You're either someone I want to spend time with or you aren't. And if you are, I have to just walk up, say hi, chat, see if you're interested. If so, great. If not, great. Onto the next one. If you're rude, great. You just showed me you aren't worth spending time with. Next.
The emphasis remains on the attempt. I'm ok with dying single. I'm not ok with dying wondering whether or not we could have been something, or knowing that I never had the courage to walk up and introduce myself.
Dating is selling. You're not looking to turn every lead into a customer. They need to want what you're selling. Your job is to communicate that value. And if they don't see the value proposition, or you see it's not the right fit, move on. And, despite what twitter might say, your marketing is your packaging. It will always dictate the quality and intentions of the prospects you attract. Dress accordingly.
A Sense of Urgency
There's a vanitas etching from 100's of years ago that I love, where three skeletons in crowns stare down 3 kings, who are clearly startled and alarmed- as are their horses. When I first came across this etching, it was accompanied by a latin phrase uttered by the skeletons. Their warning translates to: As you are, I once was! As I am, you will be!
Memento mori. Remember, you are mortal. Death won't collect one day, he is collecting always. Every exhale is a breath already collected from your life.
How you spend the time until death arrives makes the difference between dying like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych, shrieking terror and regret into the darkness, or embracing death fearlessly, as I watched my grandmother do with grace and poise a few months ago after a two year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Thinking about the black haze of death approaching gives clarity. There's stuff we need to do and we have to rage against our baser instincts to do it. The fear, procrastination, indolence, indecision and the excuses your crafty mind clings to.
It's easier to shift blame. It's easy to say it's not your fault. It's easy to play the victim. It's easy to distract yourself because everyone else is doing it.
It's easy to chase stuff and status and other shiny ephemeral detritus.
That works for now. It won't be so pretty when you can see the end of your story coming up on you.
You have health and youth and energy - for how much longer?
I am dying. So are you.
Identify your ideal so you have something to strive for now.
Eliminate what doesn't matter now.
Work on what matters to you now.
Build and share things you are proud of and believe in.
Act today as if you know you are going to die.
Because one day, you will.