When I was young (or younger), time had little meaning for me. It felt like you’re going to live forever and because you have all this time, there’s no need to prioritize and make things happen now. There’s always tomorrow to do the things you’d like to get done.
When taking a job in industry, I felt that I was going to do that job forever, until something better came along that was better and then I could switch to that one. There was no notion of things being temporary but rather an infinite continuation of the path I was on – similar to Newtonian physics where an object continues on its path unless there are other forces to change its course.
Now that I’m a little less young, I realize the fallacy of this thinking and increasingly embrace the fact that we’re all going to die. It’s terrible to be confronted with one’s mortality, but it does put things in perspective. Although I do hope that we can ‘fix’ human mortality at some point and allow people to live forever, if they want, or allow them to decide when to pass on, for now, we’re in the same predicament as the billions of people coming before us: our time on this planet is finite.
The idea that we have limited time can also be very helpful in our lives. When reflecting on it, I realize I use it in at least three ways: prioritization, acceleration and desensitization.
There’s a beautiful saying that claims we can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything we want. Western culture is enamored with busyness. The underlying idea is that the best-lived life is the life where we get as much done as humanly possible. Especially mid-career, I’ve seen countless people trying to cram in as much work as possible next to a relationship, kids, workouts and, of course, keeping up with the Joneses. Plato already warned us of the emptiness of a busy life, and the more life experience I gather, the more I agree.
The fact that we have limited time allows me to prioritize my time better by saying no to the things that don’t add to my life or the self-actualization journey I’m on. We all know the notion of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Especially early in life, we tend to prioritize extrinsic rewards as we’re busy building a reputation and looking good in the eyes of our peers. We may seek a spouse, get promoted at work and be recognized by more senior people in the social circles in which we operate. We often learn the hard way that this is successful by external metrics, but it requires us to mold ourselves into a person we don’t necessarily want to be. It’s when we realize our intrinsic motivators, the things we do because they give value to ourselves and help us grow and develop, that we can prioritize our time better. And that requires saying no to all the things that don’t add to this.
For example, I’ve learned about myself that having control of my time and actions is very important to me. When working in industry, I rapidly realized that I was in a web of expectations and obligations that caused me to commit all my time to the web and have little to no time for what I wanted to work on. My bosses, peers and direct reports constantly pushed me to do things for them and I realized that, despite it being quite lucrative, I didn’t have the agency I was looking for. My current context gives me the possibility to control my time to a much, much greater extent.
The second way in which I use my mortality is acceleration. We all have a, potentially, long list of things we want to do at some point. These things don’t have a specific timeline associated with them, other than “later.” This is fine when you’re young as the likelihood of you being around ‘later’ is very high. However, when reaching a less young age, this becomes problematic. So, I use this to actually take initiative and make things happen now, rather than later.
For many years, I’ve wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but it stayed on the “someday” list. Last fall, I decided that it was now or never, booked the trip and in January, I managed to get to the summit. It was a great experience and something I’m glad I finally committed to and made happen.
The final way is desensitization. In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs talked about being “already naked.” In his words: “Remembering that you’re going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You’re already naked. There’s no reason not to follow your heart.”
We’re extremely sensitive to the short-term reputational consequences of our actions. What will people say? This is fueled by the powerful combo of our instinctive fear of being cast out from the tribe, a death sentence in prehistoric times, and the fear of losing what we think we have. Remembering that we’re already naked and have nothing to lose helps me overcome the resistance to taking decisions that have, often imagined, associated risks.
In my life, giving up a vice president role at a well-reputed Silicon Valley company to lead an industrial research center halfway across the globe as a professor at a good, but not absolute top university came with a lot of raised eyebrows and questions. In the end, however, it was the right choice for me. Even if it felt scary at the time, things turned out well!
One illustrative example I sometimes use is to ask someone to name one famous Sumerian. The Sumerians were one of the most successful civilizations on Earth with great leaders and incredible achievements. Still, everything they accomplished is gone and no longer remembered by anyone except for some arcane historians. The same will be true for us and everything we hold as important. It puts some perspective on things and helps, as I wrote previously, to not take ourselves too seriously.
We’re all going to die. Until we develop the technology to fix it, this uncomfortable truth is terrible in its own right. However, we can use it to maximize our self-actualization and live the best life we can make for ourselves. Three tactics include prioritization (only do what you feel is important), acceleration (don’t delay things but do them now) and desensitization (stop worrying about what others might think or what you might lose). As Bernie Siegel said: “An awareness of one’s mortality can lead you to wake up and live an authentic, meaningful life.” In the end, it’s not how long you live but what you do while you’re alive.