16,515 days, 9 hours, 36 minutes, 27 seconds. The time until I die.
The Death Clock
The tagline reads, “Life is short. Make the most of it.” The Death Clock is a Chrome extension that counts down the remaining time in your life. You just put in your birthday, and based on average life expectancy a countdown is initiated. As you watch your seconds and minutes tick away, underneath it reads “Make them count.” Seeing my number - 16,515 days - seems much shorter than I would have expected. It immediately makes me wonder why I’m wasting time just staring at the computer screen as seconds disappear. Which is the whole point.
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important."
- Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech
[Excerpt from Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement speech]
"When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.
I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.
This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
"So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it."
- Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
[Writing from On The Shortness of Life by Seneca. Excerpt and bolds from https://tim.blog/2009/04/24/on-the-shortness-of-life-an-introduction-to-seneca/ by Tim Ferriss, follow the link to read the whole article]
The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.
Nor is it merely the common herd and the unthinking crowd that bemoan what is, as men deem it, an universal ill; the same feeling has called forth complaint also from men who were famous…
It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.
Why do we complain of Nature? She has shown herself kindly; life, if you know how to use it, is long. But one man is possessed by greed that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.
Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust. Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides. Think you that I am speaking of the wretches whose evils are admitted? Look at those whose prosperity men flock to behold; they are smothered by their blessings. To how many are riches a burden! From how many do eloquence and the daily straining to display their powers draw forth blood! How many are pale from constant pleasures! To how many does the throng of clients that crowd about them leave no freedom! In short, run through the list of all these men from the lowest to the highest—this man desires an advocate, this one answers the call, that one is on trial, that one defends him, that one gives sentence; no one asserts his claim to himself, everyone is wasted for the sake of another. Ask about the men whose names are known by heart, and you will see that these are the marks that distinguish them: A cultivates B and B cultivates C; no one is his own master. And then certain men show the most senseless indignation—they complain of the insolence of their superiors, because they were too busy to see them when they wished an audience! But can anyone have the hardihood to complain of the pride of another when he himself has no time to attend to himself? After all, no matter who you are, the great man does sometimes look toward you even if his face is insolent, he does sometimes condescend to listen to your words, he permits you to appear at his side; but you never deign to look upon yourself, to give ear to yourself. There is no reason, therefore, to count anyone in debt for such services, seeing that, when you performed them, you had no wish for another’s company, but could not endure your own.
Though all the brilliant intellects of the ages were to concentrate upon this one theme, never could they adequately express their wonder at this dense darkness of the human mind. Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the limit of their lands, yet they allow others to trespass upon their life—nay, they themselves even lead in those who will eventually possess it. No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal. And so I should like to lay hold upon someone from the company of older men and say: “I see that you have reached the farthest limit of human life, you are pressing hard upon your hundredth year, or are even beyond it; come now, recall your life and make a reckoning. Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count. Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, what work you have achieved in so long a life, how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will perceive that you are dying before your season!” What, then, is the reason of this? You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last. You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals. You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!
It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.
- Tim Urban, from The Tail End
But since doing the Life in Weeks post, I’ve been thinking about something else.
Instead of measuring your life in units of time, you can measure it in activities or events. To use myself as an example:
Not counting Wait But Why research, I read about five books a year, so even though it feels like I’ll read an endless number of books in the future, I actually have to choose only 300 of all the books out there to read and accept that I’ll sign off for eternity without knowing what goes on in all the rest.
Growing up in Boston, I went to Red Sox games all the time, but if I never move back there, I’ll probably continue at my current rate of going to a Sox game about once every three years—meaning this little row of 20 represents my remaining Fenway visits:
. . .
What I’ve been thinking about is a really important part of life that, unlike all of these examples, isn’t spread out evenly through time—something whose [already done / still to come] ratio doesn’t at all align with how far I am through life:
I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood.
Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.
When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each of my parents—assuming I’m as lucky as can be—this becomes starkly clear:
It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.
It’s a similar story with my two sisters. After living in a house with them for 10 and 13 years respectively, I now live across the country from both of them and spend maybe 15 days with each of them a year. Hopefully, that leaves us with about 15% of our total hangout time left.
The same often goes for old friends. In high school, I sat around playing hearts with the same four guys about five days a week. In four years, we probably racked up 700 group hangouts. Now, scattered around the country with totally different lives and schedules, the five of us are in the same room at the same time probably 10 days each decade. The group is in its final 7%.
So what do we do with this information?
Setting aside my secret hope that technological advances will let me live to 700, I see three takeaways here:
1) Living in the same place as the people you love matters. I probably have 10X the time left with the people who live in my city as I do with the people who live somewhere else.
2) Priorities matter. Your remaining face time with any person depends largely on where that person falls on your list of life priorities. Make sure this list is set by you—not by unconscious inertia.
3) Quality time matters. If you’re in your last 10% of time with someone you love, keep that fact in the front of your mind when you’re with them and treat that time as what it actually is: precious.
2. DON’T SELL YOURSELF TOO CHEAPLY
“I say, let no one rob me of a single day who isn’t going to make a full return on the loss.”
— Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 1.11b
People spend a lot more money when they use credit cards than when they have to pull out actual cash. If you ever wondered why credit card companies and banks push cards so aggressively, this is why. The more credit cards you have, the more you’ll spend.
Do we treat the days of our lives like we treat our money? Because we don’t exactly know how many days we’ll be alive, and because we try our hardest not to think about the fact that someday we’ll die, we’re pretty liberal with how freely we spend our time. We let people and obligations impose on that time, only rarely asking: What am I getting in return here?
Seneca’s maxim is the equivalent of cutting up your credit cards and switching to cash. He says to put real thought into every transaction: Am I getting my money’s worth here? Is this a fair trade?
3. IT’S JUST A NUMBER
“You aren’t bothered, are you, because you weigh a certain amount and not twice as much? So why get worked up that you’ve been given a certain lifespan and not more? Just as you are satisfied with your normal weight, so you should be with the time you’ve been given.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.49
They say age is just a number, but to some people it’s a very important one — otherwise, women wouldn’t lie about being younger, and ambitious young men wouldn’t lie about being older. Rich people and health nuts spend billions of dollars in an effort to move the expiration date from around seventy-eight years to hopefully forever.
The number of years we manage to eke out doesn’t matter, only what those years are composed of. Seneca put it best when he said, “Life is long if you know how to use it.” Sadly, most people don’t — they waste the life they’ve been given. Only when it is too late do they try to compensate for that waste by vainly hoping to put more time on the clock.
Use today. Use every day. Make yourself satisfied with what you have been given.
4. A SIMPLE WAY TO MEASURE OUR DAYS
“This is the mark of perfection of character — to spend each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, laziness, or any pretending.” — Marcus Aurelius,Meditations, 7.69
The Stoics didn’t think that anyone could be perfect. The idea of becoming a sage — the highest aspiration of a philosopher — wasn’t realistic. This was just their Platonic ideal.
Still, they started every day hoping to get a little closer to that mark. There was much to gain in the trying. Can you actually live today like it is your last day? Is it even possible to embody completeness or perfection in our ethos (character), effortlessly doing the right thing for a full twenty-four hours? Is it possible for more than a minute?
Maybe not. But if trying was enough for the Stoics, it should be enough for us too.
The Death Clock, again
I'm down to 16,512 days.
In the last few days, I've have celebrated two Thanksgivings and spent precious time with family. I've run 26 miles. I finished an awesome fiction book, Origin by Dan Brown (highly recommend), and started a new fiction book, Artemis by Andy Weir. I've started learning Spanish in Duolingo. I've learned how to play Fast Car by Tracy Chapman on the guitar. I lost $320 in less than 5 minutes of online blackjack. I bought a Christmas tree. I've worked on a creative project to help mentor and develop my employees. I've worked on a new business venture. I planned a surf trip. I almost finished planning a mountain trip. I ate an awesome breakfast at one of my favorite restaurants, The Potholder Long Beach, with my brother and our girlfriends. I kissed and cuddled and played with my dog, Honey. I'm writing a blog post.
If these last few days we my last, could I honestly say they were spent well? I wouldn't have it any other way.
I want to learn, and run, and surf, and create. I want to read interesting things, and eat good food. I want to learn from my mistakes. I want to be with my family, and have fun with my friends. I want to let Honey lick my face, and then smell the top of her stinky head. I want to be happy and live simply. And I don't want to sleep in late, or watch TV, or be hungover.
"YOLO" gets thrown around a lot by young people, though not wisely. It has become a millennial rally call to be reckless and wild, to imagine that the costs and consequences of life don't exist. But of course that's not how you should take it. It's a lot more a change in attitude, rather than a change in actions. Enjoy what you do. Really appreciate everyone and everything in your life. Be grateful for today, because it is a gift.