How a reassessment of our assumptions can lead to a happier life.
Let me tell you about my favourite quote in the world: Memento Mori.
Memento Mori is an old Latin phrase, which essentially translates to “remember death.”
This phrase is said to have originated from an ancient Roman tradition where a humble servant would walk behind a victorious general as he marched through town in celebration of his win. However, the tradition was that this servant following the general would whisper in his ear “Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori.” which translates to “Remember that you are but man. Remember that you will die.” This is such a fascinating tradition because this servant’s job was literally to remind this general that life will end.
It’s curious to think about how this tradition came to be, but we all know this to be an age old philosophy. Who knows how many more humans shared this same philosophy before the Romans? For our purposes, we know that humans have pondered death for a long time, and I think that’s because it is the one thing we know that will happen to us for sure in the future.
Everything in the future is uncertain, even including the time of our death, but the one thing we know about the future is that we will die. I want to focus on that factor of timing today, because I could tell you the cliche of “live your life as if you knew you had no tomorrow” but that’s a pretty high level statement that doesn’t give clear direction. I don’t think many people would right know off the top of their head the exact things they would do if they knew they would die tomorrow. Why would they?
It’s not really fun to think about your own death, so most people don’t. You have no reason to unless you are clearly in danger — say you’re in a car with a friend who you think is a bad driver, naturally you will think about your potential death and how you might be able to prevent that from happening (maybe you ask to take the wheel, or just walk home or something). If you’re in a third world country and struggling to survive (which is a whole other topic we can get into another time), that circumstance also probably increases how much you think about death. Otherwise, assuming that you are like fortunate enough to have your basic safety needs met like myself, I’d think you probably don’t have many other reasons to care about your death too often.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember death. Be it a cliche to say “live as though you had no tomorrow”, it is a good start in the right line of thinking. There is so much more to this cliche because we have to start asking things like ‘what do I want to do today?’ ‘What do I care about?’ ‘Who would I want around me in my last moments?’ ‘How do I want people to remember me when I’m gone?’ ‘Will people even remember me when I’m gone?’ These are the real questions that I think matter in this philosophy, and will truly unlock the power of this mindset.
Last weekend, I spent a day out in the mountains with Max H., and it was a much needed break away from work and a good mental reset given all that happened during that week. One of those things that’s happened is the passing of a senior instructor named David. This was a pretty significant event for Max and I (and also a lot of our friends who went through the commerce program at the University of Calgary) as David was truly one of those people who made the most of his life, and in doing so, influenced our lives. I could go on about his legacy and how much his presence changed the lives of so many students, but I also know I wouldn’t do him justice (and Max already did a good job at this in his Humans of UCalgary post ). For now, I will just speak to my personal experiences with him.
I won’t pretend to have been David’s best friend by any means — there’s so many more people who knew him better, but I still can’t deny the impact David had on my own life, much less his impact on basically all of my close friends. I remember in my first year of university, I had few friends and it was a little tough to meet new people. One of my friends that I did know previously from high school got me to sign up for this leadership retreat. During this retreat, a group of students would go out to Kananaskis for a weekend and essentially do a bunch of activities together to develop our communication, teamwork and leadership skills. I remember being pretty nervous to go to this retreat and basically be in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of strangers, but not-surprisingly I met so many incredible individuals who I have had the honour to call my friends and experience more memories with throughout the rest of my university career. One big reason why we were able to bond so quickly was because of David.
I went back on this weekend retreat in my 3rd year, and it was no less life changing than the first time. The challenges were different, the people were different, the impact different, but what did stay the same — David. Throughout the years, he’s been able to change my own life, and seemingly also the lives of so many others who went through this same leadership retreat, or one of the various other leadership programs David held. In my personal experience, it was apparent that he had a passion for authentic leadership, being one with nature, and really aligning with the things that truly matter in this world. Further, David was able to share these passions with everyone he met, and was able to live every day as his most authentic self. Being around him was almost a spiritual experience. In being his authentic self, he inspired so lost students like myself to question what truly mattered, and aim to make the most of this life.
Getting back to the present, Max and I talked about how David died doing something he loved. He left this world in his element — in the mountains, one with nature. We talked about how it feels different knowing this information, compared to if his death was the result of a heart attack or a cancer. It really shouldn’t change the way we feel about it, because a loss is a loss, but in way it does still feel different.
We asked ourselves, well why is that? Why does it feel different knowing he died in his element, compared to if he died of some illness? I think the answer lies in the unpredictability of our deaths, the preciousness of our remaining time in this world, and the importance of the decisions we make regarding what we do with our remaining time given the unpredictable nature of our death.
That’s a pretty heavy sentence, so let me explain…
You can’t control death
For the most part, the way we die is not something we can control. It can happen for any number of potential unforeseen reasons. Further, what’s most uncontrollable is the timeline of when it happens. However, what we CAN control is how we use the time we have right now while we are alive. David was really good at choosing how to spend his time wisely, doing things he was genuinely passionate about. David died doing something he was genuinely passionate about. I think very few people have that opportunity.
I think we should all aim for a similar departure as David and leave this world doing something you actually love, and the way to increase the odds of that is to make sure every moment spent in this life is doing something you genuinely enjoy. Unfortunately, for the most people, the day-to-day decisions of how to spend your time are still a hard choice because of many different factors. Maybe you don’t have a clear vision for where you want your life to be in the future. Maybe you don’t know what you like, and maybe you’re still in the process of trying to figure that out. We’ll come back to that later, but what Max and I came to realize is that a big reason why David was so special was because of his ability to stay authentic to himself and make the decision every day to live the way he wanted. This is special because it contrasts so many people who choose to live their lives doing things they don’t particularly like. So many people put themselves in a position to inflict pain onto themselves. So many people are concerned with impressing and pleasing other people that they might not even like.
Why do people do things they don’t want to do?
If one of the only things we can control is how we choose to spend our time, why do so many people choose to spend their time this way? The answer to this goes back to ancient human history.
In the process of human evolution, one unique trait that made us distinct apart from any other animal was our ability to predict and plan for the future. For example, instead of being concerned with collecting food for just today, at one point, a human decided to collect food for the future. That human became concerned about what they would eat tomorrow, or what they would eat in a month. That human became concerned about what their friends and family would eat, what their kids would eat, and maybe even what their grandkids would eat. That human became concerned with rationing enough food to last through the winter which it knew was going to come later in the year.
Now all that is well and good because this is one of the greatest skills we’ve learnt as a species, but the consequence is that it obviously takes effort to be concerned about such things. It would take effort to collect enough food for weeks, months, or even a year. Instead of just working hard enough to collect enough food for today and doing the the same tomorrow, somehow humans decided to work extra hard today so that they wouldn’t have to work as hard tomorrow, or so they wouldn’t have to work as hard in the future.
Coming back to the present day, we see this phenomenon all around us, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s noble to work hard early in your career in the pursuit to be able to provide for yourself and for future generations of your family and other loved ones. This is exactly what I am doing anyways, alongside so many other people I know. This is what my parents did — they sacrificed a lot early in their lives to be able to provide for me and my siblings and ensure we lived good lives. If my parents didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have the life I live today.
Where do you draw the line?
Like I mentioned above, there are pros and cons to this skill that humans have developed. The question of the day is — how much time should you allocate sacrificing today to potentially benefit tomorrow, compared to just benefitting today knowing you will incur the expense again tomorrow? I believe too many people on this earth right now spend too much time putting themselves through misery today with the hope that it will pay off in the future. In my discussion with Max, we noticed that such people typically subconsciously operate under two assumptions which feed into their decision to live life this way.
Assumption 1 — “I will live a long life”
The first assumption that many of us hold which allows us to justify putting ourselves through tough times today for the benefit of tomorrow is that we will be alive in that future to be able to reap the rewards we are working so hard for today.
We have subconsciously created our own expectation of when we will die based on our capability to process statistics. We see other people live until they are 70, 80, 90, maybe even 100, and that feeds into our minds that we will also live that long. Then, once our minds set that assumption that we will live to 80 years old for example, our mind then starts to plan all the things we need to do today to make sure we can live a good life in that future time.
Again, this isn’t totally bad because it’s nice to strive to live that long. I want to live long enough to see how my grandkids choose to spend their lives. I want to live long enough to see where the world ends up, and to see if we can manage to make any progress with any of the major issues in the world. However, the issue with this assumption of living a long life mainly comes in its impact to our trade-off decisions, especially in those people who struggle today for a better tomorrow.
For example, imagine you’re someone that decides they want go through a law degree, not because you particularly enjoy this subject, but because it will pay well and provide future opportunities that will lead to whatever arbitrary definition of “success” you’ve made for yourself. Now in this scenario, say you’re 22 and just finished university. Let’s also say that studying for the LSAT, going through law school, articling, and passing the bar exam might take another 4 years. Then, you know that it’ll be hard work for maybe another 10 years to get to a “good position” in your career. This means that at 22, you still have 14 years of doing something that you might not particularly enjoy before you think it will start to pay off. Then you hope that after those 14 years, things will be alright because you have enough money and connections to live the rest of your life comfortably and maybe buy a nice house or car or whatever it is you want to buy.
The danger is — what if you don’t live that long? What if your assumption is wrong about how long you will live? What if you don’t get to reap the benefits that you’ve been sacrificing your life away for?
Take the lawyer example — if you as a 22 year old future-lawyer need to do things you don’t actually enjoy for a minimum of 14 years before you actually get to do anything you actually enjoy, then how much longer would you need to live past that 14 years to make it worth it? Is the answer to that question “anything above 14 years?” What if you live 14 years and 1 day? Doesn’t seem much of a good trade. Say it’s 20 years — that math works out to 14 years of slaving and 6 years of *potential* enjoyment. This 7:3 ratio still doesn’t sound very great. Now say its 30 years? This is more of a 1:1 ratio of unhappy-happy, and you could maybe justify this a bit more.
Now that’s a pretty high level analysis because it assumes the 14 years is pure unhappiness and that you don’t take breaks every so often to do things that actually make you happy. However, it’s not too far off to say that if you’re really unhappy at a job, this probably impacts the time away from your job too. So given that, I’ll just leave that assumption for now.
Point is, I think the goal though should be to essentially cut out the unhappy piece out of the equation as much as we can. With the 1:1 ratio of unhappy-happy, you’re basically flipping a coin every day and saying “if it lands on tails, I might die today as an unhappy person, and if it lands on heads, I will die happy.” Not so great odds.
“If you suddenly died today, would you be happy with the thing you were doing when you died?” — this is essentially the same question that we asked before, but now hopefully with a bit more context to really understand the impact of the question.
Now one thing that adds a bit of a challenge to this whole situation is whether or not you know what makes you happy. I think what makes us happy is based on a lot of things, but I’m going to focus on the aspect of whether or not you have a vision for your life. As much as it feeds into the skill that got us here in the first place, I believe having dreams and aspirations is still very important. Without a vision for what tomorrow could look like, our perspective on today would have no sense of purpose or meaning. Thus, paradoxical as it is, to be happy today, we need to really assess our vision of tomorrow and ensure the path is in alignment with what truly matters.
Now, what matters? What do you want out of life? This is where assumption 2 comes in.
Assumption 2 — “Today was guaranteed”
It seems like a common experience for people to not know what they want out of life. I think many people feel this way every so often, myself included. It becomes difficult to really picture out how you’d like your life to look like in a couple years. Furthermore, without that vision for where you want to end up and the things you want to do, it becomes difficult to assess whether or not to make certain decisions in a given day.
Let’s go back to high school. Maybe you were one of the lucky ones who had a goal for what you were doing after high school. Maybe you had an idea of which university you’d go to. Maybe you knew you knew you were going to work for your parents company, or start your own projects. Whatever the case, you had an idea of where your path would lead. If this was you, then kudos to you! Unfortunately, I know not everyone leaves high school knowing what they wanted to do. Even if you do, things might not work out according to plan.
Personally, I know I didn’t get into the program I originally wanted to go into. I applied into engineering with business as my second choice, but only got the offer for business. That’s a story for another time. Point is, even though I had an idea of where I wanted to go, those plans quickly changed when I didn’t get into the program I wanted. I wasn’t too sure where I’d take this new route of going into business school, and I had to figure things out.
Anyways, the point is that if you had a vision for where your life would go, it made it much easier to make decisions in the day to day to align yourself with that. A good friend of mine knew she wanted to be a nurse ever since she was a kid basically, and that helped guide her to make all sorts of decisions to stay on that path – decisions which if I asked her, she’d likely say she has no regrets over. So how do we get to that point?
There’s a million questions you could ask yourself to try to figure out what path to take. What do I like? What am I good at? What actually matters in the world? What matters to me? Of course being good at something that matters to other people feels good and has a lot of potential to make you happy, but it’s this last question I want to focus on.
“What matters to me?” — The answer is made up of so many variables that most of us can’t even begin to fathom. When you think about how you would answer, you probably think of your family, friends, or loved ones. Maybe you think about your job, or a hobby of yours, or maybe a certain social-cause in the world. Now focusing on task based items that give you something to do with your time, your answer may likely lean to some kind of mission or cause which allows you to guide your actions toward it. Some may call this purpose. Some may call it destiny. Whatever you want to call it, I believe that it’s something that gets shaped all throughout your life — not something predetermined.
Where am I going with this? I’ll begin to clarify with an example. Max and I are avid fans of the broadway show Hamilton, which outlines the story of Alexander Hamilton, the struggles he faced, and his inevitable death. If you don’t know the story, no worries, basically the most relevant things to know is that Hamilton essentially built the financial systems which underlie the entire world right now, and he shouldn’t lived past 12.
This is the second assumption I want to talk about now — should you have died before today? For Hamilton, the answer was yes. He should’ve died in a hurricane when he was a kid alongside essentially his entire family who died, but he survived.
“I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory When’s it gonna get me?
In my sleep, seven feet ahead of me?
If I see it comin’, do I run or do I let it be?
Is it like a beat without a melody?
See, I never thought I’d live past twenty
Where I come from some get half as many
Ask anybody why we livin’ fast and we laugh, reach for a flask. We have to make this moment last, that’s plenty”
This are some of the lines in My Shot, probably one of the most iconic songs in the show. Hamilton knew that every day he lived was another day he shouldn’t have been alive, and so he knew he had to make the most of it. Furthermore, knowing this information also allowed him to guide his every step towards making a better future for everyone in his nation. He didn’t want anyone else to face the struggles he faced as a kid, so he did everything in his power to bring the quality of life in America up.
This got me thinking about how many of us think this way — not too many. The people who do think this way are aware of the obvious, so cancer survivors and war veterans know that every new day they live is another blessing. What about everyone else?
Not to go down a morbid rabbit-hole here, but I can only imagine all the ways my life could’ve slipped away from me in my previous years. What if I landed weird when I fell down the stairs as a kid? What if I got hit by a bus while running across the street to catch the class I was late for?
Now you probably don’t want to go too deep into imagining these scenarios, but the point is, anything could’ve happened to us in the past. In another universe, we could not be alive today. So why do we live as though today was guaranteed to us? It’s the same reason why people live as though they will wake up again tomorrow — we made the assumption that today was going to happen.
What are the implications of this assumption? It dilutes the reason for us to get up in the morning with a sense of purpose. If today feels like it was guaranteed, then it doesn’t feel like a present, so as a result, we don’t live in the present.
Those people who realize that assumption in themselves have this ability to be grateful like nothing else. Typically they also have a very clear picture of how they want to spend the rest of their lives as well, because they’ve allowed themselves to reassess what truly matters to themselves. There are numerous stories of cancer survivors getting a newfound sense of life purpose after hearing about their diagnosis— you can easily google such stories so I’ll spare going into any here, but the phenomenon is curious.
I think treating today as a gift really does allow us to live in the present, and helps us understand better how to answer the earlier question of “what matters to me?” Additionally, I don’t even think it matters what it is! You can literally pick anything to care about – whether it be saving lives through being a nurse, or the environment, or a social cause by being an advocate. As long as you have something you care about which you can assign as your “north star,” then all your decisions will follow this guide. If you bring more gratitude into your day and live in the present, the mental fog might just lift and this north star might just me more apparent.
Once we find what we care about through assessing what we are grateful for, we can picture how we want the future to look for ourselves, and that will help put perspective to our first assumption. Having that north star filled with purpose and meaning will guide us to not spend our day doing things that don’t serve us.
Risk based decisions
The two assumptions I’ve outlined above impact the decisions we make regarding how we spend our time every day. At the end of the day, both of the assumptions are going to be assumptions for the rest of our lives. This means, any decision we make in life regarding how we spend our time is ultimately a risk based decision. The risk is that we could be wrong. But should that stop us from making the decisions? No!
Sure, we could be wrong at any given point about where our life could lead, but that doesn’t mean we should be scared of going down that path. It was the same with any of the decisions you’ve already made up to this point. At any given point in the past, you could have been (and probably HAVE been) wrong about something for which you had to make a decision for. However, it’s only in retrospect that we can see whether it was truly wrong for us. And “wrong” in this case is just defined by if that decision serves you in the present. Who knows, that decision might’ve just led you down the path you’re on, and you might just meet incredible people who might change your life for the better.
I digress, at any given point, we make a decision about what to do and that decision has a risk which may just change our lives immensely, for better or for worse. Furthermore, if we adjust the assumptions above, we may also adjust the risks of each of our decisions in a way that will serve us better. If we balance out our assumption around how long we will live and assume the number is lower than we originally thought, this might just give some more value to the time you do have today. On the other hand, if we adjust the assumption around if we should’ve died previous to today, that might just allow us to be more present today and really spend the valuable time in a way that we can be truly grateful for.
At the end of the day, our assumptions are all arbitrary and there is no right way to set our assumptions — it’s always going to be a guess as to when we will die, or as to if we should’ve died before. Regardless of what assumptions you choose, I believe being aware of your assumptions allows you to remind yourself that we should take our time on this earth very seriously, because the one thing we do know for certain is that we will die eventually.
The biggest takeaway is that we shouldn’t take things for granted, and we should minimize the amount of time spent doing things we don’t enjoy because we could leave this world at any time and you wouldn’t want to die doing something you didn’t enjoy.
I’ll end this on another one of my favourite quotes:
“You will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things that you don’t like doing. Which is stupid!
Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than to have a long life spent in a miserable way.”
— Alan Watts
That’s it. That’s the end! If you’ve gotten this far, thank you so much for sticking through and reading all this way. I really appreciate you, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas. Feel free to reach out to me anytime and we can talk more — I’m always down to chat!
Until next time!
PS: To David, hope you are resting in peace. Will see you again soon enough.