Thinking about death can motivate us to live a life true to ourselves.
In a commencement speech to the Stanford graduating class of 2005, Steve Jobs shared a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom.
This was a contemplative version of Steve Jobs as he reflected on life and death, just a year after his first brush with the cancer that would eventually take his life in 2011. He tells 3 powerful stories, but this quote, in particular, has always stood out to me:
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”
Here are 7 ways I think contemplating your own mortality can help you do the same.
How Thinking About Death Can Improve Your Life
1. It puts your true priorities into focus
“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.”
There’s no better way to bring priorities into focus than to think about your deathbed regrets.
In 2012, a palliative care nurse wrote a book called “The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying”, cataloging her experiences spending years taking care of the terminally ill during the last 3-12 weeks of their lives.
Through talking to hundreds of terminally ill patients, she found that the most common deathbed regret was the following:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
How many of us make decisions not based on what we truly want, but on what others expect of us? How many of us even make major life choices – what school we attend, what career we choose, whom we marry, whether we rent or buy a house – simply because of other people’s expectations?
I’m not judging, because I do it myself all the time. Yet, when staring in the face of death, what will we think about? Will we think about how great it was that we met everyone else’ expectations? Or will we regret that we left behind a trail of unfilled hopes and dreams because we were scared of what others might think?
2. It pulls you out of your mental rut
Most of us are in a mental rut we’re not even aware of. We go about our daily routine, maybe commuting to work, maybe walking into Starbucks to grab a coffee – and we never stop to contemplate the true nature of our existence.
Whether or not you believe we were placed here by a higher being, think about the fact that we’re walking around on the side of a big ball of dirt that has been racing around a giant fireball for 4.5 billion years. Our ball of dirt is just one of the trillions in our galaxy alone, and our galaxy is just one of the one hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. On this scale, the minutiae of our 80-year lifespans is no more important than the daily hustle and bustle on an ant hill.
Of course, that doesn’t make our daily fears and frustrations any less real, but I always find there’s value in stepping back and gaining perspective by reflecting about our place in the universe.
It’s impossible to carry this awareness with you all the time, but it’s a good way to reset and remind yourself about what’s truly important (or unimportant).
3. You realize we’re all one
Speaking of our insignificance, I’ve always been blown away by this image and accompanying speech by Carl Sagan:
Isn’t it incredible? From the greatest conqueror to the lowliest beggar, everyone we’ve ever known or heard of has lived out their existence in that pale blue dot.
From this cosmic perspective, our differences and petty bickering can seem pretty insignificant.
4. It can motivate you to defer short-term gratification
For some, the fact that we’re going to die one day means indulging in as much pleasure as possible while we’re on this earth. While that’s one way to look at it (and certainly justified to an extent), there’s a more balanced way to look at this.
Yes, you’ll likely have regrets on your deathbed if you never took the time to enjoy life’s pleasures. But you’ll also have regrets if you don’t learn to defer short-term gratification in favor of bigger goals. Deferring short-term gratification is what lets you accomplish big goals – the kind of accomplishments that lead to a fulfilling life.
For example, one of the most inspirational stories we published on InvestmentZen was about how Sean Cooper managed to pay off his mortgage in just 3 years, despite living in one of the most expensive cities in North America.
He wasn’t rich and he didn’t have an especially high paying job – but he worked 3 jobs, spent almost no money, and rented out the main floor of his house and lived in the basement. By the end of 3 years, he was mortgage free.
But if you think about your mortality and the type of things you’ll enjoy/regret on your deathbed, achieving financial freedom will open up your life to pursue dreams like long-term travel while you’re still young, starting a business, or spending more time with loved ones. These are the kinds of things you’ll never regret, and they’re much easier to accomplish if you can build financial freedom – something that requires short-term sacrifice.
Sean sacrificed for 3 years so he wouldn’t have debt payments weighing down his happiness. Sure, he could have bought shiny new toys, enjoyed his entire house, and gone out to eat more often – but he’ll have the rest of his life to do that if he chooses.
Don’t forget to also read these tombstone quotes about living a fulfilled life.
5. You realize you could die at any moment, so you need to enjoy the journey
Obviously, there’s a trade-off here – if you defer gratification for too long, you could die before you get to enjoy it. Everyone has heard the classic story of the workaholic lawyer or banker who works crazy hours for decades, accumulates a ton of money, then has a heart attack the day before retirement.
Is it a paradox to say that we should enjoy life because you could die at any moment, while also saying that you need to sacrifice to achieve long-term goals?
I don’t think so. To me, it just means you should pick a path to your goals that’ll enjoy. Forget about work-life balance, find work that you love! There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money and get rich, but if it means sacrificing decades of your life, your health, your sense of fulfillment, and your relationships – is it worth it?
Know what you want to accomplish before you die and work towards it – but enjoy the journey along the way.
6. On the scale of your life, small decisions can have a massive impact
This might seem counterintuitive – after all, if we could die at any time, why bother planning ahead?
But thinking about the finality of life and how little time we have can drive you to make key choices that will gradually steer the course of your life. For me, reflecting on deathbed regrets drove me to start a business instead of embarking on a professional career.
It seemed like a tiny decision at the time – just choosing not to send out any resumes or go to any interviews. But 5 years later, my life is on completely different trajectory. How massive of an impact will that decision have in 10, 20, 40 years?
Here’s an even more tangible (even mathematical) example of how small decisions can add up to huge results: let’s take a look at the power of compound interest.
Small amounts of money put away early on in life and invested regularly will compound into life-altering money by middle age. Compound interest will work wonders for you if you start early, but every year you wait to invest means you have to put in a lot more money to match the smaller amount you could have put in earlier.
Here’s a fascinating fact: compound interest is so powerful that someone who starts investing $100 a year at a 7% annualized return from 20-30 can stop investing completely for the rest of their life, but will STILL end up with more money than someone who starts saving $100 a year at age 30 and continues all the way to age 60.
If those people stopped for a moment and looked at their life from start to finish, the decision to put away a few thousand dollars a year into a retirement account would be a no-brainer. Just $400 a month saved and invested in a standard allocation of equities and bonds will grow to over $1.1 million dollars in 40 years. That small decision to put away some money every month may seem insignificant in your 20s or 30s, but it can completely change the future of your family for generations to come.
These days thanks for technology, saving and investing for retirement is easier than ever – robo advisors like Betterment or Wealthfront can manage your portfolio automatically at a low cost, while most banks will let you automate your investment deposits, allowing you to build your future on auto-pilot.
Our lives are very finite – it may not feel that way when you’re young, but if you have long-term goals to achieve that you don’t start working on today, one day there may not be enough tomorrows.
7. Seemingly big problems seem small next to eternity
Whether you believe in an afterlife or you’re like me and you believe that this life is our one blink of consciousness, the fact remains that all our present-day problems are small compared to eternity.
Thinking about death affects everyone differently. Yes, it can be scary on an existential level – even paralyzing. But every single one of us is racing against the clock whether we think about it or not, and contemplating mortality can be a powerful way to put our priorities and fears into perspective.
I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s enough thinking about death for one day! I’ll just leave you with one last quote from Steve Jobs:
“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 how it should be because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”