Ever Stopped to Think What's Yours?
On the 28th of November, 2020, it's a cold, pale day. You've been called into your local hospital (local is a push, it's a 20 miles drive) and the resident oncologist calls you into their office. It's terminal, late-stage cancer and you have 60 days left to live.
You accept the diagnosis, and with this weight on your shoulders, you have a sudden realisation. Time is no longer on your side.
It's a scary thought to contemplate your mortality, especially if you're young and healthy, but most people only realise life is precious once it's coming to an end. Until that time, we tend to neglect what matters most to us, rarely asking the question, what is all this for? Why are we living our lives the way we are? What is the purpose of this?
Most of us don't have the answers to these questions readily available. Even armed with clear goals and principles, the purpose behind these goals is often shrouded in mystery. After all, the meaning of life is a question which only has a few decent answers (and that's another post entirely).
But our goal here isn't to answer such a complicated question. Instead, it's to understand more about your purpose and to answer a much simpler question.
"Why do we do what we do?"
Consider your work, do you work for the financial upside, or for the freedom your work gives you? If you work for the upside, what's the money for? If you work for freedom, what do you do with your time? Perhaps you want income to purchase new possessions. Perhaps more freedom means more time to learn new skills. There are no wrong answers here, but these answers only scratch the surface of your true intent.
In 'Chasing Daylight', Eugene O'Kelly describes his experience with a terminal diagnosis leaving him with only 12 weeks left to live. O'Kelly was the 53-year-old CEO of KPMG (at the time valued at $4bn), and in a few short weeks, his life would be over. On receiving the news, he quickly resigned from KPMG and began living his life in brief, meaningful moments, describing how he felt like he was living a week in a day, and a month in a week. His time was running out, and so he made the most of the limited time he had left.
When faced with his mortality, O'Kelly was forced to make many decisions focused on purpose. With 12 weeks left, what was the best way to use his remaining time on this planet? What would bring him, and those he cared for the most joy? For O'Kelly, the majority of his spare time was spent creating experiences with close friends and family. Suddenly, all of those 'I'll get to this one-day' thoughts had a fixed timeframe.
Put yourself into O'Kelly's shoes, and imagine your last few weeks on earth. How will you use the limited time you have left? But, before you begin planning your days, you need to make a big decision—what's the first thing you'll stop doing?
"Imagine you have 60 days left to live. What's the first thing you'll stop doing?"
Let's pretend that like O'Kelly, the first thing you decide is that you'll need to stop working. What will you use your time for instead? Will you spend more time your family? Will you write a book? Will you take a vacation in the Himalayas?
What you'd do with your time isn't important, as long as it matters to you. But what is important, is to ask yourself whether you're making progress towards any of these 'final' actions now. If with your last 60 days on earth you'll make time to do the above, then what's stopping you from doing these now? Why would you decide to use your last few months on earth differently to the way you're living now?
Perhaps it's because we don't truly understand how fragile and precious time is. We live in a world where most of us rarely see or interact with death.
When we aren't questioning our mortality, we have a warped view of our remaining time, rarely questioning if and when this resource will expire. It's only when you challenge your perception of time, that you truly begin to focus on how you'd transform that time into something which matters.
You'll also begin to see past the noise you use to justify your current actions. Statements like 'I'll get to this one day' or 'maybe one day, I'll do this' are easy to say. After all, it's glamorous to think of all the things we 'could do'. Eventually, even the things we truly want get lost in the 'one-day' mindset. Let's be real, life isn't linear, and no matter how long you plan to live, there's a good chance that 'one day' may never come.
And when we're not using the 'one-day' style statements, most of us will instead create grandiose sweeping statements on wanting to change the world (or similar). We'll then use these statements as excuses for why we've neglected all of the other aspects of our lives which give us meaning e.g. friends, families, and hobbies.
How many of us will choose to use our last few weeks on earth to 'change the world' knowing that the time we have left with our loved ones (and ourselves) is limited? We're not discouraging you from being ambitious and choosing to leave a positive impression on the lives of others, but we are discouraging you from doing it, for the sake of doing it
An Honest Conversation
Being honest with ourselves is hard. It's hard because our minds are great at rationalisation. Even if we're taking seemingly bewildering actions, we'll each find a way to justify why these actions are happening. More than that, our lives and experiences condition us to think and feel a certain way.
Look at your upbringing. If you had tiger parents who pushed you to work hard and earn a specific career or title, you might feel that your work is your purpose. But when you only have a few weeks left to live, your work begins to fade away. You realise that you've always wanted to know what it's like to explore the deep sea or to spend a week in a riverside cottage.
Tough questions on death interrupt our typical thinking patterns, allowing us to dig and reflect on what matters most. Perhaps you genuinely do want to make your family proud, and for now, that is purpose enough to motivate you to do what you do. But would you rather destroy yourself in the process, only to find that when it's all over, you wish you'd spent more time either exploring the world or with said family?
There's nothing wrong with being a high-performer or an overachiever, but it's important to understand where that fits into your purpose. Saying you're using your time to learn and to craft a life worth living. Well, that's only worth doing if you're actually taking steps to live that life.
We've focused heavily on work in this post, but it's important to note that work isn't by any means evil. If you're following your dreams through your work, then it's incredibly fulfilling finding (or creating) a job which allows you to serve those dreams. But even in these scenarios, remember, we don't live to work, we work to live. While we may express ourselves through our work, our work is rarely the complete embodiment of who we are and our identities.
Instead of waiting till the end of your life to realise that you've neglected what matters most you, it's better if you ask the tough questions now.
For Further Insight
We've explored a few questions to stimulate your thinking on purpose, but there's certainly more than one question which will help you expand your thinking.
Here are a few of our favourites. Don't feel deflated if you don't have answers to these questions. Sometimes, it'll takes a lifetime of thinking to come close to finding real, honest answers. And whether you find the answers now or in 5 years is irrelevant, what matters is being eternally curious.
Without good questions, good answers have nowhere to go.
- Imagine you have 60 days left to live, what's the first thing you'll stop doing?
- Imagine you're reading your obituary, what do you want it to say about you?
- When I'm gone, I want people to remember me for my [blank]. If there was one lesson I'd like to teach others from my life, it'd be [blank].
- How would you like your friends and family to speak about you after you've gone?
- If you had to give your life to share one message with the world, what would that be?
- If you died tomorrow, what would be your biggest regret?