(This song is called, “Song for My Burial” and I recommend listening to it when you read this post. You can find lyrics here, which Google can help you translate.)
I get nervous laughs and disapproving looks when I tell people that it is my life aspiration to be assassinated by either a government angry that I exposed some dark secret or a criminal organization trying to shut me up. People should know that I’m joking.
You can’t lay out your whole life like that, making plans for your distant future while you’re still young. Too many variables. Too many things we don’t know yet.
Four years ago, I knew that I would never want children. At this point, I have been a step-father for over three years. And while it’s hard at times, there’s no other life I’d rather live.
But what if someone came to you and told you that they could put on a path that would challenge you each and every day? A path that would make you excited to get up in the morning just for the work you had to do that day. We’re talking about the kind of life that we watch movies and read books about – and it could be yours.
One catch: this path would be dangerous. It would be uncertain. And there would be a real chance that you would one day – possibly when you least expected it or possibly after an extended period of justifiable paranoia – wind up dead because of it. Before your time. Maybe way before it.
I would take that path in a heartbeat. And I think a lot of other people would as well. Who doesn’t want to die a hero?
We’re a lot more afraid of dying for nothing than we are of dying young. Or at least, we should be.
The trouble is, that certain path towards greatness doesn’t exist. Sure, you can join the armed forces and train to be a specialist. But what guarantee do you have that you’ll die a glorious death fighting for a cause that you truly believe in? More marines died in motorcycle accidents than were killed by insurgents in Iraq during 2008. Where’s the honor in that?
In other words: even if we want some sort of “glorious and honorable death,” what are the odds that we’ll actually get it? The 15 most common causes of death in the US aren’t exactly the stuff of action/adventure movies like Braveheart. Except perhaps homicide (number 15, with 0.7%), and most of those are probably over petty things like drug turf or money.
Chasing down a noble death is simply a waste of time, and although highly-effective people begin with the end in mind and then work backwards to achieve their goals, some ends are too uncertain to waste time worrying about.
But I think we do our future selves a great disservice if we don’t consider how we want to be remembered after we die. We can’t perfectly control the way we affect other people, but we can tailor our actions towards a certain self-image.
For example: if you want to leave behind a woman (or a man) who will love you always, it’s probably not a good idea to cheat on them. Ever. And if you don’t want your death to be a crushing blow to the lives of your children, you need to make sure that you show them that you love and respect them always. Baggage and unconfessed feelings screw people up and make them see therapists while they act out self-destructive patterns for the rest of their lives.
(As an aside: I highly recommend talking about death with your loved ones before it’s “your time.”)
Of course, there’s more to it than that. You need to consider what kind of effect you want to have on your friends. Will they merely miss you, or will they be inspired by you? None of that starts with your departure. It starts here and now, and you need to live your life with that in mind.
How far can you take this line of thinking? Honestly, I don’t know. But I will share some of my own early thoughts on the matter.
Call me vain, but I want my death to mean something. I want people who never even knew me to pause and honor my passing. That means I need to do something heroic. And because I can’t count on just lucking into a heroic death, that means I need to start acting like a hero now.
Part of me wonders if that’s even possible. Can we wake up one morning, a completely different man than we were when we went to bed? Because right now, I’m certainly not what one would call a hero. More of the “Average Joe” category – if that!
Are heroes simply born, or they created through a lifetime of conscious effort? The growth mindset would suggest that anyone can become a hero, even if they weren’t born as one. And I like the growth mindset. It’s very empowering – especially for those of us who didn’t peak in high-school and are still working on becoming the man that we know we can be.
Usually, people don’t really start thinking about death until they’re getting on in years (if then). I think that’s foolish. You’re going to die. To avoid thinking about it isn’t going to change that fact, and it might even stop you from making the kind of choices that can prolong your life or help you leave behind a lasting legacy. Deadlines are what a lot of people need to get off their ass and make something happen. Don’t ignore yours!
There are innumerable guides on how to lead a successful life. The 80-20 rule, which I live and die by, posits that about 80% of them are complete crap. That still leaves a vast quantity of wisdom floating around out there. Open your eyes and look for the lessons being taught each and every day by writers, film-makers, artists, entrepreneurs, and (yes!) even Average Joes.
But understand this: leading a successful life begins first with acknowledging that you’re going to die – and then figuring out what you have to do today so that you’ll have something to leave behind tomorrow. That simple mindset shift changes our life from an endless string of distractions into a relentless pursuit of meaning and contribution.