Death shows us the way to life

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.

Steve Jobs

I had heard this quotation before, I would remember it for a week or maybe sometimes two. It never resonated with me, I never grasped the deeper meaning beyond worrying about death and then pushing yourself to do better. As I was reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson I became more enamored with Jobs way of viewing the world. His quotation goes on to say the following:

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.

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.

I’ve spent the past few months obsessing over purpose, legacy and meaning. In Job’s quotation I gain a glimmer of understanding, which is comforting. Death drives us to ask the hard questions, it forces us out of our complacency. It’s ironic that in this way, death is what gives us life, and not the other way round.

It’s important to have a purpose, at least one of some sort. Doug Engelbart is an interesting case, while working at NASA Ames Research Center Engelbart found himself without a strong sense of purpose. So he set out to find one. Eventually he settled on Human-Computer Interaction. It seemed to Engelbart that problems were getting harder, and it would take man and computer to work together to solve them. From this intuition Engelbart set forth to Augment Human Intellect, and in doing so spawned countless fields and gave silicon valley enough product ideas to last 50 years.

The question of purpose is closely tied to living an authentic life. How do we remain true to ourselves and produce original works? It seems as though our purpose is to live such a life. Yet we all struggle with this task, perhaps because it is difficult to find ourselves, or perhaps we feel as though we have enough time. Eventually our small choices are made with less care, and we loose sight of what’s important. This may be because time moves deceptively quickly, the longest unit of time we can comprehend is our own lifespan. To us, there is no unit of time greater than a lifetime. Compared to a lifetime whats 5 minutes, or a day? What we don’t realize is that these moments are the very core of our lifetimes. Eventually the meter runs out, and we think there will still be another 5 minutes.

The quest for authenticity is bottomless, but perhaps there is joy in this. As we search we learn, question our assumptions, and in the end understand the world just a little bit better. Death is our change agent, and forces us to ask the hard questions and follow our intuitions.