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27 March 2021

You are Going to Die. So How Do you Want to Live?

Written by
Chantal Laurie Below

I’ve always been drawn to the deep and profound; death, in particular, fascinates me. I’m a BJ Miller groupie, devoured When Breath Becomes Air, and count Terrible, Thanks for Asking among my favorite podcasts. The fragility of life means I often ruminate on how trauma will manifest in my children when my time inevitably, prematurely ends (macabre, I know). And it means I constantly calibrate how I spend my time, wondering ‘Is this the life I most want to be living?’ since I could die at, literally, any moment. (The answer is a resounding, ‘No’ during the 12,825th prolonged bedtime routine with my six-year-old, even if I’ll miss it when I’m ashes in an urn.)

While I wouldn’t wish my low-grade death paranoia on anyone, I wonder if a healthy dose of, ‘YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!!’ could be good for my clients. Let me explain.

I facilitate a multi-day women’s leadership workshop for senior leaders at a well-established tech company. These are impressive women: driven, innovative, independent, smart. And, while I don’t know their salary or stock status, it’s fair to say they’ve got significant financial freedom.

Specifically, let’s focus on Marian, a recent workshop participant. An engineer by training, her career propelled her into the world of operations. She’s the family breadwinner, her husband stays home with their ten-year-old daughter. Marian revealed in our workshop, ‘I’m over the work I do. As a bi-racial woman, I want to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work.’ She talked about mentoring, uplifting, writing, and speaking. She lit up and then said, ‘But I’ll never make enough money doing it, so I’ll hold off for 10 years.’

I wanted to bring her in close and whisper, ‘But what if you’re dead by then?

I restrained my morbid impulse and instead said, ‘How do you know it’s true that you won’t make enough money?’ and she honestly answered, ‘I guess I don’t.’

In the moment she responded, it felt like the slot machines in a Vegas casino stopped dinging and blinking incessantly and Marian had the quiet to see the holes in her safe but flawed logic. It was glorious. But I sensed that, within moments, the hypnotic machines would ramp up again, flashing reminders of false assumptions like, ‘Pursuing what I want but didn’t build a career around is irresponsible,’ and ‘If I don’t earn X amount of money, I’m failing my family.’ She’d shift right back to delaying dreams for a decade.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire Marian’s commitment to providing for her family and I don’t know her suite of annual expenses or tacit marital agreements that may demand sustaining the status quo. Nonetheless, I see that Marian’s illusion of a long-life guarantee keeps her wed to constrained beliefs and inhibits creative wondering. ‘How might I live the life I most want now and be fiscally responsible?’ is what I’m desperate for her to explore. Without entertaining the question, Marian and the world suffer the unnecessary loss of her absence as a DEI changemaker.

Or take another workshop participant, Stacey. Stacey’s a data scientist who’s been in tech for two decades. She’s in her early 40’s, married with a dog. She shares with both pride and burden how her Taiwanese father subtly (but obviously) brags about her status and success to friends. In the same breath she says she’s ‘stuck and uninspired’ professionally, plotting to retire by 48 and pursue her passion project.

‘So, what’s your passion?’ I ask her.

‘Travel.’ She says.

‘To where?’ I ask.

‘Anywhere.’ She responds.

‘Why?’ I ask.

She talks about food, adventure, and inspiration. Then I ask, ‘So how will travel integrate into your passion project?’

‘I’ve never thought about it,’ she says. ‘Maybe I could do something in hospitality?’ she offers timidly.

And again, I wanted to bring her in close and whisper, ‘What if you’re dead before you get the chance to think about it?’  

I understand that Stacey’s job is demanding, that Covid saps energy to dream because we’re tending to the unpredictable present, and that nurturing the passion project feels dangerously intertwined with disappointing her father. Nonetheless, I worry that while Stacey may intend to retire and pursue her passion project, fear of the unknown and confronting her father’s disapproval may forever blind her to mortality and convince her that, ‘It can wait.’ And then, she’ll be dead.

This year we’ve confronted the undeniable and clarifying reality that life is uncertain. A pandemic showed up and shut down schools, businesses, and relationships overnight. It’s killed over two million people in a year. Wildfires swallowed neighborhoods, snowstorms instigated historic blackouts, political polarization made us wonder, ‘Where do we go from here?’ Our environment is signaling to us, ‘People! There are no guarantees!’ by throwing an epic tantrum yet we persistently and blindly cling to the delusion of immortality and trust there are guarantees for me. (But, not for you. Bummer.).

But, there aren’t.

I know that real life comes with ungratifying demands and that every fleeting hope, want, or dream can’t be tended to; my marriage wouldn’t withstand twice monthly weekend girlfriend get-aways and 1440 Multiversity retreats to fill my soul. And I know that dreaming can feel like a privilege when money is tight, and survival is the day’s priority.  But I also think we naively trust that dreams can wait until our savings goal is reached, we have an empty nest, the self-doubt disappears, or the promotion comes. The truth is that the aneurysm, breast cancer diagnosis, or heart attack might show up as the headliner way before. And then, our unrealized dreams die with us.

So my ask of you is to wonder, ‘Is this the life you most want to be living?’ and ‘What do you dream could be different?’ Then, find one small way to make the dream real today. Maybe Marian starts a podcast or blog exploring how tech can radically honor inclusivity. Maybe Stacey engages honestly with her dad, asking for support and revealing, ‘I want something different for my life.’ Maybe you research schools in Costa Rica to stoke the dream of a year abroad, write for 30 min a day to build confidence around drafting a novel, talk to five people about how they mustered up the courage to start a business, or visit the place now where you have fantasies of retiring at 65. Instead of trusting the mystical, unreliable, and invisible future, may we all manifest our dreams daily and die knowing we lived them instead of just dreaming that one day, someday, they might hopefully happen.

Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

6 thoughts on “You are Going to Die. So How Do you Want to Live?”

  1. Diana Manks says:

    This is wonderful Chantal – I could see you whispering to women “but what if you’re dead?” I have started being clearer about things I want to achieve each year, bite sized things I want to achieve so that not all me dreams die with me. Your post is a great reminder that tomorrow is not inevitable.

  2. Amiel Handelsman says:

    Thank you, Chantal, for this eloquent and important piece. Reflecting on mortality is staggering in its importance and, much of the time, its difficulty given all the clever mechanism we’ve developed to hide it from conscious awareness. The “What if you’re dead by then?” question is so bracing that it acts like smelling salts. The arrival of my 50th birthday prompted a substantial confrontation with these questions that continues to this day. Excellent topic, thanks for bringing it to us. – Amiel

  3. Mike Vessey says:

    Really enjoyed reading this short piece Chantel, macabre thoughts of death included. Thanks for writing and sharing.

  4. Chantal says:

    @amiel I’m so glad it resonate. May your 50th be a time to both accept mortality and live even more fully into the decade. Thank you for the comment.

  5. Chantal says:

    @mike thank you for letting me know how it landed. I’m always grateful to know and so appreciate you sharing that it meant something to you.

  6. Dan Kaufman says:

    Thank you for this article and the reminder that death, which for so much of our lives seems so very far away, is always just around the corner. Facing it can make clear our real priorities and the possibilities that are in our lives NOW!

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