Ask Yourself: ‘How Long Have I Got?’

Originally published at:

One of the interesting side effects of being young is an implicit feeling of immortality. It is not really something that is foremost in most 22-year-olds’ minds.

But this otherwise common phenomenon for most others seemed absent in me. In fact, quite to the contrary, I was concerned that I did not have enough time to do all that needed doing. In fact, at age 14 after reading about John Goddard’s Life List in Life Magazine, I was doomed. Goddard was 15 when he created his list in the 1930s. So I felt somewhat of a kinship bridging the years to develop a contemporary version of my own Life List.

I dreamed of various adventures and places to see, things to do, exotic and domestic, all over the world — it was a compendium of excitement, and also acted as a terrific motivator. By age 22 I had actually placed some checkmarks by a few items, but at the same time, The List had grown. The more I learned about, the more I wanted to do and experience. My List has now turned out to be an ever-evolving blueprint of my life: cataloging cool things that have been accomplished and mapping out what comes next.

Remaining Days

Indeed, we all know of the proverbial if not ubiquitous “bucket lists” of our individual must-dos. Most of us have something that we want to do, see, or accomplish before we kick our bucket. Admittedly, it is the fodder of many commencement addresses, including all of the ones I have done, and similarly, LinkedIn Influencer posts (Now Is the Time to Mess Up and before that Class of 2013: Inoculation for the Pox of the Untils).

Most are aware of the beautiful and moving “Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch on Achieving Your Childhood Dreams and more recently Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, MD, wrote a widely read New York Times op-ed on dealing with one’s own as well as others’ mortality.

When I think of Randy and Paul in the context of finite days, I get all the more impatient.

What If You (Kinda) Know When…?

Kevin Kelly to the rescue. Twenty years ago, on the very first edition of This American Life, Kevin described the experience of what he did when he acted like had six months to live. This then led him to use actuarial data to estimate his longevity (which can be tweaked higher or lower based on one’s condition, lifestyle, and family history if so desired). Once you have the age estimate, you can do the math to calculate how many days, months, years you have left. To convert that into the specific date, you can use the Date Duration Calculator. Creepy? Perhaps a little. But what a sobering motivator! (You can also use the same calculator to make a countdown clock if you prefer.)

Keven notes that Stewart Brand has…

…been arranging his life in blocks of 5 years. Five years is what he says any project worth doing will take. From moment of inception to the last good-riddance, a book, a campaign, a new job, a start-up will take 5 years to play through. So, he asks himself, how many 5 years do I have left? He can count them on one hand even if he is lucky. So this clarifies his choices. If he has less than 5 big things he can do, what will they be?

Of course you can get hit by a bus tomorrow, or some medical breakthrough could add 5,000 more days, but the point that Kevin makes is that taking this approach helps him prioritize what is really important and what really needs to get done. And that I like.

A lot.

Accidents Happen, and That’s a Good Thing

Lastly, I think it is just as important to vary off one’s path/direction/trajectory and take the occasional detour or more scenic route. Indeed some of my best experiences were via the processional effect on my way to something else.

Your Turn

What has helped you get to where you wanted to go? How do you keep motivated or keep priorities in focus? Any pivots, accidental or on purpose, that you’ve made?

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