To Create the Life You Want, Imagine That You’re Dead
This simple exercise revolutionised my life in a very good way — it can do the same for you
The most important thing I ever did in my life was to imagine that I was dead.
This may not sound like an appealing idea, but please bear with me. It’ll be worth it. And I’ll give you all the details about how to go through this exercise yourself… because I think you’ll want to.
When I embarked on this thought experiment, I was in my early thirties and I felt trapped. Superficially, I had all the trappings of a “happy” life — a husband, a nice house in London, a decent salary, good friends. But the yuppie materialistic dream wasn’t working for me. Work was stressful, even though I didn’t actually care about it, and the strain of pretending to be somebody I wasn’t was exhausting. I knew I wasn’t doing a good job, and my self-esteem was nose-diving.
On the outside, all looked hunky-dory. On the inside, I was leading a life of quiet desperation. I had no idea who I was, or what I wanted out of life.
Everything changed on the day that I wrote my own obituary
So, back to the “about to be dead” part.
I imagined that I was at the end of my life, looking back and thinking about what I did with my time here on Earth. I wrote two versions — the one I wanted, and the one I was heading for if I carried on as I was.
I wrote the fantasy obituary first. My pen sped across the paper as I described this person who got out there and lived life to the fullest, who would try anything at least once, who might succeed or they might fail but they would always learn something from the experience, dust themselves off, and try again. That person seemed to cram several different lifetimes into one, grabbing hold of life with both hands, unstoppable and fearless. They were a good friend to those they cared about and tried to leave the world a better place.
For a moment, it was as if I had opened a portal into a parallel universe where I was living the life I was supposed to be living. It felt vividly real—which was strange, considering it couldn’t have been more different from my actual situation at the time.
It seemed so authentic to me that when I finished writing it, I sat back with a sigh of satisfaction and thought, “Wow, what a great life I’ve had!”, and had to metaphorically slap myself on the forehead to remind myself that this was just the imaginary one.
Then I wrote a second obituary: one that assumed I changed little and continue along as I was. By contrast, this obituary seemed like half a life by comparison. There were nice vacations and other pleasantries in that life, but nothing really juicy. It certainly didn’t measure up to the new benchmark I’d just created by writing the first fantasy obituary.
The fantasy life felt like the one that I had actually been born to live, free from fear, free to flourish.
Now that I had glimpsed what could be, I could no longer pretend that this half-life was enough for me. I realised then that I needed to make some radical changes if I wasn’t going to end up full of disappointment and regret.
The Hollywood Version — and the Real Life
If this was a Hollywood movie, I would have stridden purposefully into the office the next day and told my boss what to do with his lousy job. But it was not, and I didn’t. I didn’t have the courage.
I could see that this fantasy of mine was dynamite as far as my current life was concerned. But I couldn’t see how it would possibly fit with all the things that I thought represented security — my job, my salary, my home, my husband.
So I shoved those two sheets of paper away in a drawer and tried to forget about them. But the trouble with truth is, once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.
Things got a bit messy after that. Essentially, I self-sabotaged. On some level — I like to think of it as my soul — I knew that I had to clear away the old to make way for the new. But of course, my self-preserving ego would rather die than to let go of all its support structures.
But the soul would have its way, and far more by accident than by design, within a couple of years I found myself with no job, no income, no home and no spouse (divorced — I didn’t kill him).
To the casual observer, and certainly to my mother, it looked like a train wreck. To me, it felt like freedom. I had lost everything I thought I “needed”, and I was still alive. In fact, I had never been so happy.
(Yes, I know I’m lucky. If it had all gone wrong, I could have swallowed my pride and got a job. I didn’t have financial dependents. I had my health and my brain. But even so, it was terrifying and took all my courage not to bolt back to safety. So, give me some credit.)
Out of the office, onto the ocean
To cut a very long story very short, I then went to Peru for a few months, saw Andean glaciers in retreat, wised up to climate change (this was several years before “An Inconvenient Truth” and we weren’t all hip to global heating yet), got my green on, and felt called to row solo across several oceans to raise awareness of the environmental crisis—picking up a few Guinness World Records along the way.
I can honestly say that none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been just desperate enough to ask myself the question: “Why am I here?”
A Gentle Warning
If you want to do this exercise for yourself, I highly recommend it—but it does come with repercussions. This exercise may seriously change your life. That can involve a lot of upheaval.
But isn’t that the whole point?
There are (at least) two reasons why this exercise is so powerful:
Firstly, when we’re trying to figure out what to do with our lives, we typically start from where we are. We look at our experiences, skills, and qualifications, and ask ourselves what we can do with them.
This exercise is much more liberating because it invites you to design the place where you want to end up and reverse-engineer from there.
There may appear to be a massive gulf between where you are now and where you want to be — there certainly was for me — but by taking daily steps to get on track for your goals you can completely turn your life around within a couple of years. Within reason, of course. Wannabe astronauts or NFL players may want to rethink along more realistic lines.
Secondly, it reminds you that you don’t have forever.
When I did this exercise in my early 30s, I still assumed I was immortal, more or less. I hate to break it to you, but ain’t none of us getting out of this alive. And we never know how long we have.
So now would be a good time to get more intentional.
How to Do This Yourself
Get a pen and a notebook. If you really want to, you can use your laptop or tablet, but I find using a pen and paper taps into a different and more creative part of my brain, so even though I recognize and use the benefits of digital tools, I make an exception in this case. (I’m also a stationery nerd, and I love writing in Paper Blanks notebooks with a Pentel Liquid Gel pen. Not even close to as good as sex, but it’s somewhere on that spectrum.)
Carve out an hour or two from your busy life — after all, this could be the most important couple of hours you’ll ever spend — and find somewhere you can enjoy interrupted time to yourself. I find a coffee shop to be perfect — provided I avoid kiddie hour, there’s just the right amount of background noise to intensify my focus on what I’m doing. Grab a latte, and take a moment to still yourself and tune in, and start writing.
Write your fantasy obituary
It’s important to write the fantasy version first. If you’re currently a long way from your ideal life, you don’t want to prime your brain with all the reasons your life sucks. You want to be in an expansive, blue-sky headspace where everything seems possible — after all, you have the rest of your life to make this come true. Let go of all connection to reality. You have absolute permission to dream.
“If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Don’t edit or second-guess yourself — just let it flow. Go as deep as you can. Put your ego to one side — it will have its own ideas, but the ego isn’t what you want to hear from right now. This is your invitation to your soul, or higher self, or essence, or whatever you choose to call it, to have its say. It doesn’t normally get a chance to get a word in edgeways amidst the busy-ness of everyday life. This is its golden opportunity. Allow it free rein.
An important tip: I didn’t write about what I wanted to DO — that came later. First of all, I needed to envisage the person I wanted to BE. What would friends remember me for? What would my memories of my life be like? What would make me most proud of how I’d lived? How would it feel from the inside to be this amazing, fulfilled version of me?
If you’re still struggling to get started, here are some questions to help get your creative juices flowing. Don’t try to do them all — just skim down the list until one sparks your imagination:
- What makes you happiest in your life? What energises you?
- What makes you bounce out of bed in the mornings, eager to get going?
- Who do you want to be like? Who are your role models?
- When was the last time you over-delivered on a project? What about it made it so rewarding to work on?
- What were you doing the last time you were in a flow state and lost track of time?
- Imagine you won millions in the lottery. What would you choose to do?
- What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
- What topics do you find yourself arguing or defending with others? What values are you defending or advocating?
- What most frustrates you about the state of the world? If you had unlimited resources would you want to fix it?
- What fears do you have for the next generation (whether or not you have children)?
- What do you love doing to help others?
- What books or magazines do you most love to read?
- When was the last time you woke up in the middle of the night with a brainwave about a project you were working on? What was it?
- If you trusted that your art/creativity could support you, how would you live?
- Out of your current roles, what work would you gladly do for free?
- What legacy do you want to leave to the world?
- What do your friends tell you you’re good at?
- What are you naturally curious about? What do you browse on the internet?
- When you were little, what did you want to do when you grew up? (This could be symbolic or literal.)
- If you were to write a book that was guaranteed to be a bestseller, what would it be about?
- Whose people’s jobs do you envy? Or what aspects of their jobs?
- What job(s) do you feel would truly reflect your values and beliefs out into the world?
- What themes do you feel emerging in your life at the moment?
- What would you want people to say about you at your own funeral?
- What is the grandest version of the greatest vision you ever had of yourself?
Write your obituary as you see your current path taking you
Now write a version of your obituary that simply extends the path you’re on right now—as if you made no significant changes in your life.
This is important, for comparative purposes. If the first part of the exercise was all about right-brained imagination, this is much more about left-brained extrapolation. If you carry on living, day after day, week after week, year after year, as you are living now, where is that going to take you?
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillane
As for the first part of the exercise, focus on what David Brooks calls the “eulogy virtues”, rather than the “resumé virtues”. In other words, when you’re the one in the casket, your job title or the square footage of your house or the number of cars in your garage will matter less than your relationships, the experiences you shared with your loved ones, or your contribution to your community.
If you’re fortunate, there may not be much difference between the two versions. Maybe you’re already nicely on track — congratulations! But I suspect that if that were the case, you wouldn’t have read this far.
If your two versions are dramatically different, DON’T PANIC! In fact, you don’t even really have to do anything.
Yes, that’s right. I’m not going to ask you to spreadsheet your milestones on how you’re going to transform your life, or write out affirmations to repeat ten times daily, or anything like that.
Now you know what you know. You’ve seen what you’ve seen, and you can’t un-see it.
Gradually, you’ll feel that vision of your future self start to inform the decisions that you make day-to-day. You’ve set unseen wheels in motion. Life wants you to be living the life you wish for, and all you have to do is allow it. This isn’t a handbrake turn; it’s a graceful letting go of the reins you’ve held so tightly all this time. Just ease back and let the magic happen.
The ride may get a bit bumpy at times, but hang on in there and keep the faith — it gets easier. You may even find that new mentors and allies show up to guide and support you.
Good luck! And don’t say I didn’t warn you…