Death: The double-edged source of motivation

Our exhausting quest for heroism

Khe Hy
Khe Hy
Dec 5, 2017 · 4 min read

This essay first appeared in my weekly newsletter RadReads. Join 15,000+ subscribers.

The past three years of my post-finance career have been rich with learnings: growing as a writer, building a true meditation practice, diving into the digital/social media landscape, and managing the emotional rollercoaster of the free-agent economy.

But the biggest impact has come from the most unlikely place: a willingness to contemplate my own mortality.

Every day we make countless decisions about our own mortality. Obvious ones include when we cross a street or where we stand on the subway platform late at night. But I realized that there were so many other subtle and subconscious ones. How hard I worked , delayed gratification, and how I invested (financial security). Podcast speeds, what I read, how much I slept (time scarcity). How hard I worked out, what I ate or didn’t eat, and partaking in extreme sports (“health and longevity”). The presence I gave (or failed to give) my loved ones. (love) My goals, ambition, motivation (status, ego, and fulfillment).

I was the guy that covers his eyes during a death scene during a RomCom, so I was patently unaware (or in denial) of how these micro-decisions were weighing on my psyche. Carl Jung argues that my repression and denial were a futile strategy:

“Until we make the unconscious conscious, we will be dictated by it and call it fate.”

A silly app idea shows how deeply this scarcity mindset infiltrated my daily thinking. I once wanted to create a productivity app that would pop up every time you used social media. It would take your actuarial life expectancy (78 for US males), subtract your age (38) and convert it into days. So if I wanted to check social media at this moment, the app would say “You’ve got 14k days left on this earth, are you sure you want to do this?” (I want to give this version of myself a warm hug.)

I was blind to the flaws of this mindset. It was inaccurate because averages are, well, averages (which the late @tedr was quick to point out). And it is rife with (an understandable) scarcity. Living my life blind to this burden was both exhausting and limiting. Skilled investors, after all, spend a huge amount of time contemplating their subconscious biases and motivations. Yet for my own life, no interest.

I had two breakthroughs as I actively began contemplating my own mortality at age 35. First, there was control. Or the lack thereof. As a secular, logic-oriented, problem solver, I was incapable of accepting that there were things outside of my control. But with age, you start to realize much of life is actually outside of your control. And it’s both jarring and liberating.

Second, I stopped trying to live a heroic life. This was heavily influenced by Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer-winning work (The Denial of Death). The TL;DR, we’re so afraid of our own death, that we try to cement our immortality by living heroic lives. Putting our names on buildings, writing the great American novel, creating a lasting family legacy. As I took stock of all my ambitions, so many of them were my (feeble) attempts at living a heroic life. Building a Unicorn (immortality), lifestyle business (wait, you can build a business that supports your life 🤔). Each day I’m working to shed these, while trying to honor my intrinsic (vs. extrinsic) motivation. This has brought tremendous lightness into my life. (This typically gets me into a kerfuffle with the nihilists and hedonists, which I’ll respond to at a later date.)

But how does one actually shift away from the scarcity of death? Time is finite. How do I reconcile the fact that there are 14k more potential moments with the people whom I love more than anything in the world? And if you don’t believe in the after-life, does everything just end? Sam Harris (one of the ‘New Atheists’) admits:

“Secularists are ill-equipped to confront mortality.”

One approach that’s helped is to truly appreciate the beauty, wonder, and miracle of life — in every single moment. (I know, it sounds woo-woo, but bear with me.) The touch of your spouse’s hand. The orange filaments of sunlight at dusk. The delight in a cold sip of water after a run. Maybe it’s a reframing. Maybe its an acceptance of some form of the divine, I really don’t know. But when I look for it, I’m amazed to always find it. Abraham Maslow (yes, that Maslow), reflected on this specifically after he survived a heart attack:

The confrontation with death — and the reprieve from it — makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful, that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it….I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we’d never die.

I apologize for appropriating your Saturday mornings with a seemingly morbid topic (and anticipate the higher number of unsubscribes). But the joy that has arisen in my own contemplation of death is something that is too good not to share.

This post was deeply inspired by multiple conversations with my wonderful teachers Kate Bednarski and Andrew Taggart.

Khe Hy

Written by

Khe Hy

CNN’s “Oprah for Millennials” + Bloomberg’s “Wall Street Guru.” I write about fear, ambition, and mortality.

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

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