Not as morbid as it seems — the answer informs how you think about your time
The first ~25 years of my life were very focused on “skill development.” Coming from an immigrant family, everything was goal (and skill oriented) — doing vs being. I studied Computer Science and Economics at Yale, two very functional disciplines. I avoided some of the institutions best classes like the plague — History of Modern China and Constitutional Law. Instead I took “gut” classes to just pad my GPA. I was after all gearing up for my career.
Post-college I plowed down this similar path with continued vigor and intensity. I would read textbooks and white papers for fun. I would go deep, instead of broad. And there was no time for fiction. Fiction? That was like watching TV. There was too much to learn. Delayed gratification reigned supreme. Life was too short.
Life is too short.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question as I’ve started reading Paul Kalinithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air,” (New Yorker excerpt and video) the story of a 36-year old Stanford Neurosurgeon who gets diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and has two years to live. He chronicles this period in his memoir which was recently published posthumously.
This book really hits home. I’ve always had a deep-rooted fear of my own death and Kalinithi’s circumstances are easily relatable t0 both me (and many of my peers). Type-A, successful, driven, disciplined, talented. Textbook execution of life’s playbook. A new wife, young daughter. Then boom — clock starts ticking.
Reading the book has helped me confront my own fears and helped me evaluate some of my own decisions and life frameworks. One question that I recently asked myself (and my fellow ?s) was:
“If I had two years to live, would I sleep more or less?”
At first, it was a resounding “LESS.” There was so much of life to consume, especially if you were “on the clock.” But conversely, I feel like shit if I don’t sleep well — so wouldn’t I want to sleep “MORE?”
Which got me asking — what was it that I wanted to consume? And why did I want to consume it? It would be pointless to “acquire new skills” or practice “delayed gratification.” You would just listen to your heart and do the things that make you happy.
Over the years I’ve come to the realization that there is no start and end date for joy, life, passion, and work. Yes, we all need to put food on the table but we should never forget that True North which guides us. Life is dynamic — playbooks help but we can’t follow them blindly. I struggle with these questions on a daily basis.
At which point does it become ok to read for the sheer pleasure of reading? When you retire? That framework is broken and obsolete. If you love what you do and the people you spend your time with, you’ll have to be carried out to stop doing it — it won’t magically end when you turn 59 and a half.
When does being become more important than doing? It’s not binary — and we should remember to live our lives with that balance and purpose. Always remembering the loved ones in our life. Expressing gratitude. Putting down the iPhone. And listening to what makes our heart sing.