10 Lessons I’ve Learned from One Question

If you knew that you were going to die exactly 5 years from today, what would that embolden you to change in your life?

Living every day like it’s your last is impractical. Unsplash

We’re often told to live everyday like it’s our last. I think that’s bad advice.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

Most of us still have a long way to go, and a good way to make it miserable is through shortsightedness. That said, I do think we can build on the idea.

When I’m unsure about how to move forward, I like to ask myself a different question. It’s taught me more about myself than most books I’ve read.

If you knew that you were going to die exactly 5 years from today, what would that embolden you to change in your life?

5 years is a while, but it’s short enough to make you assess your priorities.

It’s forced me to rethink what it means to extract value out of time, it’s made me better attuned to evaluate risks, and it’s instilled in me an urgency to act.

Living every day like it’s your last is impractical. Living every day with the acknowledgment that life is finite is a tool to make better decisions.

Much of my life has been shaped by this question. This what I’ve learned:

I. Don’t aim for success.

“The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”  — Viktor Frankl

The word success in and of itself means nothing. It’s not a tangible target.

Chasing this arbitrary measure only gets in the way. Dedicate yourself to something greater and more concrete and let success come as a byproduct.

II. Relentlessly eliminate.

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” —Henry David Thoreau

The world is noisy. The less you have, the better you can focus on the signal.

Simplify your commitments and your relationships. It’s not about trimming down for the sake of trimming down. It’s about strategically choosing less.

III. Treat people like stories.

“Though we see the same world, we see it with different eyes.”  — Virgina Woolf

Everybody perceives a different reality based on their unique experiences.

Try to understand what makes a person who they are before reasoning with them. It’s not only a better communication tactic, but it builds empathy.

IV. Avoid being a critic.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”  — Teddy Roosevelt

Productive criticism is crucially important. Intellectual snobbery is not.

It doesn’t take much to find fault in something. The real question is whether or not pointing it out positively changes anything. If it doesn’t, don’t do it.

V. Fall in love with boredom.

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”  — G.K. Chesterton

Anything in life worth doing takes time, and the work isn’t always a thrill.

Much of the journey is redundant, draining, and unsexy. If you can’t learn to enjoy the process, the odds of you making it all the way are almost zero.

VI. Do it the wrong way.

“All the heroes of tomorrow are the heretics of today.”  — E.Y. Harburg

In reality, unless it’s illegal or dangerous, there really isn’t a wrong way.

There’s just unconventional and that route is less saturated with others. Standing out isn’t a bad thing if you’ve got the substance to back it up.

VII. Acknowledge ignorance.

“I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”  — Socrates

The world is too complex for you to be certain. It’s a good idea to act like it.

Knowing what you don’t know is a competitive advantage. It keeps you in your circle of competence, and it adds an incentive to get smarter.

VIII. Hack your mind.

“Losses and gains are really not symmetric.”  —Daniel Kahneman

Don’t use milestones as motivation. Frame the goal as if it’s yours to lose.

To the brain, avoiding the cost of losing is a greater catalyst for activity than the benefit of reaching a destination. Loss aversion is a powerful tool.

IX. Seek out discomfort.

“There is safety in the midst of danger.”  —Vincent Van Gogh

Growth is what keeps life interesting. It rarely occurs without discomfort.

Nothing is as bad as you think it is. You almost always adapt, and you’re almost always better off for it. Allow yourself the luxury to experience that.

X. Have a bias for action.

“Buy the ticket, take the ride.”  — Hunter S. Thompson

Start before you’re ready and let the process self-correct onto the right path.

Preparation has diminishing returns beyond a certain threshold. Action tends to compound. The more you do, the closer you are to changing things.

Want more? Zat Rana publishes a free weekly newsletter at Design Luck. He uses engaging stories to share unique insights on how to live a better life by dissecting science, art, and business.

10 Lessons I’ve Learned from One Question