The time we have left in our lives might seem infinite and eternal, but it isn’t. It might be long, but it is finite. Your life will eventually end one day in the future, so make the most of it.
Time is a b***h. Excuse my language, but it is. The older you get, the more time you dedicate to think about, well, time: what you have done with the time that has gone by, why it went so quickly, how it passes by quicker and quicker, and especially, what to do with the time left.
As my dear reader should know by now, I like to talk about the future, about how we can build a more humane and better future of work. Today I would like to speak about the personal future, the future each of us has left in our lives, and what to do with it.
The Tail End
If you haven’t read this post by Tim Urban, I suggest you do. Immediately.
It is fascinating. It is one of those posts that make you think and ponder about deep things. In a very visual way (see an example chart below), the author shows us some random stuff we have left to do in our lives. For example, Urban thinks he has left around 300 books to read, 60 swims in the ocean, and 20 Red Sox games in their stadium.
You may or may not feel very identified with those things. For example, I live by the sea, and I love swimming in the ocean, so I think I still have hundreds if not thousands of swims left, and I’ve never been to a Red Sox game or any baseball game for that matter.
Still, there will be other things, hobbies, and interests you can identify with. The premise of the post still stands, loud and clear: you may think you still have an eternity to live, but the number of days you have left is limited, finite, and can be counted, so you better do what you really feel like doing.
The post gets touching when it starts dealing with relationships. Urban believes he is at the tail end of his time with his parents (see chart below), his sisters, or best friends from college.
Urban closes the post with three main takeaways:
- Living in the same place as the people you love matters
- Priorities matter
- Quality time matters
I cannot agree more.
Time only travels in one direction
Regardless of what science-fiction stories say about time-traveling, we human beings can only perceive time traveling in one direction: from past to the future, passing through the present. That which has happened, we cannot change; that which is yet to happen, we cannot know.
Mindfulness gurus will tell you that you can only live in the present, and it is not worth it to regret the past and worry about the future. You just need to live in the present, and everything will be fine. I tend to agree with this premise, and it will do wonders in your mental wellbeing if you follow it, but only partially.
Indeed, you cannot change the past, and it is not worthwhile delving into it and torturing yourself for things you could have done better. It is also true that we tend to worry too much and get too anxious when we think about the future, always imagining unimaginable horrors happening to our loved ones and us.
Yet you cannot live only in the present and be effective. One thing that distinguishes us from most other animals is our capacity to learn from our past mistakes and plan well into the future. We need to analyse well what happened in the past, but without regrets or negativity, and get the main takeaways that will allow us to do better in the future.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”George Santayana, American-Spanish philosopher
The future is built in the present, step by step. It isn’t something that happens to us but something we build. The same as we have the agency and capacity to build the future of our organisations and society, we have the agency and capacity to build our own future. You can decide what you would like to do, your purpose in life, where you would like to live, and who you would like to spend your time with. Don’t let others decide for you.
The unbearable lightness of being
Milan Kundera wrote the great classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being in opposition to Nietzche’s eternal recurrence concept (our lives are in an endless cycle of constant repetition). Kundera exposes in his work that each of us has only one life to live, there is no eternal cycle, and whatever happens in our lives only occurs once and never again; it’s not coming back. This is where the lightness of being is coming from.
When I read this book a few years ago, I found it both exhilarating and depressing at the same time. It created some form of angst within me that I couldn’t place or explain. It probably has to do with the “unbearable” part of the being. We are living only one life, and each day that passes is not coming back. We take with us our achievements and happy moments, but also our mistakes and regrets. There is no rewinding life like a videotape and going back to change things. This is what makes it beautiful and amazing, but also a bit sad, sometimes unbearably so.
Time is inexorable, relentless and unstoppable. It only travels in one direction, whether we like it or not. It feels infinite, especially when you are young, but it’s definitively and conclusively finite. You will never recover yesterday, last week, or last year. They will only survive as memories. Some of them you will cherish, some others you will try to remove entirely from your brain.
The problem with memories is that they are not even very reliable. Research shows that we often invent our memories, so whatever happened ten years ago, is gone and you may never recover it exactly, not even in your memories, as it is likely that your brain made up and adorned what happened.
Make the most of the time you have left
As I have written elsewhere, some people believe that we may end up living hundreds of years or even achieve a-mortality, but this is not a given, so let’s assume life expectancy doesn’t change significantly in the next decades. If that’s the case, you know more or less how long, on average, you have left in this life. Like Urban in his post, you can also work out how long people you love have left to live. Some may go earlier, some later. The same applies to you. You never know.
We don’t usually like to talk about death, let alone our own death, but I think talking and thinking about it allows us to live better. Death is what makes us more alive.
Realising that you have only three or four decades left and that this includes a limited number of books, a limited number of visits to your favourite foreign city, and especially very limited time left with people you love should help you appreciate and value those things and people much more.
As human beings, we have agency over our lives, we can choose what to do with it. We can make plans to start new work projects, relocate to new places. All those things are open to you if you want to do them. We often build walls around ourselves and our dreams and don’t pursue them because we convince ourselves that we won’t reach them. The thing is, if you don’t try, you’ll never know, but you’ll always regret not trying.
You have limited time on earth, so make the most of it. Follow your dreams. Find your real purpose and work towards fulfilling it. Spend more time with the people you love. Do the things that really matter to you. Be free.
Make the most of the time you have left.