If you have two seconds to spare, we’d like to show you something. It’s the rest of your life, plotted out week-by-week until you’re dead.
Maybe you don’t have two seconds to spare after all.
Don’t worry, though. Gordon Brown can help you deal with this newfound sense of dread. The steps are easy to follow. But it’s the follow through that will tame that rising panic in your chest.
The minaret stands giant in the darkness. The tired, aching sun has finally dipped beneath the far horizon and for a second it’s silhouetted black against the twilight. Lights flicker on and the minaret’s illuminated. An immense tower of cream-colored stone, etched with dazzling geometric patterns I can see even from down here on the street.
But it’s a Syrian summer, and even in the darkness it’s an easy 96 degrees. And I’ve been walking all day. And a visitor from the States just brought us the latest season of The Simpsons and I’m 17 and only human.
But I can see the minaret later. I’ll be back from college next summer and then I can explore. I have all the time in the world. It’s been there since the 11th century—it’s not going anywhere.
That was back in the 2008, and the shells blasted from regime tanks were of a different opinion.
I had come to America for college and wound up staying after the war broke out. I watched from the safety of my dorm room as the places I thought I’d always have were changed beyond my recognition. All the places I had put off seeing. The adventures I told myself I’d have later. The trips I’d take, the people I’d meet, the smoky cafes I’d make my chosen hang-outs…
…Well, life has a way of getting away from you.
In Tim Urban’s TED talk on the topic of procrastination, he identifies that feeling of dread evoked by a creeping deadline as the “panic monster.” The way he explains it is really amazing, and very much worth a watch.
For procrastinators (i.e. everyone), the panic monster is the only thing capable of driving us forward. While plenty of the smaller projects in our lives conveniently come with due dates, the things most important to us have no hard deadlines.
But, as many folks (myself included) have had to learn the hard way – just because there’s not a definitive end date on our hopes and dreams doesn’t mean that expiration dates don’t exist. They absolutely do and there should be nothing more frightening than the thought of waking up in twenty or thirty years with the sickening realization that the best years of our lives have slipped right through our fingers.
And it’s that fear, Urban argues, that keeps even the worst procrastinator among us on their toes.
Time and tide wait for no man and there’s probably nothing more useful for putting things into perspective than this tool. Even in the absence of all of life’s chaos (and there’s always chaos), we still only have so many years on this earth. And in spite of that, so many of us imagine that life is something we can live later—and we’re especially in danger of falling into that erroneous thinking in our 20s.
Now is that to say that we can’t relax?
Of course not.
The idea that we have to spend our every waking moment in a state of frantic and frenzied activity is just as wrong as the idea that we can just coast through life. And again, I’ve been there myself—swearing that “I can sleep when I’m dead,” only to find myself pulling triple shifts, working for weeks without stopping, and generally wishing I was dead.
The purpose of this isn’t to get us to march double-time but to get us to be more selective about how we spend our most precious nonrenewable resource: time. It’s to get us to be more aware of what it is we need, what we want, and what’s going to give us lasting satisfaction. The great American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau actually took a year away not just from his career, but from civilization for the sole purpose of discovering what it was that was worth giving his precious time to. To put it in his own words:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
–Henry David Thoreau – Walden; or Life in the Woods, 1854
Ultimately, our decision to quit procrastinating and actually start living means that we have to make our time work for us. To live, as Thoreau tells us, “deliberately”
But what does that mean?
The Deliberate Life
Now this might sound like one hell of a challenge. We have to be adventurous, but not reckless. Passionate, but not impelled. We have to somehow plan ahead and still stay flexible enough to dodge all the changes life throws at us.
As with everything, it’s easier when broken into steps.
First and foremost, we have to discover what it is that we care about.
Not what society says we should care about. Not our parents, not our professors, not even dashing writers for digital lifestyle magazines (*cough*). Our time is limited and too many folks have wound up chasing those idealized white picket fences or rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles only to achieve them and still find themselves empty and unfulfilled. And that’s not to say that we won’t find our calling later in life (plenty of folks do), only that there’s no sense in devoting the freest years of our lives to someone else’s dream.
It’s true that we’re never really going to know what life is going to throw our way. A sudden change in careers or relationship status, an accident or an injury—perhaps even something as crazy as a war (as it was in my case). Even good fortune can throw a wrench in the best laid plans. With all that chaos and flux, it can be tempting to just throw our hands up and surrender to the whims of fate.
We can’t do it.
While time and tide wait for no man, our inability to know the future doesn’t affect our ability to predict it. No, you can’t be prepared for everything, but the wise man is going to be prepared for most things—be it a career (or back-up career), relationship, retirement, and health and well-being (in the long and short term). We might not always be able to prepare for everything that can go wrong, but we should never have an excuse for being caught unprepared when things go right.
And that might sound like a given, but it’s amazing how many people have a career, a project, a relationship that they claim to be happy with, but lack any real enthusiasm for.
A lack of zeal is understandable—finding a sense of direction is tough, and mapping out an actual plan for getting from point A to point B is even tougher. When we do get our courses charted out there’s absolutely going to be the temptation to relax, even to take things for granted. And that’s where the danger lies—in getting lazy. All the incisive introspection and meticulous planning in the world isn’t going to do you any good unless you put it into action—and if you’re going to act on these plans, act on ’em.
If you’ve arrived at the point where you’re ready to set something into motion, then put some damn momentum behind it (you can read up on Primer’s own Dominic Preston for a perfect illustration of this).
Life is, as we’ve said before, nothing if not unpredictable, and we simply don’t have the luxury of dawdling or putting in half-measures towards our goals if we ever want to see them realized.
A valued mentor of mine once said that “character is your ability to perform an action after the emotion of taking that action has passed.”
That’s a line that’s stuck with me over the years since I first heard it—and I’m reminded of it most of all on the all-too-frequent days when I botch it. After I fizzle out of yet another exercise routine. When I’m running late on yet another piece. When my frantic notes for the next great American novel are gathering dust on my desk.
It’s easy to declare our plan to commit to something. We can swear we’ll climb that mountain, save for that vacation, or learn to play that instrument, and in the heat of the moment we’ll certainly mean every word of it. But emotions come and go, and after they do we need to still be able to put in just as much effort as we did when we first got started. And cultivating that degree of willpower is going to be equal parts an art and a science, but it’s that ability to motivate (and scare) ourselves that is critical to our success.
So ask yourself these questions every night:
Have you made your existence richer somehow?
Have you continued on a path of development?
Are you doing something or loving someone because you want to or because it feels easier or less risky than changing directions?
Have you lived today?
No better time to start than now.