The Gifts of Mortality and Self Discovery
You are going to die. Yes, you, dear reader. Not a pleasant thought, is it? But it’s true. Take a moment to absorb that reality.
Each year, I talk to a room full of about 500 freshmen. I tell them that they will die. Most laugh uncomfortably. Many look at me like I’m insane and babble to their friends how ridiculous or rude this introduction seems. While I don’t expect 14-year-olds to have contemplated the deeper meanings of life, it is startling how afraid we are of broaching this subject.
Death certainly puts everything into context. I mention it not to depress, but to free you from the insidious tendency towards malaise and falling in line with the status quo. To thrive in life, we must not treat death as some abstract, taboo topic that will leave us alone if we will only do the same. I don’t ask that we dwell on death, but let its reality give context to each day, so that our lives matter, so that we are useful, and so we remember to invest our days towards a vision and risk for our passions.
The Gift of Life and Death
It is from this perspective that true self-discovery and purpose are possible. Our schools do little to prompt self-discovery and an understanding of the human condition. Far more time is spent learning how to be what others like. Our society is far more comfortable focusing on idle gossip, reality TV, and superficial desires.
The truth of death can help us find the truths of life. For optimal human development, we must enrich our youth with experiences that bring about self-discovery and depth of thought. These give the strength to make life-changing health shifts and the urgency to chase dreams and leave our comfort zones. Self-discovery is an essential educational offering, if we are to tap into our sense of purpose and live lives of passion.
I want to hammer home the gift of life and death with a few key excerpts from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech, which he gave shortly after his first battle with cancer:
“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
We give our youth so many big choices early on, but no thought processes or development that might prepare them to make those decisions. The gift of understanding mortality is to free ourselves of these self-imposed limitations, and to develop an understanding of what is truly important in each our lives. We all have fears and all make poor, ego-driven choices. How much richer could our lives be without these constraints?
“…Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Everything else is secondary! So let’s focus on what is primary.
The Ingredients of Self-Discovery
When we accept this understanding of the human condition, a world of self-discovery will become open to us. So much of our youth is spent trying to be who others want us to be, yet we can never be our best until we accept who we truly are.
This does not mean labeling yourself according to your faults. It means embracing your nature and being honest inwardly and outwardly. When our thoughts, words, and actions do not match, there is tension. Honest self-reflection should be part of each person’s day. As Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” It is with honesty towards where we are, and clarity in what really makes us come alive, that we can decide who we want to be and go about creating that life. This is true with change in diet, training habits, or career trajectory.
So far this is all a lot of vague talk, though. How do we actually kick-start this process? It will be a combination of experience and exposure. We first will commit to daily habits that enable self-reflection.
Some sort of mindfulness practice is an essential step. We will start with a simple dose of ten minutes’ daily meditation. There is nothing magical about meditation. Its utility is evident simply by its difficulty. People struggle mightily to maintain focus on a simple breath while letting thoughts come and go. It’s shocking to be reminded how little of our lives are spent flowing in the moment. In our instant gratification, distraction-oriented culture, ten minutes of meditation a day is an essential antidote. This is a key to mastery of our emotions and better self-understanding. The more we do this, the more we are able to feel a sense of flow, while being less inclined to get stuck in toxic emotions such as resentment and self-pity. The more we notice our tendency to label, the more we can drop our conditioned expectations to realize a better reality. Once there is a foundation in meditation, doors open for more mental training techniques such as visualization.
Another essential habit will be daily writing. This can take a couple forms. I use “The Five Minute Journal,” a brilliant little daily writer that requires a short time in the morning and evening for reflection. As a habit, it will help you train your brain to see possibility and feel gratitude, while also offering a time for daily reflection and refocus on how you wish to be.
If you prefer, you could also compose a daily “thank you” letter. The idea behind this would be to write a short daily letter of gratitude to someone who has had a positive influence in your life. Letters could be written to people we do not know, but whose thoughts were impactful, or even to those no longer living. The letters can be short and to the point, but the process will open us up to just how fortunate we are, while also solidifying great connections. If you choose this route, I’d suggest a bulk mailing day once a month or so, to not let it become a daily inconvenience. Email is okay as well, but I think there is even more power behind the handwritten note.
The last essential habit for our self-discovery and personal development is daily physical activity. The mind and body are so intimately linked. The most staggering epidemic of our time is the disconnection we’ve created in our lives, which has led to chronic sedentary behavior. We cannot truly know ourselves without physical challenge. Furthermore, physical training is the greatest possible laboratory to put life’s lessons into practice. A physically challenging rite of passage is a necessary piece of the education process.
Go to great lengths to infuse play and novel physical challenge into your life. As an insurance policy, since life gets busy, we must have a daily movement practice. I will lay out what that can look like at a later time. Regardless of whether you follow my training philosophy, or any of the many other tremendously successful systems, what is essential is that you pick a practice and make it your ritual. Training should be appropriate to your interests, experience, and current level. The options are nearly infinite, so take the pressure off yourself and commit to a plan. Enjoy experimenting.
It Only Works if You Do It
Consistency is king for all of these habits. One day or one week will hardly be a blip on the radar. It’s the daily dose that has overwhelming power. Human nature is to lose steam after a couple weeks. Follow the principles of change and habit formation to create sustainable daily rituals. My goal is to create a community that will offer the social support that makes consistent behavior even more likely.
In Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage, he describes the many research-backed advantages to being happier, and posits five habits proven to improve daily happiness:
- Recall 3 things you are grateful for
- Journal one great experience you had
- Perform random acts of kindness
My suggested daily habits check each of those boxes, and offer a context to start our self-discovery. But they are not enough. We must feed our minds daily with the right lessons. This will be my focus as we move forward. Specifically, what lessons promote greater depth of experience in life, and greater self-understanding to allow intentional life purpose.