Friday, January 16, 2015

As If You Had Only a Year to Live

By Glenn Campbell

My alter-ego the @BadDalaiLama just tweeted:
This is a variation of the old adage, "Life each day as though it were your last." I'm just extending the timeframe a bit. Living solely for today tends to be hedonistic. What can any of us accomplish in a day? You can make others around you a little happier, but that's about it. Living for the day neglects the most important human skill: planning ahead.

But if you plan too far ahead, you tend to get lost. If your main goals are 5, 10 or 20 years down the line, it is easy to put things off. Timeframes beyond a year don't convey much urgency. You figure that even if this year is a waste, you have plenty of time to make up for it later, and this attitude goes on year after year.  If your goals are too far ahead, is easy to lose sight of how fragile and temporary life is and how quickly it is already slipping away.

If you are always planning for a one-year lifespan, you may be pleasantly surprised to see it extended, but the satisfaction of "a life well lived" shouldn't depend on having more time. You can have tentative backup plans for 5, 10 and 20 years, should they come to pass, but a single year, looking forward from today, should be your primary focus.

Longer term plans are notoriously unreliable. Many a 10-year plan has been mucked up by unforeseen circumstances, and even if it isn't, your life a decade hence is never quite what you thought it would be, so it is best to keep the planning period short. One year seems like a good compromise between prudently planning ahead and over-planning what you cannot realistically foresee.

A lot of things change when you have only a year to live instead of decades. All of those 365 days become more valuable. The urgency of everything you do is sharpened and enhanced, leading to many changes in strategy.

You have to work with the resources you have. Resources are the skills, time, money and other construction supplies available for your projects. Over the course of a year, you can't count on having more of them, so you have to carefully manage what little you have.

The most valuable of these resources is time, so you've got to stop wasting it right now! Your time should only be used for things that are worthy of a person with only a year left on Earth. You know what I'm talking about. As soon as you sit down in front of the TV, you have broken a rule. You have unconscionably wasted time when you have so little of it left.

One year is arbitrary, of course, but five years would make you lazy. In a practical sense, if a project can't be completed in a year—or at least safely turned over to someone else within a year—maybe it isn't one you should engage in. If a novel takes you five years to write, there's always a chance you will die before it is done and the whole thing will be worthless. A project completed within a year is a little safer.

It is fine to engage with others in open-ended projects lasting more than a year—like the long-term survival of humanity—but your personal contribution shouldn't be essential beyond that time. If it is, you may be doing others a disservice, because when you do step away they won't be able to get along without you. Your job on Earth is not to make yourself indispensable. Your job is to plan for your own demise, so that other can take over when you are gone. Either you wrap up each project on your own, or you give others easy handles to continue it for you.

Your goals over the near year have to be modest. You can't expect to save the world in that time. Frankly, you can't expect to save the world even in 100 years, but a shorter schedule helps you dispense with that delusion more easily. You can't say, "Someday, I'll become a billionaire and then I'll do great things." On a one-year schedule, you can only expect to do relatively simple things with the resources you have.

What matters at the end of your life is what you leave behind. There is a record of your presence in the systems you have built. If you built a house, the house will stand long after you are gone. You just want to build something more meaningful than that.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you what you should build. That's the $64,000 question. I'm only saying that working on one-year timeframe—as though you had a year to live—is better than kicking the can down the road and pretending you have forever.