Written at 75...updated at 78
Yeah, I know, I’m going to die. This is not news. We’re all going to die. I don’t think that I’m an exception. Well, I sort of do. But that’s another whole story. But assuming that I am going to die, how long do I have?
This estimator says there’s a 50% chance I don’t last ten years. There’s a 95% chance I’m dead within 20.
It doesn’t take into account lots of things that affect mortality: I’m better than average healthy; I’m better than average economically. I’m better than average exercising. Better than average IQ. Better than average white. So my odds of living are better than the average 78-year-old American dude might have. But still. Tick tock. The clock is ticking.
So I’m making a plan for the rest of my life—tick tock. Dying has to be part of the plan—tick tock. Living has to be part of the plan, too—tick tock.
Even though the life I have left is limited, I’ve got plenty left. And it’s precious. Most of the universe is dead, and I’m not. Not yet, as I write this. Every second counts. Tick tock.
So I’m thinking: “What do I want to accomplish in what is left of the life I’m living?” This is new to me, in two ways. First: that I’m actually thinking. Second: thinking about “the rest of my life.”
What does it mean “to think?” In the past few weeks, I’ve changed my idea of what “thinking” means. What I would have formerly called “thinking” now looks like “reacting.” This is actually a way to avoid thinking.
Thinking starts with a problem. Having a problem is uncomfortable. So what I used to call thinking was a set of techniques for avoiding discomfort. When life presented me with a problem, I’d look for the quickest path away from that discomfort.
One path was to do research. I like doing research, so that’s my go-to “thinking” strategy. Research is nice because there’s no real thinking required.
Another strategy is to find something to do that seems easy and seemed to move in the direction of a solution. The emphasis was on doing something and seeming to move, not finding the best thing to do. That requires thinking.
If what I choose didn’t work, fine. I did something. Now I can do something else. Like more research. Something.
So what do I mean by thinking? It still starts with a problem.
In this case, I want to find the most important problem that I can work on, not the first problem that pops into my head. And that will take some real thought. And once I think my way to the right problem to work on, I’ll need to find a good solution. Not the first, easiest one, but the best one.
So what is the most important problem I can work on?
Not an easy question to answer. But I have one. It took a while, but I realized that the most important problem that I can work on is deciding the most important problem I can work on. That’s oddly satisfying to the self-reference-loving inner geek.
OK, what comes next? And how do I figure out the answer? A clue came from talking this out with my son, John. What if I knew I had six months to live? What if I had only a week? How would I spend my time?
I realized that the less time I had, the faster I’d have to decide. If I had six months, then taking a week to figure things out would make sense. If I had only a week, then I’d have to do it much faster.
And, John pointed out, I was most likely thinking about it the wrong way—trying to figure it out by myself, which is typically my style. If I had a short time, I’d start by contacting the people I most cared about, telling them how much time I had left, and ask them what they’d want me to do in my remaining time that would be most valuable.
And, John pointed out, the people who know me well might suggest things that I wouldn’t have thought of by myself. It was not just something that they wanted, and that I would not have known, but things that I had forgotten that I wanted and now would have my last chance to get or do.
And then I realized that even though I thought I was trying to figure this out by myself, that I’d started talking to people to get their ideas. I’d spent time talking to Bobbi (of course) and Gil, and also with Daniel, and now John with precisely this goal in mind: what do I do to make the rest of my life most satisfying to me, which means making it satisfying to the people I love and who love me.
So that’s the challenge.
We were driving down to hear a talk by Jordan Peterson, and his talk helped me better understand the shape of an answer that would satisfy me.
That comes in the next post. If I don’t die first. If I do, ask John because I told him.