You’re given two years to live. A rare form of cancer has taken root and the chances of any survival is extremely slim. There were things that you always wanted to achieve and if you work hard for the next year and a half you’ll likely be able to achieve those original goals, but at the risk of permanently losing out on family time. Is it completely unreasonable to do this and use up your precious time, or should you just go for it anyway?
Live Like You’re Dying
This concept stirs in most of us, helping us to remember to do things we love. To cherish every waking moment as much as possible. Yet it’s not quite fair, because some of us would gladly spend the rest of our days frolicking on the coast of an exotic beach with our loved ones. We can’t do that and survive for too long because we need money to sustain ourselves.
The result is, we can’t quite live like we’re dying. We have to live like there’s a chance we could die, but there’s a chance we could live. Which brings us back to what most of us do already, try to make plans, get out every now and then, alternate between “living” and working.
If we truly know that we only have a certain amount of time left, then we can determine how much exotic beach time we want to allocate. Yet in the case of our cancer scenario, even if it’s estimated that we have two years left, that’s still a lot of unknown time. We could have complications, other unfortunate events could occur. It’s scary, but true, we just don’t know.
Working to Live
Working to live in today’s society is to carve up the time we think we should have to pursue a career, a retirement plan, a means to provide for ourselves so we can do what we want for as long as possible. From a large scale to a small scale, working to live means we don’t spend all the time working, but we do it so that we can enjoy as much of life as possible.
In cavewoman days, work was whatever it took to survive. Hunting, foraging, finding and protecting shelter. Everything else ultimately was dedicated to life, free time or leisure. If they spent all their time surviving, then maybe they’d complain about not traveling to the beach. Yet, when we really think about it, if a cavewoman decided to lay out on the beach for leisure, what about that makes it better or any more fulfilling than hunting for food?
One of the biggest problems with work / life balance is that there is often a limited understanding of why we want to do the things we do. If we take traveling or going to an exotic beach as an example, we’ll find often most of us have a similar problem as those who want to be millionaires. If we want to travel, why do we want to travel? If we worked as an airline steward, would that satiate our desire to travel? Why not? If we can only travel once a year is that good enough? Why? What about all the other time?
What did people do when there were no planes? No cars? No horses? Was traveling the equivalent of a dangerous hike through the jungle? Or are we really representing something beyond the traveling, just an indication that we want something more and don’t really know what it is? How often do we say we want to live but end up just laying around? Is that “living”?
Regardless of the answer, we all generally have to work to live, we have to figure out how much time we want to spend on surviving and how much time we want to spend on leisure or living. Sometimes we may feel we don’t have much of a choice, but in all cases we do have some choice and there is also always a means of determining our own priorities.
Although always subjective, the people who seem to come closest to answer these difficult questions are on their death beds. In the book “When Breath Becomes Air“, by Paul Kalanithi, the author is within about a year of becoming a neurosurgeon, a 10 year journey, which is interrupted with a Stage IV lung cancer diagnosis.
For Kalanithi, the decision to try and finish the program or not depended on how much time he had left. If he only had three months to live but it would take 2 years to become a full neurosurgeon, then it would make sense to give up on that goal. It would be a similar decision if our goal was to hike, but we can no longer walk, we’d have to give up on some aspect of the goal.
If the exotic beach and spending time with loved ones is our highest priority, it would be no different. We’d have to figure out the best way to maximize both and give up if something was barring us from attaining it. In our case, we’d have a certain amount of money and as a result a certain amount of time that can be spent on the beach with loved ones. If we had to work for a year to save enough to take the trip, but only have 6 months left to live, we’d again have to give up on the goal.
If these unattainable goals were the most important thing in the world to us, would we just have to accept the hand that life delt? What would we be able to do about it? We’ll try to answer that in a minute, but first let’s think about time.
2 seconds to 2 decades
If we were asked, what are we doing two hours from now, we may feel we have plenty of clarity on what we will be doing. In two hours, I’m hoping to be done writing this excerpt and to get some food. If we increase that and ask about two days from now, most of us will still feel they have a good idea. Maybe we have a project due and will need to get several hours of work done, or maybe we made plans to hang out with friends. Making general predictions about what is in our life at the time and what we will in turn be doing feels relatively easy for these time-frames.
If we increase that time and ask what we’ll be doing in two weeks, the fidelity of what we’ll be doing seems to blur. Our ability to predict down to the hour gets harder and instead we predict down to the day or the week. The trend continues as we increase the time. Two months from now we probably won’t know how many errands we’ll be running on any given day. By the time we start talking about several years up to two decades, most of us have no clue what we’ll be doing, we just want to be alive and healthy.
Something interesting occurs however when we decrease the time to a small interval, it starts to get blurry just like longer timelines. In two minutes for example I’ll still be writing this excerpt, but what exactly will I be saying? What words will manifest? I may have an overall plan, but how is it acted out? What about two seconds? Two seconds is so short it isn’t even realistic to try to articulate, in most cases we just live, act and react.
With far out timelines like two decades, it’s clear we don’t have many true predictions. We hope that we’re healthy, we hope that our family and friends are around and healthy as well. But “hope” is all we really have. One of the reasons this seems to be the case is that we don’t have the information available to make firm or relatively accurate predictions. We’d be better off trusting an insurance company to predict where we’ll be in twenty years; at least they have a large number of statistics and data available.
On the other hand with very short timelines within a few seconds, even though there is an illusion of lot more information available, the more specific predictions we’re going to be making continues to be dependent on the specifics of a constantly changing environment. The result feels similar, that clarity and our ability to truly predict what is happening at any given moment is just as blurry as trying to predict 20 years from now. Imagine we’re playing softball and are up to bat. When we get up to the plate, two seconds before the pitch we’re asked, what are we going to do in two seconds? The answer of course is “It depends”.
In reality, while the timeline appears to be the reason we don’t make good predictions, it’s really all about context and an ever changing environment. We may think that we can predict what we’ll be doing in two days better than two years, but really it’s all relative to the particular prediction.
In math and science we change relative context all the time with units of measure. If we are trying to measure something with a ruler we’d make sure the scale was appropriate to the object. We wouldn’t measure a football field with a micrometer and we wouldn’t measure an ant, with a yard stick. We have to do the same with our predictions as well as our goals.
Goals / Intentions
If we go back to our prediction that we’ll be visiting a friend in two days; why do we know that’s true? Because it’s our intention to go visit. How do I know that I’m going to eat soon? Because it’s my intention to eat soon. Every prediction is ultimately dependent on two things: the environment and our intentions.
We have to assess our general environment to come up with the best prediction; for example hopefully we aren’t in the middle of a hurricane, we aren’t sick, our friend isn’t sick, we have a means to get to the meeting place, etc.
Yet all these environmental factors we must take into consideration, but is also outside of our direct control. That leaves us with one thing to change our predictions, our own intentions. Whether the environment is known or unknown, our intentions govern the direction of every prediction, every future we can imagine.
Should we give up and admit defeat if we realize we can’t achieve one of our important goals? No. Should we continue to go for an important goal that will use up all our precious time left on earth? Yes. Our goals, our intentions are literally all we have, it makes us who we are and it is the only thing within our ability to change.
Now before we all go off and waste time trying to be millionaires or relaxing on beaches, if it isn’t clear, all of our goals must be aligned. Every two seconds should support every two minutes, every two minutes should support every two hours and every two hours should support every two decades.
We have to ask ourselves constantly, what do we really want in the short term and what do we want in the long term? Why do we want those things? How can we change them so that they relate and align? We will never really know how much time we have left, so as long as we constantly align and understand our intentions, then at least even if life throws something we aren’t ready for, we’ll know we tried our best to live life to the fullest.