Of all the thoughts that bounce around our skulls each day, death is rarely one of them. There has never been a safer time to be alive.
And still, it's right there, always.
In his new book, Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon recommends the daily practice of reading obituaries. Kleon explains:
You don't have to go looking for trouble to practice realizing the terrifying truth that this will end. Meditate on it enough and it should be your guide.
This is the strategy of the samurai. Business Insider blogger Eric Barker recently questioned what made ancient samurais so cool with death being in their job description. The answer: control. Meditating on the ultimate possibility of being stabbed in battle gave them clarity and purpose. They didn't need to distract or busy themselves with thoughts about all the dangers. They just fought.
It wasn't a matter of life or death when Michael Phelps hit the water, but the same idea applies when he swam in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, wrote that Phelps was so ingrained in his process that he was prepared for any scenario. And when water filled Phelps' goggles halfway through the 200-meter butterfly race, he was able to keep calm and carry on, blindly swimming to victory, another gold medal and a world record.
You need to quiet your mind from the destructiveness of your own thoughts. If you can calmly comprehend the worst case scenario and prepare for it, there is no reason to panic. Yes, you will fail and, yes, you will die. If you can remind yourself of that, you'll have the inspiration to live without fear stalling or freezing you.
Of course, it's all in how you accept it. I wrote an obituary for myself in an undergraduate journalism class and it was crushing. I was too young to feel like I accomplished anything and death would have meant ultimate failure. Life felt reduced to a paragraph.
With death as the backdrop, the all-important questions of life can be answered every day when you take action. Waking up to know it could end means you can cherish every breath, e-mail, hug, or beer. You have a plan of action when shit goes down. You're always ready to spring into sword-wielding, blind-swimming action.
If you get one life to live and one obituary to sum up your days, what do you want it to say?