The Greatest Motivator in Life: Death

“Time is all you have and you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

At the time, my life revolved around two main goals: moving out and getting a motorcycle. This would bring about much dismay to my mother who soon found out my plan. She had previously agreed to financially assist me for a short time after I moved out. After learning about my intentions, she then created a new stipulation that she would only assist me if I gave up on getting the bike. So, being 18, I did what any rational and responsible “adult” would do: I purchased a motorcycle in secret immediately after moving out.

As I’m sure many might guess, my brilliant plan would soon backfire. Barely a week after owning the bike, I took a ride on some country back roads. After coming to a full stop behind a mailman making his delivery, I soon became well acquainted with the person driving behind me.

Being unable to see the upcoming stop in the reflection of her phone, she ended up colliding with me going around 50 miles per hour. The next few moments consisted of my head being pinned between her front bumper and the rear bumper of the car in front of me. Once I came to, I realized my foot was pinned underneath my motorcycle, which happened to be pinned underneath her entire car. With the help of some handy adrenaline, I managed to rip my foot free after scraping it down to the bone.

The aftermath of my motorcycle accident

All in all, I was incredibly lucky to escape with several broken bones, a minor surgery, months of recovery, and an unpleasant conversation with my mother (who graciously went on to help support me regardless). But most importantly, I became well acquainted with my own mortality.

Prior to my accident, I would often get inspired to accomplish some newfound goal. Whether it was to start a diet, write a book, or learn a language, I would pour myself into this dream for the next few days or weeks. However, no matter the goal, my drive always turned out to be just a short lived burst of momentum. My source of inspiration was never strong enough to overcome my eventual laziness. This was all until I realized the greatest source of motivation in life was a tool that I, along with everyone else, already possessed: my ever looming death.

Since that day, the fragility of my life has been a constant thought. Regularly reminding myself that one day soon everything will be gone has provided me a never ending source of motivation. My inclination to put off or give up on my aspirations began to subside as I began taking advantage of the precious time I had. Once I was aware of how valuable my time was, I began treating it with the importance it deserved. This change that took place can be summarized in these few words from Confucius:

“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”

This concept is by no means some groundbreaking revelation. Just as the Chinese philosophers held this notion 2,000 years ago, many of today’s most successful and prosperous people have fueled their drive with the thought of their own death. In fact, if it weren’t for this methodology, most of the technology that has revolutionized the past few decades would likely have never been invented.

In 2005 Steve Jobs gave the Stanford Commencement speech for the graduating class. Imparting the most important lessons he had learned to living a happy and successful life, Jobs told the students:

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. Because 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. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

The entirety of Jobs’ incredible Commencement Address

Along with learning the ease with which life can abruptly end, my accident also revealed the urgency we should all have in the pursuit of our goals and desires. I was no stranger to long term planning and goal setting, but I simultaneously felt no rush in working towards them. Sure, one day I would work towards that dream job and knock a few items off my bucket list, but that can always wait till I’m more ready and stable to address them.

I was lucky enough to have faced my own mortality at an early age. It allowed me to realize that the right time to do most things never actually comes; we have to start doing the ‘right’ things in what most might consider the ‘wrong’ time.

This idea that our future will hold more opportunity and value than our present is understandable. After all, we all hope that time will only bring bigger and better things. However, the reality of it is that this will only come true if we take the time now to forge the way for our better tomorrow. If we constantly push off truly living our life until the unknown future, we will one day look back and realize we forgot to actually live. Author Stephen Leacock writes:

“How strange it is, our little procession of life! The child says, ‘When I am a big boy.’ But what is that? The big boy says, ‘When I grow up.’ And then, grown up, he says, ‘When I get married.’ But to be married, what is that after all? The thought changes to ‘When I’m able to retire.’ And then, when retirement comes, he looks back over the landscape traversed; a cold wind seems to sweep over it; somehow he has missed it all, and it is gone. Life, we learn too late, is in the living, in the tissue of every day and hour.”

I’m sure these beliefs and lessons might seem nonsensical and borderline morbid to some. For many, death is a frightening concept that only brings pain and fear when given thought. To this, I urge these people to reconsider their dispositions. The acceptance and realization of our demise can bring about not only motivation, but it can solidify an appreciation for time and eliminate the fear of our eventual end. With regards to how he viewed death, Mark Twain wrote:

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Our present is but a blip in the vastness of the universe, but simultaneously our little blip can be filled to the brim with meaning and happiness. In order to do that, we must take advantage of our limited time and actively be aware of its inevitable end. Perhaps the only way to find the ultimate source of light and inspiration in our lives is to take a glimpse into the ever present darkness that looms over us. Once you begin viewing that darkness as motivational instead of fearful, you can truly make the most of your brief time here.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I write about philosophy and how we can use it to better our lives. Email me at: dthurmanwriting@gmail.com

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