Warren Buffett’s Advice on How to Focus on Priorities and Subdue Distractions

If you persistently experience an overpowering sense of being besieged with tasks and responsibilities, perhaps a personal productivity transformation technique suggested by Warren Buffett may help.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania shares a well-known anecdote about Buffett in her bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance:

The story goes like this: Buffett turns to his faithful pilot and says that he must have dreams greater than flying Buffett around to where he needs to go. The pilot confesses that, yes, he does. And then Buffett takes him through three steps.

First, you write down a list of twenty-five career goals.

Second, you do some soul-searching and circle the five highest-priority goals. Just five.

Third, you take a good hard look at the twenty goals you didn’t circle. These you avoid at all costs. They’re what distract you; they eat away time and energy, taking your eye from the goals that matter more.

As I’ve written before (see the world’s shortest course in time management, and detailed three-step course on time logging, time analysis, time budgeting,) the most effective time management practice involves eliminating the non-essentials—those numerous things you can and want to do—and focusing on the very few things you must do.

Idea for Impact: Success comes at a cost: the most time-effective folks I know are significantly better at dropping their second-rate objectives.

What the Buddha Taught About Restraining and Dealing with Anger

Buddhist psychology identifies anger as one of the six root kleshas, detrimental emotional states that can cloud the mind, lead us to “unwholesome” actions, and cause our suffering.

Chapter XVII of the Dhammapada (ref. Max Muller’s Wisdom of the Buddha) compiles the teachings of the Buddha and his monastic community on the topic of restraining and dealing with anger:

  • “He who holds back rising anger like a rolling chariot, him I call a real driver; other people are but holding the reins.” (Verse 222)
  • “Beware of bodily anger, and control thy body! Leave the sins of the body, and with thy body practise virtue!” (Verse 231)
  • “Beware of the anger of the tongue, and control thy tongue! Leave the sins of the tongue, and practise virtue with thy tongue!” (Verse 232)
  • “Beware of the anger of the mind, and control thy mind! Leave the sins of the mind, and practise virtue with thy mind!” (Verse 233)
  • “The wise who control their body, who control their tongue, the wise who control their mind, are indeed well controlled.” (Verse 234)

As I’ve mentioned before, you will be at a marked disadvantage in life if you’re unable to perceive, endure, and manage negative emotions. And anger is the hardest of the negative emotions to subdue.

What the Buddha Taught About Restraining and Dealing with Anger

Investigating the nature of anger is important not only because it is such a destructive emotion, but also because anger often sums up many other self-judgments—sadness, powerlessness, fear, regret—that are entwined into it.

The Zen priest Jules Shuzen Harris advices approaching feelings of anger with awareness and mindfulness in his insightful article on “Uprooting the Seeds of Anger” in the Summer 2012 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review:

We must remember that we create our own anger. No one makes it for us. If we move from a particular event directly to our reaction, we are skipping a crucial awareness, a higher perspective on our own reactivity. What is that middle step, that deeper awareness? It is mindfulness about our own beliefs, our attitude, our understanding or lack of understanding about what has really happened. We notice that a given situation reliably provokes our anger, and yet somebody else can be exposed to the very same situation and not react angrily. Why is that? No one can tell us: we each have to find the answer ourselves, and to do that, we need to give ourselves the space to reflect mindfully.

We’re going to keep getting angry. It’s going to come up. It has come up in our lives before, and it will come up again. This practice is about becoming more mindful, becoming aware of how we are getting stuck. With care and work, we find ways to get unstuck. But we also know that the moment we get unstuck, we’re going to get stuck again. That’s why it is called practice—we never arrive. So when you find yourself upset or angry, use the moment as a part of your practice, as an opportunity to notice and uproot the seeds of anger and move into the heart of genuine compassion.

And as stated by the Chinese Sutra of Forty-two Chapters,

For those with no anger,
how can anger arise?
When you practice deep looking and master yourself,
you dwell in peace, freedom, and safety.
The one who offends another
after being offended by him,
harms himself and harms the other.
When you feel hurt
but do not hurt the other,
you are truly victorious.
Your practice and your victory benefit both of you.
When you understand the roots of anger in yourself and in the other,
your mind will enjoy true peace, joy, and lightness.
You become the doctor who heals himself and heals the other.
If you don’t understand,
you will think not getting angry to be the act of a fool.

Moral Disengagement Leads People to Act Immorally and Justify Their Unprincipled Behavior

Temptation of Christ on the First Day of Lent

Rationality Drives Human Behavior Only After Emotion and Impulse Lose Their Hegemony

People adapt moral standards that dissuade them from objectionable behavior. But these moral standards do not serve as a steadfast regulator of their moral actions. Occasionally, circumstances can make people to become selectively disengaged from those moral self-sanctions and end up pursuing unprincipled actions.

Particularly when people feel angry, pressured, or depressed, their mental footing tends to ebb away. Any state of emotional threat can let up their determination to act ethically and resist temptations. They lose discipline, get into a defensive mode, and become susceptible to thinking only about short-term benefits. They are more likely to engage in self-absorbed behaviors that they would otherwise spurn, especially if the payoff for such behavior is high and the odds of getting caught and punished are low.

Circumstances Sometimes Sway People to Engage in Behaviors That Conflict with Their Internalized Moral Standards

Moral disengagement is the psychological phenomenon that describes how people rationalize behavior that is at odds with their own moral principles. For example, suppose a teenager who has a principled framework that forbids theft. If he takes a newspaper without paying for it from a Starbucks store, he may rationalize his actions by telling himself that Starbucks warranted some harm because it overcharges its consumers and, until recently, purchased not all its coffee beans from certified fair trade sources.

'Moral Disengagement' by Albert Bandura (ISBN 1464160058) People engaging in wrongdoing often see that the rules are uncalled-for and unjustifiable. In their judgment, even though they may be breaking the rules and flouting conventions, they’re persuaded that they’re really not doing anything wrong because the rules deserve to be violated.

Moral reasoning usually deprives people when they devalue their prey and malign their victims (“her tattletaling deserved it” or “he brandish a knife, hence I pulled out my gun.”)

Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura, who introduced the concept of moral disengagement, identified eight cognitive mechanisms (book) that disengage a person’s internal moral standards from his/her actions, thereby causing unethical behavior without conspicuous remorse or self-censure.

Idea for Impact: Be Wary of Suspending Your Moral Standards to Reduce Self-Censure

When circumstances or people provoke you to potentially regretful behavior, realize that you are a self-determining agent, and that you have a moral and ethical responsibility to behave with integrity and pursue wholesome actions. Step back and ask yourself, “Normally, would I judge this contemplated action to be wrong? Are my ways of thinking flawed? Am I defending the harm I am causing by blaming others? Am I criticizing the victim to justify my destructive actions?”

When in doubt, use Warren Buffett’s rule of thumb for personal integrity: “I want [people] to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper—to be read by their spouses, children and friends—with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter.”

Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

Give sorrow words;
the grief that does not speak;
whispers the o’er-fraught heart
and bids it break.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 3)

Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

Confronting Upsetting Experiences: Expressive Writing for Healing

People often block out thoughts that provoke negative emotions as a way of reducing their stress and regulating their moods. However, intentional suppression of deep-seated emotions not only increases susceptibility to illness, but also amplifies the emotionality and associated psychological effects of the suppressed thoughts.

Discussing, venting, clarifying, or expressing a trauma is a natural human response. When this necessity is inhibited, emotional stress and physical illness ensue.

Facing up to deeply personal issues can promote physical health, well-being, and beneficial behaviors.

The scientific research on the benefits of putting negative experiences into words is extensive. Studies have shown that expressive writing about oneself and one’s traumatic or stressful experiences does produce significant health benefits. Expressive writing helps ameliorate mood disorders, reduces symptoms among patients with serious illness, improve a person’s physical condition after a heart attack, and even enhance memory.

Writing about Emotional Topics Brings About Improved Physical and Emotional Wellbeing

'Opening Up' by James Pennebaker (ISBN 1572302380) James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, first investigated expressive writing as a healing process in the 1980s. Since then, research that spawned from Pennebaker’s pioneering studies, has revealed benefits could accrue to those who were dealing with divorces, lost love, death of loved ones, job rejections, terminal illness, even college students struggling with first-year transitions.

Here are the main points about the expressive writing method:

  • Choose the part of the day when you are most contemplative (that’s the morning for most people.) Sit down at a place where you are not likely to be disturbed.
  • Reflect about a very personal and important event. Consider a significant emotional upheaval that influences your life the most or has in the past. Your topic can be about a distress or failure, lost love, health-, school- or career-related anxiety, relationships, inner conflicts, death of a loved one, or just about any topic that you would like to express.
  • If you’re writing about an experience or an event that involves another person, it can help to organize your writing as a letter to that person, whether alive or dead.
  • Write your deepest thoughts about your chosen event or experience continuously for 20 minutes. If you run out of things to write or reach a mental block, just repeat or recap what you have previously written.
  • In your writing, deeply explore your thoughts about the event and describe its effect on you. In other words, write both about what happened and how you feel about it. Think about how you can handle these events and their consequences now—what you can do specifically.
  • Connect your personal experiences to other parts of your life. How do they relate to your childhood, your parents, people you love, who you are, or who you want to be?
  • Write for yourself as your thoughts arise. Be as direct, intense, and serious as possible. Do not worry about grammar, spelling, comprehensiveness, legibility, or structure. On the opening day of writing, your stories are not very structured, but over the three or four days, you will develop a more structured narrative.
  • After writing for 20 minutes, do not look back over. Simply fold the papers you used, seal them, and put them away (read more about the “worry box technique.”) Unlike psychotherapy, the expressive writing technique does not employ feedback to the participant.
  • 'Writing as a Way of Healing' by Louise Desalvo (ISBN 0807072435) Make a mental note of how you feel. It is not unusual to feel sad or disheartened after writing—these feelings usually fade away in an hour or so. In research experiments, many participants have reported crying or getting upset by the experience of writing about emotional upheavals, but most participants testify that the writing experience was meaningful in helping them organize their experiences.
  • Repeat this exercise for four consecutive days. You can write about the same experience on all four days or about different experiences each day. If you choose to write about the same topic on all the four days, try to wrap everything up by the fourth day.

Note that expressive writing is distinct from keeping a daily journal in that it allows people to step back for a moment and evaluate their lives. Pennebaker once said, “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. … But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”

Translating an Emotional Experience Into Language Makes the Experience Graspable: it Can Help You Find New Meaning in Life’s Ordeals

New research has shown that expressive writing—followed by expressive rewriting—can improve happiness and lead to behavioral changes. Narrative storytelling of an unpleasant and chaotic experience may make the experience and its effects more controllable. For instance, according this New York Times article,

At the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, life coaches ask clients to identify their goals, then to write about why they haven’t achieved those goals. Once the clients have written their old stories, they are asked to reflect on them and edit the narratives to come up with a new, more honest assessment. While the institute doesn’t have long-term data, the intervention has produced strong anecdotal results.

Expressive Writing Can Help Change the Way You Feel About Traumatic Events and About Yourself

Idea for Impact: Expressive Writing Can Help Change the Way You Feel About Traumatic Events and About Yourself

Expressive writing is a method of self-help that supplements the value of therapeutic talking to someone accepting and non-judgmental.

By exploring your deepest thoughts and feelings with a reflective, inquiring, honest attitude, you can shift perspective. Standing back and reflecting on your suffering from different points of view can bring about an improved emotional state. You can create your greatest opportunities for change by confronting the realities, reframing your experiences in terms of your values and priorities, and identifying impediments that stand in the way of purpose, joy, and contentment.

For more on the means and methods of expressive writing, as well its many confirmed physiological and behavioral benefits, read James Pennebaker’s Opening Up: the Healing Power of Expressing Emotion (1997) and Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing (1999)

Making Exceptions “Just Once” is a Slippery Slope

Making Exceptions Just Once is a Slippery Slope

Keeping Our Commitments Unwaveringly is Tough

The Harvard business strategy professor Clayton Christensen (of The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997) fame) often tells a story from his college days when he played basketball for his university team. His team worked hard all season and made it to the finals of some big tournament. The championship game was scheduled on a Sunday.

Christensen is a pious Mormon. Playing on the Sabbath (the “seventh day” is holy occasion and has a particular purpose, i.e. rest and spiritual renewal) was against his religious beliefs. The basketball team’s coach asked Christensen to break the rule for that big game, “I don’t know what you believe, but I believe that God will understand.” His teammates prodded him, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule, just this one time?”

Christensen prayed to God for guidance. After some reflection, he concluded that he would not play in the finals because he did not want to violate the Mormon way of life and break his personal rules: “Because life is just one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over and over in the years that followed.”

Willpower is Character in Action

Christensen’s team, however, played without him and won the basketball championship.

'How Will You Measure Your Life' by Clayton M. Christensen (ISBN 0062102419) Discussing this experience in writings such as How Will You Measure Your Life? (2012,) Christensen says,

Many of us have convinced ourselves that we are able to break our own personal rules “just this once.” In our minds, we can justify these small choices. None of those things, when they first happen, feels like a life-changing decision. The marginal costs are almost always low. But each of those decisions can roll up into a much bigger picture, turning you into the kind of person you never wanted to be.

If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal-cost analysis, you’ll regret where you end up. That’s the lesson I learned: it’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time. The boundary—your personal moral line—is powerful because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again.

For Christenson, the opportunity cost of missing the championship game was large. Therefore, the marginal cost of breaking his rules “just this once” was comparatively trivial. However, the bigger damage of yielding to demands of the circumstances was larger yet, given his religious devotion.

Idea for Impact: Life becomes so much simpler if you decide what you stand for, stick with your values 100% the time, and make no exceptions.

It’s easy to lose your emotional footing and resist temptations, especially when you feel pressured or depressed, or face some other persuasive incentive.

It’s easy to unearth some justification to infringe a little upon your principles or break commitments you’ve made to yourself.

However, conceding “just once” is a slippery slope—the proverbial thin end of a wedge. If you allow yourself to compromise just the once, you can wind up doing it frequently.

In contrast, if you make up your mind to follow 100% on some standard, all of your prospective decisions are made.

Life becomes so much easier when you no longer need to expend your willpower on internal moral deliberations or justify/ regret your poor choices.

How to Combat Burnout at Work

Employee burnout, the slow and steady physical and psychological fatigue and depletion caused by one’s work-life, reflects a fundamental challenge of working life.

How to nurse your exhaustion before it escalates into a burnout Burnout is characterized by reduced personal accomplishment, physical exhaustion and unremitting weariness, feelings of despair and helplessness, and cynical attitudes toward work, life, and people.

Many people work in situations that are conducive to burnout. The prevalence of demanding job characteristics and the pressures of collegial and supervisory relationships, together with inadequate job resources and motivational job characteristics can trigger burnout.

If you’re feeling worn out, overwhelmed, even depressed at work, here’s how to nurse your exhaustion before it escalates into a burnout:

  • Investigate ways to limit or disconnect exposure to stress-initiators. First, understand and rank all the triggers of stress. Reflect on your existing responsibilities and relationships at work, and identify any element that strains your enthusiasm or diminishes your energy.
  • Restructure your work. If you’re dealing with excessive job demands and are provided with inadequate job resources, try to discard low-gain and high-pain tasks and responsibilities. Ask for more resources, and reach out to people you find supportive and motivating. If all else fails, lower your standards.
  • Seek opportunities for psychological detachment from work. Stop thinking about work during your leisure time and disengage yourself mentally from work.
  • Nurture yourself. Your needs belong to the top. As you make your way through a busy life, don’t ignore prioritizing taking care of yourself. Don’t surrender, settle, or lose hope. Don’t compromise yourself and become what you can settle for.

Stop Trying to Prove Yourself to the World

When you assess your life and become conscious of how you look at the world and how you look at yourself, you may realize that you often obsess about what people think of you.

'Seeds for a Boundless Life' by Blanche Hartman (ISBN 1611802849) In the delightful and poignant Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, the Soto Zen teacher Blanche Hartman (1926–2016) explains that freeing yourself from being controlled by what other people think is the key to living life with a composed and peaceful mind:

I noticed somewhere in the early years of my [Buddhist] practice that my big effort was to get people to love me. I really wanted people to love me. And what I discovered in practice was that it really didn’t matter what other people thought. The one whose love and appreciation and approval I wanted was right here, and I wouldn’t give it to myself. What I found out was that no matter how much approval I got from outside, it didn’t count if I was not able to appreciate myself and be willing to be who I am. Whatever this is, it has becomes this over an accumulation of the actions of body, speech, and mind of more than eighty years. It’s my creation in a way. And yet it’s really helpful if I acknowledge it and befriend this being that I have created with the help of all the beings with whom I have shared my life.

Be Your Own Person

Stop trying to prove yourself to the naysayers and critics. Avoid assertive behavior and insubordinate conduct that intends to prove you’re worthy to others. You don’t need others’ approval.

Idea for Impact: Don’t fritter away precious time and energy seeking to prove your worth and worrying that you could fall short. The right people will love you for who you are.

Anger is the Hardest of the Negative Emotions to Subdue

Anger is the Hardest of the Negative Emotions to Subdue

The Lekha Sutta, an aphorism of the historical Buddha that has been preserved orally by his followers, identifies three distinct ways that anger manifests in individuals:

  • Firstly, the Buddha refers to the individual who is like an inscription on a rock. His anger stays with him for a long time; it does not war away by wind or water.
  • Secondly, the Buddha relates an individual who is habitually angered, but whose anger does not stay with him for a elongated time, to an inscription in soil that rubs away by wind or water.
  • Finally, the Buddha identifies an individual who is like water. When he is spoken to or treated rudely, he stays impervious, pleasant, and courteous—in the vein of an inscription in water that disappears right away.

Here’s a translation of the Lekha Sutta from the Pali by the eminent American Buddhist monk and prolific author Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

'Dhammapada: A Translation' by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (ISBN B000K6C8NG) And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, & courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, & courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.

Idea for Impact: Learn to Corral Your Anger and Manage Your Emotions

Like everything else in the world, anger surfaces and passes away, restoring your previous sense of calm and stillness. Not identifying the nature of anger and allowing it to take over your state of being can lead to disastrous outcomes. Verse 222 of the Dhammapada (tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu) states,

When anger arises,
whoever keeps firm control
as if with a racing chariot:
him
I call a master charioteer.
    Anyone else,
    a rein-holder—
    that’s all.

Anger destroys careers. It destroys relationships. As long as you lack the capacity to withstand negative emotions such as anger, you will be at a marked disadvantage in life.

How to Guard Against Anger Erupting

The Destructive Effects of Anger are Easily Recognized

Most people who have problems managing their anger hate themselves for losing their temper but can’t bring themselves to prevent their flare-ups.

'The Dhammapada: Teachings of the Buddha' by Gil Fronsdal (ISBN 1590306066) Here’s an appropriate reading from Chapter 17, “Anger”, of the Dhammapada (trans. Gil Fronsdal), a profoundly insightful compilation of the historical Buddha‘s teachings:

Guard against anger erupting in your body;
Be restrained with your body.
Letting go of bodily misconduct,
Practice good conduct with your body.

Guard against anger erupting in your speech;
Be restrained with your speech.
Letting go of verbal misconduct,
Practice good conduct with your speech.

Guard against anger erupting in your mind;
Be restrained with your mind.
Letting go of mental misconduct,
Practice good conduct with your mind.

The wise are restrained in body,
Restrained in speech.
The wise are restrained in mind.
They are fully restrained.

Discover Ways to Work with Anger and Other Negative Emotions

In its many forms, anger can be extremely energetic. When even a mild annoyance arises due to some apparent injustice, it can quickly grow and overwhelm you. Your inner peace is lost instantly.

When anger surfaces, it usually takes you over by the time you come to observe it. Your mind gets infuriated under the direct influence of aggression and can tempt you to act impulsively through aggressive words or actions—which consecutively feed even more anger.

The mind’s furor intensifies until you are able to lash out like a cornered cat. Even if you can repress your emotions in the heat of the moment, anger can manifest as a subtle simmering of resentment that you carry along with you for some interval of time.

How to guard against anger erupting in your body, your speech, and your mind

How to Refrain from Erupting in Anger

The most effective way to deal with anger in yourself is by not disregarding or repressing it. Science and experience have shown how poorly “anger containment” strategies work.

When anger rises past a threshold, it requires a reasonable and pleasing expression—an outlet, if you will—to be diffused. The key to expelling anger in a way that must feel good and fair is to invoke your calm, wise self and put out some of the fire of the emotion before moving forward.

To prevent anger from flaring out of control, practice the following first-aid system.

  1. Make a list of what triggers your anger. Most people get angry under predictable circumstances—when faced with situations that they see as unpleasant and unfair. Record events that trigger your anger: being insulted, being blamed unjustly, deceit or laziness in others, anything. Commit them to memory.
  2. When you identify a trigger—when you start to feel angry at someone or at something—induce yourself to immediately take a few deep breaths. As the Founding Father and President Thomas Jefferson suggested, “when angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.” Preferably, break away from the situation for a minute or two: step away, go get water, or go the bathroom. Removing yourself from the offending environment will buy you a few moments to decide how you want to respond.
  3. When you can separate yourself from the cause of anger, take a deep breath, and ask yourself if whatever you’re getting worked up over is a priority. Is the issue worth getting upset over? Put your irate-self wise by posing the following “5-5-5” questions:
    • Will this matter in 5 days?
    • Will this matter in 5 months?
    • Will this matter in 5 years?

The “5-5-5” questions will prevent you from being caught up in the little trivialities of life. Remind yourself how good you’ll feel if you respond as your best, wise self and how bad you’ll feel if you rashly fly off the handle.

Only when you’re feeling less agitated and more calm, only when your sensible mind is back, can you assess the triggers of anger rationally, and take action in an prudent way.

Idea for Impact: Guard Against Anger Erupting in Your Body, Your Speech, and Your Mind

The antidote to anger and aggression is patience. Patience has a great deal to do with being mindful about the storms of distress and refraining from doing or saying anything, no matter how strong the urge to do so may be. Reflect before you respond.

The more you can manage your emotions, the more effective you’ll be.

Death Should Not Be Feared

The Flickering Flame of Consciousness Will Go Out One Day

A friend was recently racked with melancholy: in the last few weeks, five of his family members and friends were diagnosed with debilitating diseases or cancer. This followed the passing away of a dear friend earlier this year. Like everybody else, facing the decline and death of the near and dear compelled my friend to contemplate life and confront his own mortality.

Convention can bind us to the notion that death is frightful and should not be talked about. However, death needs to be discussed—and contemplated—all the time, not in terms of the fear of life but as a reminder of the brevity of life. The great English author Graham Greene (1904-91) wrote in the novel Travels With My Aunt (1972,)

You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it ever night while you try to sleep…

Death Should Not Be Feared; It’s an Essential Progression of Life

When we’re forced to confront death, we resist doing so. Death is a very natural phenomenon just like birth, and there’s no need to shy away from it. In his famous 2005 Stanford graduation address, Steve Jobs (1955-2011) addressed his pancreatic cancer and his brush with death:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Accept the impermanence of health and life. Appreciate and live each moment wisely.

Bertrand Russell’s Evocative Reflection on Transience and Morality

The celebrated British mathematician, political activist, and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872—1970) wrote a beautiful reflection on death and life in his essay “How To Grow Old.” The metaphors evoked by the way that Russell portrayed human existence “like a river” are overpowering.

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Idea for Impact: The Only Thing We Really Get to Influence About Death is the Course of Our Approach to Death

We may look at death and decline with fear instead of anticipation, but the alternative to death could truly be worse: boredom and stagnation.

Fortunately, though death and decline may be unavoidable, how we look at it is totally up to us.

Every brush with death and serious illness should remind you to accept the impermanence of health and life. It should help you appreciate and live each moment wisely. It should serve to remind you to cherish everything with you while you have them.