Memento Mori: Live Like You’ll Die Tomorrow
Ancient stoic wisdom for a modern world — from the greatest Roman Emperor
Marcus Aurelius lived a couple years ago in ancient Rome. When he wasn’t busy running the Roman Empire (161–180 AD), he took a few moments at the end of his day to keep a journal. This little book, Meditations, became a priceless gift to humanity. However, Marcus Aurelius wrote this life philosophy for himself.
Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss turned me on to stoicism. If it wasn’t for the work of these two gentlemen it would’ve taken me much longer to stumble upon — if ever. Ryan Holiday has read Meditations over 100 times, learning something new with each read. Every page contains a list of priceless one-liners you could dissect into stand-alone books.
Today we’ll dissect this quote:
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Memento mori, translated from latin, means remember death.
Although this is a story about death it’s not about dying at all. This is about living, as best you can, as long as you can — doing your best work with the tools you’ve got. All our tools are different.
So, we take this tiny reminder, memento mori, and we use it as our meme for living. We’re all here a finite amount of time. Some of us will last longer than average and some shorter. Most of us won’t know when our day will come.
We live as though we’ve got an unlimited life
This is a recent philosophy change for me too. I’m a hard-worker, but I’ve never given much thought to time limits. Not until I recently watched a YouTube interview of Jesse Itzler, where he said something so profound I stopped and got misty-eyed.
Paraphrased, Itzler said this — think of how often you see your parents. Of course it depends on your relationship and your distance from them. In my case, I see my parents about five times a year. They are in their seventies. Good overall health with a few issues. Statistically, I’ll have about seven more years with them. Of course, I hope it’s more — much more. But this is the exercise.
Think about that. There’s a meter running on everyone.
I hadn’t thought about this time limit until a few months ago. Not at all. They were my parents. Sure, they’re getting-on in age, but never did I put a number on the amount of times I’d see them. Now I have one. I’ll see them maybe thirty more times — my parents. That’s it.
This number makes the trivial arguments over who’s hosting dinner and who voted for whom, seem petty as hell. And this is the point — memento mori.
We now have a responsibility
Old Marcus gave us a gift. Not of more time, because we all get about the same, but a gift of appreciation. We’ve got a responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to our loved ones. It’s time to take ownership of our lives.
We don’t have an infinite life, but many of us live each day as such.
- We waste life on thought addiction
- We waste life on vanity (guilty)
- We waste life on old grudges (guilty)
- We waste life on pretending to be people we aren’t (guilty)
- We waste life hiding from vulnerability (guilty)
- We waste life doing jobs we hate (guilty)
- We waste life by not giving ourselves time to do our best work (guilty)
- We waste life studying quail fighting (more on that in a minute) — (super guilty)
Not to waste time on nonsense. Not to be taken in by conjurors and hoodoo artists with their talk about incantations and exorcism and all the rest of it. Not to be obsessed with quail-fighting or other crazes like that. — Marcus Aurelius
When we understand we’ve got a life on a timer there are only so many paths you can follow, so many hobbies to learn, and so many expertises to expertise-on. Marcus Aurelius mentions quail fighting, but it’s a metaphor for all the little forks in our road — the tangents we go-off on for years, seeking something different in life. It’s time to make some decisions.
Death is different. So is uselessness.
We all know useless people. I’m not talking about someone who’s going through a hard time. We’re all going through a hard time, it’s called life. I mean those people who make the conscious decision to be useless — to skim off others and to live a life without legacy — floating and not being.
If we’re not suffering from something outside our control we have the means to decide our fate.
This decision has a large impact on how we live our daily lives. We may no longer care about the petty stuff. We may spend more time listening to that person who used to annoy us, but whom we still love dearly. We may quit our piece of shit job, and venture out to find our work that matters most.
Will we leave a legacy?
Legacy means something different for everyone. Legacy are the teachings, work, and memories we leave behind for those who come after us.
Whether it’s your immediate family, or you go epic and think five hundred years into the future, your legacy is how you’ll be remembered after you’re gone.
We don’t wake up a leave a quick legacy on a Post-It note.
Legacy is cumulative. Legacy happens in little blocks, stacked atop each other. This is your daily life bundled together. We make small decisions every day. When we don’t live with memento mori, we live as though our lives are infinite.
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An infinite life means you don’t have to try hard today, because tomorrow will be different. However, if we haven’t changed our core philosophy tomorrow never comes.
We only live today.
Legacy is all you’ve done. Whether it’s a lot or a little, once you’re in the box you can’t leave a different legacy. You can’t be inoculated from dying, so instead of being sad about it, leave something behind for the rest of us.
We need to start building our legacy today, because yesterday is taken:
- If you want to write a book write a book
- If you want to spend more time with family do that
- If you hate your job, quit
- If your health is poor work to make it better
- If you don’t know as much as you’d like, learn
- If you’re not as strong as you should be, lift weights
- If you’re not as brave as you’d like, practice bravery
- If you brag to much, try humbleness
- If you’re too humble, practice bragging
- If you’re mean, be kind
- If you’re poor, get rich
- If something needs changing, change it
How will you be remembered? How do you want to be remembered? These may be two different things. Memento mori brings the two closer. If you have to write your own eulogy tonight, how would it read?
The gift is that legacy is possible for us all. The curse is that no one will do it for us.
Collect, analyze, and adapt
Marcus Aurelius tells us …what stands in the way becomes the way.
I just started keeping a playbook. This is a separate journal where I analyze hurdles I encounter. Whether it’s personal or business, each page of the journal gets one issue to analyze.
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I note what’s not working, what’s working, and the lessons learned. When we dissect these hurdles we collect bits of knowledge left behind. When we analyze these bits of knowledge we come up with solutions which can help us later if we hit the same problem.
A playbook is our lifetime of tiny solutions. Added together, they form a large work of cumulative effort.
Will we live a fulfilled life?
This is about doing our work that matters most. This work is different for everyone. I wrote a story about discovering this work, here:
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Forget passion. It’s time to do your work that matters most.
When we uncover our calling, we live a life fulfilled. This isn’t following your passion. Passion leads us back to quail fighting. We’re all wired for certain work. When we find that work we live a fulfilled life.
No work is perfect, but when we practice our calling we leave behind a legacy and live a fulfilled life, simultaneously.
Ask yourself, Is this necessary?
Another quote from Marcus Aurelius. Now that we intend to live our daily life under the umbrella of memento mori, the world looks different.
When faced with new tasks, and you have the means to make the decision, ask yourself, is this necessary?
Frequently, the answer will be NO.
It’s up to you to decide how you’ll proceed. Will this new chore add to your legacy or subtract from it? We’ve all got laundry, lawn mowing, diapers to change, work commutes, and ten thousand other tasks in our lives we must do to keep civilized.
Most of these chores don’t take the bulk of our free time. It’s the time thieves which steal from your legacy.
A time thief is a useless project from your boss, that extra favor from a friend who repeatedly asks for favors with none in return, it’s the telemarketer, the hours spent watching mindless TV, or scrolling through our phones.
There’s no legacy in scrolling.
So, ask yourself — is this necessary? You have the power to decide, yes or no. If you have the ability to make the decision, do your best to make the right one. Do it, not only for today, but for tomorrow and those who come after you.
What’s your legacy?