Making the Most of this One Short Life

I often long for the wisdom of a conversation with an 85 year old version of myself who can give me perspective and help guide me about what in the end will be more or less important. I regularly keep coming back and find great clarity (or at least better questions) from this list from Bronnie Ware’s book.

Several years ago, I was engaged in a coaching workshop where in my preparations I was invited to ponder this question:

When you retire, there will be a dinner. What would you like people to say at that dinner? Are you living your professional life in a way that will make that happen?

While thinking about this, I discovered that I was living my professional life as though I wanted people at my retirement dinner to say, “He responded to email really fast.” I was completely disgusted. That’s not what I value, but that was how I was spending a great amount of my time and energy. I started making shifts in how I engaged in my work.

However, 0nce you allow yourself to consider the question about your retirement dinner, another one creeps in pretty obviously.

When you die, there will be a funeral. What would you like people to say at that funeral? Are you living your life in a way that will make that happen?

I pondered this question at my grandmother’s funeral. She was a dedicated first grade teacher her whole life – earning a master’s degree and then a doctorate while working full time and raising five children. However, at her funeral her role as a teacher rarely came up in the grand scope of her life. If at my funeral, a major theme was, “he was a really great Director of Campus Life,” I might return from the dead just to kick myself. But that was often how I lived my life. I needed to live my life in a different way.

A few months before my grandmother’s funeral, I was at a different funeral – this time for a college-aged child. I found myself profoundly moved. I was overwhelmed with sadness for his family. As a parent of young children, I can’t imagine what it would be like to attend their funeral. Parents should never outlive their children. Yet, I found this sadness deeply inspiring. We have but one short life in which nothing is promised to us. My long life is not promised to me. My children’s long life is not promised to me either. Rather than depressing me, this realization inspired me to make the absolutely most of this one precious and short life that I have with those who I care for most during their own one precious and short life.

This video with Sam Harris’s talk, It Is Always Now really helps to reinforce this point about what a great clarifier the reality of death can be in setting priorities and being present.

Similarly, Maya Angelou talked about being inspired to set her own priorities by a painting in her home about women at a funeral that evoked her grandmother’s wisdom to “Just Do Right.

It is so easy for me to fall into spending my time, energy, and focus on what is immediate and losing sight of what is really important. It can be so easy in our culture to get caught up in keeping up with those who have more (how easily we are able to ignore those who have less). We’re pushed to prepare more, do more, and achieve more so that we will eventually…well I don’t know what that is supposed to lead to really. Here Alan Watts points out the obvious absurdity of this race, ladder, climb, etc. – the absurdity of always sacrificing for the future and not learning how to Live Fully Now.

This is not a new idea. This Brain Picking’s post explains Roman philosopher Seneca’s perspective, On the Shortness of Life.


Maria Popova who writes Brain Pickings shared her own lessons from the first seven years of writing Brain Pickings. Excellent clarifications here as well.

Life is so short. Priorities matter. The previous Brain Picking’s post on Seneca lead me to this post on Parker Palmer’s focus, mis-steps, and on-going journey on living a life aligned with his purpose.


Parker Palmer’s reflections bring me back to my own purpose and core values. I wrote these down to make sure they were specific, concrete, actionable, and a lovely visual reminder to help me stay on track. Returning to these priorities brings clarity to big choices and even the tiniest decisions.

Family Guide

So many of us feel like we know our life’s purpose but if you ask us to write it down in 60 seconds we stumble because we aren’t as clear as we think. Quick. Write yours down right now in 60 seconds. How did you do?

As I was thinking about this, I kept getting called back to this poem by Anis Mojgani, which I haven’t watched in years. Perhaps there is a part deep inside me that needed to hear it again. Shake the Dust.

Want to work more closely with Keith?

Leaders and organizations turn to Keith as an authentic educator, trusted leader, and unconventional scholar helping them advance leadership, learning, and equity.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *