“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
– Mark Twain

What if you went into an interview and someone asked you, “what is your philosophy of life?” How easily could you answer that question?

By “philosophy of life” I mean a mental framework for understanding how the world works and how you fit into the world. The philosophy of life would include things like how you decide what is “good” and “bad”, what “success” means, what your “purpose” in life is (including if you don’t think there is a purpose), whether there is a God, how we should treat each other, etc.

There are many names you might be use to label your philosophy oflife: Libertarian, Feminist, Liberal, Conservative, Buddhist, Christian, Entrepreneur, Artist, Environmentalist, Tea Party, and any number of others. Maybe you feel you could summarize your philosophy of life with one of those words, but for most of us I’d suspect that our actual philosophies of life are more complex and nuanced. They are not so easily boxed in. If we sat down in an interview, could you explain yours?

Knowing what I do about you as a group of readers, I’d guess I could divide you into three groups.

The first group has a clear philosophy of life that you have thought through in-depth, have tested, and use regularly and explicitly for guiding your actions. I’ll call you “The True North Group.” You have a compass for life and you know which direction is the right way — the true north. If I asked about yourphilosophy of life, you could explain it to me immediately, cogently, and concisely from the top of your head. You may not be able to give it a one-word label but you have thought it through and could explain why yourphilosophy of life makes sense to you and how it governs your thinking. I would guess this is the smallest group of the three.

The second group are those of you who have a loosely organized philosophy oflife in which things basically hang together, but which you couldn’t summarize quickly from the top of your head. If I gave you a little more time, you could come up with an overarching framework that covers most things, though the fringes and the corner cases of life would remain gray. I will call you “The Dusty Compass Group.” It’s like you have a compass for directing your life, but you forget to use it. You have a roughly coherent system for understanding the world, and you pretty much know it intuitively, but most of the time you don’t explicitly use it to filter and direct your experience. The compass lies on the shelf collecting dust. When you eventually pull it out, you see it’s gotten a little wacky and you need to recalibrate it. My guess is that this experience describes the largest group of people.

The third group I will call “The Inbox Group.” For The Inbox Group I’m abandoning the compass metaphor because if you are in this group, you do not actually have a governing magnetic orientation for what life is about and where you are going. Life may be about something, heck, your life may be about something, but you don’t know. You’re too busy to think about it. Your approach is just to deal with what is coming at you, the way you manage email. People and companies constantly send you messages to direct your attention and you basically follow their lead. Why are you watching that new Netflix show? Why are you listening to that new Kanye song? Why did you decide to be a surgeon anyway? You don’t really know. Or you think you know, but the reasons turn out to be pretty superficial. I think this is likely the second biggest group, though it might be the biggest.

The difference between members of these three groups is almost entirely internal. You wouldn’t be able to pick them out on the street. But their internal experience of life will be entirely different. One man plays squash because he has a true north philosophy about pushing himself to his limits, maintaining his health and investing in friendships with his playing partners. Another may value these same things but couldn’t articulate them. He just knows he likes to play. A third has no real reason for playing other than someone asked him to. Maybe he just wants to be seen at the racquet club. Maybe he just likes being asked. The external action of chasing a ball around a court is the same but the internal motivation and experience is totally different.

In general, I think it is better to live as a member of the True North group. I say “in general” because there are exceptions. Some people have clear, explicit lifephilosophies, but locking in those ideas has made them narrow un-curious thinkers, who are a little too arrogant that they’ve figured it all out.

For the most part however, I think it is healthy to have a comprehensive framework for life and to live in line with it. True North is the way to go, provided you remain humble, curious, and open to the possibility you may be wrong. The alternative, of being in the Dusty Compass Group or the Inbox Group, is to not have an orienting vision for your life. It means you are constantly at-risk of forgetting what you are about, know getting what life is about and steering off-course (i.e., wasting your time).

Death is the great leveler for these groups. You might be in the Dusty Compass Group or the Inbox Group most of the time, but when you brush near death -your own death or the death of someone you care about — your philosophy of life has a way of getting clearer. The experience of nearness to death acts as a jolt that prompts you to yearn to be in the True North Group — to live, as it were, on purpose. To make it count.

You may have had someone guide you through the exercise of thinking about what your obituary will say when you die. For many of us, it is an arresting exercise because, if we are honest, the way we are spending our time isn’t totally in line with what we want our lives to be about. Realizing that fact is like waking from from a daydream.

For many of us, when we come near death the experience moves us closer to the True North Group and away from what Paul Graham describes as “the things life is too short for.” In the face of mortality, we think hard about what matters and the things that come to mind are no surprise: family, friendships, treating people well, learning, keeping our health. We promise ourselves that those things will be our priority. And we actually begin to live more in line with our aspirations.

But the weeks and months go by, and slowly, imperceptibly to us, but almost inevitably, we drift back to distraction. We look at the compass less frequently. We just deal with what is coming at us. We don’t completely forget what is important us, but we figure we can get to it later. We don’t completely forget what we think life is all about, but the notion becomes less clear, less poignant, like an old photograph faded by the sun. Without the vivid orienting direction of a clear philosophy of life, it becomes easy to do whatever’s easiest instead of living the way we’d want our obituaries to read.

I like to think I’m a True North Guy, but honestly, the reality is I probably am a Dusty Compass with momentary leaps up into True North territory. That’s why I find remarkable those souls who somehow maintain a consistency of philosophy, and who live in line with it. They are remarkable because it is hard to live with character. It is hard to live as if life won’t go on forever. And it’s why, every now and again, I find that reflecting on the reality of death is one of the best things I can do to make the most of the reality of my life.

– Max
January 30, 2016

(Originally Published in The Weekend Reader)