One Year Left To Live

September 24, 2010 6 min read

New Year’s Eve

When I was 33 years old, I made a new year’s resolution that changed my life. I resolved to live every day of that year as if I only had one year left to live.

At first I thought the resolution would be: to live every day as if it was my last. But I’m pretty sure I’d just want to spend the last day of my life just being with friends and family. If they knew it was my last day, they’d probably take the day off work too – to be with me. 

(Interestingly, I once asked a group of Japanese friends what they’d do on the last day of their lives. Every one I asked said they’d do what they do everyday — just go to work and continue as usual. It wasn’t until an American friend of mine said that he wouldn’t go to work, he’d want to spend the last day completely with his wife. Then all of my Japanese friends changed their minds and said they wouldn’t go to work either but, instead, would do something they truly wanted to do …  something that was important to them.)

Then I thought I’d live that calendar year as if it were my last. As I considered that notion, I thought it would lead to diminishing returns at the end of the year. I worried that as I got to November with only a month or two left, I probably wouldn’t want to take on any big challenges or start any new projects. There would be too little time left.

Finally, I came up on the notion of waking up every day and thinking “If I only had 365 days left to live, what would I do today?” 

One year is really enough to do many things. Here’s a few that were completed in less than a year — start to finish:

• The original IBM PC
• Wembley Stadium (London)
• George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm
• Samuel Morse’s first telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore
• Verdi’s Requiem Mass
• The animated film, Toy Story 2
• Most Hollywood movies

Naturally, many of these involve more than one person, but if you get the right support and with the right motivation, you can do a LOT in one year! And every one of the above started with one person.

Life changing

Almost immediately after I implemented my New Year’s Resolution, my whole life began to change.

Curiously, the first real change that I made was about my body. Now if you were going to be dead in a year, you might think you’d decide just to let your body go to pot (no more exercising; eating only ice cream) Being a year from death, I decided I actually wanted to die in good shape! I started going to the gym regularly and lost 10 kilograms during the year.

At the time I made this resolution, I had been working two full-time jobs: I was a professor and a full-time consultant at a top consulting firm. A few months into my resolution, I decided that if this were my last year, I didn’t really want to be doing either one of those jobs. So I quit them both in the same month. Then, I started taking flying lessons!

After I quit my jobs, I enjoyed a few weeks of doing nothing every day (except my weekly pilot lessons). But once I got over the fatigue that had set in from doing two full-time jobs for four years straight, I found that I was bored. Then I decided that it was more important than ever that I do something meaningful with my life. I’d always thought sometime I’d do something useful for the world with my life, but with 50 years of living ahead of me, I always put off the decision. Thinking that I only had one year to live, I had a sudden sense of urgency. It made me ask myself: what can I start doing today to reach my goal of helping the world?

One area of skills and understanding that I had (that very few other Americans had at that time) was regarding Asia. I’d lived in Japan and Singapore and studied both Japanese and Chinese. So I thought one way to contribute to world peace and understanding was to start a newsletter. I called it The Asian Century Business Report. This was all in the days before the Internet, so I had to print a sample newsletter and send it out as a direct mail promotion. We received almost 100 subscriptions immediately (for a somewhat expensive newsletter). The newsletter business resulted in enough income that my family and I could get by even if I lived more than one year. 

For the next five years I ran the newsletter. Through the writing and researching of this monthly publication, I formed many friendships and really helped people, I think. And much of my future professional success can be directly attributed to this newsletter. And, it is something I would have never done if I were not thinking that that year would be my last. 

Many people become more religious when they are near death. I actually stopped going to church and instead decided to experience life in very new and interesting ways. I decided that I really wanted to find the person that I could spend the rest of my life with. And I began a process that I had avoided and felt guilty about for years. That process culminated, very happily, several years later, when I met the person I want to spend my life with.

I also decided I wanted to spend more time with my kids. And during the next year (and beyond) I took them to school, helped them with their homework, taught them all how to swim and played video games with them. I finally felt like I was really being a father to them. My happiest memories of raising kids happened in that year or two after I made this New Year’s resolution.

The stupid thing…

A favorite book of mine is “A Sense of Urgency” by John Kotter, the too-young-to-be-yet-he-is-retired Harvard Business School Professor. In the book, Kotter explains that the most important precursor of organizational change is a sense of urgency. As a leader you have to instill this in your people and throughout your company. And it can’t just be “busy work” urgency. It has to be real urgency with a purpose. 

Kotter doesn’t spend much time in the book on how an individual can come to have a sense of urgency in their personal life. But I’ve found nothing like the “I’ve only got one year to live” exercise to make every day feel important and urgent.

This series of articles was supposed to be about stupid things I’ve done. You may be wondering where the “stupid thing” is? Most of the stupid things I’ve written about so far have been in the far distant past; it is much easier to talk about mistakes I made a long time ago. 

But I did a stupid thing very recently: I forgot the power of the New Year’s Resolution I made when I was 33. I stopped living every day as if I didn’t have much time to live. A few months ago, as I was telling someone about this idea, I remembered it. And I realized that I made a number of stupid decisions in the last few years as a result of forgetting this way of living. 

But now, I’m trying to make up for lost time. Everyday, I wake up and think “I only have 365 days left, what should I do with my life today?” Already my life has changed once more. There are things that I’ll be doing in the future that I was not doing in the past. There are already things that I was doing in the past that I’ve decided I will not do any more.

Ask yourself this question every morning: If this were the last year of my life, what would I be doing today? Then do it.