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Memento Mori: How Tracking Death Can Improve Your Life

The average person lives for 28,251 days. If you’re 25 years old, you’re roughly one-third of the way through. Are you happy with the way things are going?

On my wall hangs a framed piece of paper with no glass over it. On the paper is a big square divided into tiny blocks — 52 blocks wide, 80 blocks tall.

My birth date is written on the top left corner. The same date, 80 years later, is on the bottom right of the page. With every week that passes, I take a pen and fill in a block.

A few weeks ago, I finished the 29th row, my 29th year alive.

This is my Memento Mori chart. All the weeks I have lived are in black. All the weeks I hope to live are blank.

Every time I look at this, I remember that I am going to die. And that motivates me to live an incredible life.

Why I Keep Track Of My (Life /Death)

memento mori : “Remember you will die.”

Before I became an S2B coach, I spent a few years deployed overseas in combat zones as part of the elite Naval group, SWCC. (Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen.)

These are the guys you see here:

The dangerous environments I found myself in kept me grounded.

It’s easy to remember your own mortality when there’s incoming rocket fire and the sounds of roadside bombs being detonated.

And while it’s weird and disconcerting to be around death, it made every moment seem more precious and vivid. In those desolate corners of the world, I always felt appreciative of my life.

The Memento Mori chart was my way of bringing that feeling back home with me. It’s a reminder that although I’m no longer directly in danger, I still need to live every day like it’s truly my last on this earth.

The “Highlight Reel”

Imagine yourself as an old man. Think back over your life and recall your “highlight reel”, the handful of perfect moments and the times where you truly felt alive.

A few of mine:

  • Riding a mountain bike through the rainforest in Costa Rica.
  • Talking with a beautiful girl at the edge of a pier and watching lightning flicker across the sky.
  • Watching my mom give my sister an ivory hair-clip at her wedding, a gift that has been passed down over five generations.
  • Riding on the canopy of a boat down the Nile river in Sudan, watching the stars.
  • Drinking wine straight from the bottle with a team of Sherpas at the Mt. Everest basecamp.

Your highlight reel — whatever those incredible moments were for you — that’s the kind of stuff that matters, the stuff that shows you’ve lived a full life.

Your aim should be to capture and experience those kinds of moments every day. 

Personally, I run through my highlight reel whenever I need some perspective or whenever I start to feel sorry for myself. I encourage you to do the same.

It makes you wonder why we waste so much time on stupid shit that doesn’t really matter in the end.

The Goal: Don’t Write a shitty story

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Those lines above are from the 5 Remembrances of Buddhist philosophy.

Here’s what they mean to me: Everything that I have and everyone that I know is going to change, fall apart, and eventually go away. The only thing that matters is how I act right now.

That’s why every time I fill in a block on my Memento Mori chart I take a few minutes to consider how I spent my time that week.

Did I:

…spend it with people I love and care about?
…challenge myself?
…worry about stupid shit?
…do things that made me happy?
…try something new?

Some weeks I realize I frittered away my time on meaningless stuff. Other weeks I smile as I remember all the cool things I did.

But every week, no matter what happened, I think about how I’m creating the story of my life with my actions.

And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna write a shitty story.

Memento mori: Download yours now

Caretake this moment.
Immerse yourself in its particulars.
Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed.

Quit the evasions.
Stop giving yourself needless trouble.
It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now.

You are not some disinterested bystander.
Exert yourself.

– Epictetus

All of this isn’t really meant to scare you, but maybe it should. Maybe we should all be a little scared of dying.

Because here’s the truth: Your life is ending one second at a time.

Live it well, and as Seneca said, life is long enough. But to live it well you have to be fully present and self-aware.

And guys, I know of no better path to self-awareness than marking off every week you’ve lived until the whole paper gets inked black.

13 Responses to Memento Mori

  1. Mike Chaplin says:

    Hey, Craig, like the article. I personally think about this topic regularly and think it’s important. Don’t remember who said it but: “Most people live as if they never going to die and die as if they never lived.”

  2. Hi Craig,

    Dan Kennedy, a marketing genius, has made a huge electronical countdown with that. So everyday when he wake up he can see the countdown and he knows that he has no time to waste.

    Your countdown is easier to do and I’m printing it right now !

    Love the article.

    – Alexis

    P.S : we have the same age, 2nd of november for me :)

  3. Nate Green says:

    Just a couple selections from my “highlight reel”:

    * Driving from Whitefish to Missoula MT with the sun shining, the radio blaring, and the windows down, navigating the mountain roads and cornering like a pro.

    * Body-boarding, snorkeling, and kayaking with my girlfriend in crystal-clear waters in Costa Rica.

    * Drinking coffee with my dad early in the morning while everyone else is still asleep.

    Thanks for writing this, Craig. I think I’m gonna spend 30 minutes today writing down more of my highlight reel — I’d like to see it everyday.

  4. diskothek says:

    Craig: props, man. I feel like I have absolutely no reason to whine through any part of S2B this year when I think about what you’ve been through. Going to remind myself that this – life, family, friends, health, experiences – are gifts and opportunities to cherish and focus on when I’m feeling down.

    Smattering of the highlight reel:
    *Trekking through Tunisia en route to the Sahara, which felt like the end of the world when I got there

    *Driving cross country with my Dad and long conversations about life and family with both parents

    *Hikes through Washington, DC + surrounds with my best friends

    *Finishing my first 5k, then the Army Ten Miler (knees won’t let me do that one again!)

    *Talking my way out of a parking ticket when living in Germany – auf deutsch

  5. Dan VanderBloomen says:

    Craig, this was a great read. I especially liked the line “And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna write a shitty story.”

  6. Craig,
    This is one of the best articles I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a very long time. I think it’s particularly meaningful to me because this is a topic that has really been weighing on me lately. I’ve been struggling to find a way to express it and put it to words and your writing really helped do that. This is a great starting point for me to put forth my own motivation/destination/lifeline.

    Greatest highlights in my life:

    *Encountering an angel at the top floor of a closed, dark building on a night when I was planning on suicide.

    *Feeling disconnected from my body as if I were just a free-floating spirit the night I told God I wanted to accept Christ as my savior. I’ve never felt such supreme peace and contentedness outside that moment.

    *Sitting at the end of a pier on San Pedro Island, Belize while sipping on a bottled Coke and watching the clearest blue ocean roll forward.

    *Driving with the windows down in a beat up ’91 Camry on a downhill slope, winter weather day while roadtripping to Oregon with my cousin.

    *Going to six-flags in college with two of my cousins and a friend and wearing superhero capes the whole day, acting like little kids, and not giving a single shit what anybody thought of us.

    *Sitting above the cloud line atop Mona Kea in Hawaii and watching the sun set with some amazing people.

  7. Great article, Craig. I needed to read that. Some “highlight reel” selections:

    – Getting to the top of the Great Wall of China, cracking open a few cans of beers with friends, and admiring the landscape.

    – Sitting with a beautiful girl on a dock in Taipei on a warm fall evening with a gorgeous, blue mountain across the water and a setting sun on the right.

    – Spending a sleepless night homeless in Hong Kong, waiting silently at the Kowloon Pier for a perfect sunrise over the Hong Kong skyline.

    – Driving with a friend in Sydney, taking a wrong turn, and discovering a secluded spot with the most gorgeous views of the city.

    “Psycho-Cybernetics” recommends having a mental storage of saved memories that have brought you joy, required immense bravery, etc. so you can always call upon them in times of doubt. The key is recalling them in extreme detail. I’ve got an excel file where I save ’em (what happened, where, time, weather, emotion, what I was wearing, etc).

  8. Anthony Avila says:

    This is just another confirmation for me.

    I had a crazy idea a couple weeks ago. A friend’s friend had just commented on one of my photos online, asking about me. This girl, who I’ve never met, lives in Spain. I thought, I should go to Spain. Then I thought, that’s such a dumb idea. Going to Spain to see a girl.

    But the idea wouldn’t go away. The more I thought about it, the more reasons I came up with to go. Instead of “Why would it make sense to go?” I found myself asking “Why not?” I think that’s the key to living the life you dream. Ask, “Why the hell not?”

    I kept reasoning that I could postpone a trip until the spring when the weather is better. Or maybe the summer, or maybe next year. But I thought, no, go on this trip AND go in the spring AND the summer. There’s too much of the world to see to “save it for later.”

    Yesterday I actually booked the ticket. I’m spending New Years in Spain. It still doesn’t make sense to me that I’m going. It’s way too much money, I have too much to do at home. But I couldn’t pass up such a badass opportunity. I might get to meet that girl, but I don’t really care. I’m leaving the Americas for the first time to go freeze my ass off in Spain!

    I’m still deciding what’s already on my highlight reel, but I’ll bet this next trip will add to it!

    • craigeweller says:

      I have a personal rule written down that’s simply, “Take the trip.”

      When something like that comes up, even if I can’t afford it or it’s too inconvenient or I have no idea what I’ll do once I actually get there I find a way to make it happen.

      Even if the only thing you get out of it is the comfort of knowing that you’ll never have to fall asleep wondering what could have been, it’s always worth it.

  9. Anthony Avila says:

    By the way, I noticed everyone has a highlight that takes place on a pier?? I should hang out on those more often!

  10. At age 18, senior in high schoolm, was asked to coach a swim team at a private club. First time they started a swim team in years. I was in charge of 25+ kids, ages all over the place. 6-11. We didn’t have lane lines, so I swam like a mam duck and made them follow me around the pool. corrected their form while they swam past. Speed training was just playing “sharks and minnows” for 15 minutes at the end of each practice. we had6 weeks to practice before the first and only swim meet that year. Classic mighty ducks scenario- kids got off the bus in matching suits, matching goggles…my kids had on bikinis and baggy shorts. one or two in speedos. We won every. single. race. INcluding one kid who had acted so hopeless in practice- just flailing at the water- who swam like a goddamn dolphin. I thought maybe he had played a joke on all of us all year, some sort of brilliant prank- nope. It was incredible. If I didn’t see it, there’s no way I would have believed it.

  11. Ben Coomber says:

    This is EPIC, I’m downloading it right now, I live every day to the full and push 100% all the time, but having this breathing down my neck slightly is going to cement the fact that I never waste a day….

  12. Shea says:

    Hi Craig,
    This most certainly is a very interesting read – and very true in many ways. Not nearly enough people give any serious thought to man’s eventuality: death. And not enough of us reflect appreciatively on the highlights of our short lives. However, there is something missing from your article. You stated “the truth is: your life is ending one second at a time.” Is that really true? Not quite. Actually the Creator intended us to live meaningful, purposeful, awesome lives WITHOUT END. Yes we are meant to live forever. There is a simple clear reason why we don’t currently & this can be found in God’s Word the Bible. I noticed a few posters have made mention of God. He is a real person who cares about us. And He wants us to realize that His purpose for humans & this earth has not changed & will come about very soon. All we need to do is learn about God & His purposes, as outlined in the Bible (John 17:3) Only then will our lives take on REAL meaning . And although we will still have a healthy fear of dying, that possibility won’t be a burden that bothers us our every breathing second. I invite you to look into the future our Creator holds out to us – me, you & everyone else on this post. Because the truth of the matter is: even a ‘well-lived life’ is meaningless if we are to die anyway with no hope of ever enjoying the gift of life again.