What did a CEO in the 21st century and a slave from Ancient Rome have in common? Odd question, you might think. And yet, the slave and the CEO shared a common wisdom. Because both of them realised and voiced what the single best invention of life is.
As a general came back from war and paraded inside Rome’s city walls, celebrating his triumph, a slave approached him and whispered in his ear: “remember that you are mortal” – memento mori. He understood that fame and pride could lead to delusions of grandeur. Without stripping the general from his success, the slave reminded him that he was only a man, bound to die.
As 2005 Stanford graduates prepared to leave university and celebrate the opening of the next chapter of their lives, a CEO approached them and whispered in their ears: “remembering that you are going to die is the best thing I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose” – memento mori. He understood that apathy and fear could lead to lives of quiet desperation. Without stripping the students from their success, the CEO reminded them that they were only mortal, bound to die.
Death is the single best invention of life.
It is humbling us and grounding us to reality, while simultaneously and inevitably pushing us to express what lies at the heart of our spirit. Death is the balance of all things.
And yet we pretend it is not part of the journey. Or worse, we get terrified.
As Irvin D. Yalom says, contemplating death is like staring at the sun: it hurts our eyes and we cannot sustain it. So we simply avoid looking at it. We all know death is there, present, somewhere along the path, and yet we conveniently ‘forget’ about it.
We go to work day after day for years, even decades; most of the time doing something we don’t enjoy; accumulating money to take advantage of the little free time we have; waiting for death to come whilst secretly wishing it will never happen… And we call it a life.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with a song still in them.”
~ Henry David Thoreau ~
Read this again and then ask yourself, honestly, if this does not ring true for you… I know it definitely did for me. We are here for a tiny glimpse on humanity’s timeline. It is not worth locking away our genius simply because we fear others will judge it. It is not worth burying our dreams simply because society expects us to.
What is your song? Remember: you are going to die. So what could possibly be stopping you?
Steve Jobs understood that we ought to pursue what is in our hearts. He urged everyone to keep looking for it and not settle for anything less than the melody that makes our spirit sing. It is a never-ending quest which allows us to explore and discover what we truly want to create in the world.
And when we finally find what our song is, and when we sing it out loud from the bottom of our heart for the whole universe to hear, we ought to stay humble in victory. Because let’s not forget.
We are only mortal, bound to die.