In 2005, a year after he was first diagnosed with cancer, Steve Jobs, the CEO and co-founder of Apple, gave a moving commencement speech to the graduating class at Stanford University. In the speech, Jobs urges the newly graduated students to do what they love and to never lose sight of their dreams. Reflecting on his cancer diagnosis, Jobs suggests that awareness of your own death can be a motivator for doing what’s truly important in your life:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” – Steve Jobs
Realizing that you’re going to die soon is an incredibly powerful way to diminish the grip that fear has on you. Contemplating your own death – and the ephemerality of life – can help give you the courage to overcome any fear that’s holding you back. For example, say you want to give an inspirational speech but you have a fear of public speaking. What’s the worst that can happen? You give a bad presentation? You feel embarrassed? So what. It really doesn’t matter. Trust me, in 100 years’ time, when you’re dead and buried, no one is going to remember or care. Like life itself, fear is ephemeral.
Here’s the silver lining: embracing the impermanence of life can free you to go after your dreams. If you want to start a company or a charity, do it. If you want to create beautiful art, make it. If you want to do international aid work in Africa, go for it. Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t let other people’s opinions stop you. Don’t let the risk of failure stop you. These are just transitory blips in the grand scheme of things. When fear falls away, anything is possible. So go for it — follow your heart, pursue your dreams, and create your future legacy.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” With this in mind, here is an exercise you can try to create the future of your dreams.
This exercise will take approximately 30 to 60 minutes to complete, though it might take longer if you delve deeper into the questions. Find a quiet and comfortable place free of distractions. You’ll need a pen or pencil, and some paper or a notebook. Before you start, I recommend that you turn off your cell phone and other electronic devices.
1) First, imagine your life in 50 years’ time. Imagine that you’ve lived a good and fulfilling life. You’ve stayed true to yourself, you’ve followed your passions, and you’ve pursued your dreams. Fear has not stopped you from doing what’s important in your life. You’ve lived a life that you’re proud of; one that has brought you much happiness and a deep sense of meaning. Thinking back on your life, what are your biggest accomplishments? What have you achieved? What have you created or done? Consider all areas of your life: family, relationships, professional, financial, educational, spiritual, health, travel, adventure, etc. Write down your 50-year future.
2) Next, imagine your life in 10 years’ time. To be on track with your 50-year future, what should your life look like in 10 years? What are your accomplishments in 10 years? What have you achieved or done?
3) Next, imagine your life in one year’s time. To be on track with your 10-year future, what should your life look like in one year? What are your accomplishments in one year? What have you achieved or done?
4) Now, come back to the present moment. What’s one thing you can do today to help create this future? What can you do by midnight today to put you on track for this future? Write it down, and then go out and make it happen. Just do this one thing today, and see how it feels.
The point of this exercise is to illustrate that you are the ultimate creator of your own future. You have the ability to shape your future into something special. To do this, first envision the type of future you want to create, and then make choices and take actions in life that will help make this vision a reality. The formula is really quite simple: 1) dream (big), and 2) take action.
A good metaphor is to think of your life as a canvas. It begins blank and, over the years, you create a work of art that marks your journey through life. The thing is, you only have one canvas. Rather than filling it haphazardly – hoping that something of beauty and value will eventually emerge – why not visualize the masterpiece you want to create ahead of time? This is what visionaries do – and you can do it too. Realizing that you are the artist of your own future is a powerful way to live your life. The question is: What will you create?
Some of you may have no idea what you want to create yet. Trust me, that is completely natural, and there is nothing wrong with you. If you haven’t figured out what you want to create with your life, don’t worry, there is lots of time ahead of you. It might not become apparent until years from now. That’s okay. Everyone is on their own unique life path. For now, my advice is to try a lot of different things and be open to new opportunities. Treat life as a big, fun experiment. If you keep an open mind, when the time is right, you’ll find something that fits and you can run with it. Till then, never stop dreaming.