Death as a motivator: 6 successful people who used death to accomplish their dreams

April 17, 2013 — 3 Comments

You have to realize that some day you will die. Until you realize that you are useless.
Tyler Durden, Fight Club

There’s only one thing I like about the news on TV: it reminds you, every single day, that you are going to die. I believe that’s a good thing.

You could die today. It could be tomorrow. In 10 years or 50 years. Whenever it is, it certainly is going to happen. It’s the one thing – whatever you do – you cannot get away from.

And as Tyler Durden said in Fight Club: if you do not realize this, you are useless.

Throughout my reading, film-watching and web browsing I’ve noticed that quite an amount of pretty successful people had this realizing-I’ll-be-death-soon thing pretty well covered – and often even used it as a motivational tool that put a bit of urgency behind their work.

Here are 6 successful people who – in different ways – used death as the prime motivator for their life’s work.

Tyler Durden in Fight Club

Yeah sure, Tyler Durden’s a fictitious character and his life’s work “Project Mayhem” never really happened but he had one hell of a way of getting you to realize the power of death lurking in the background.

Below you find two of my favourite scenes in Fight Club in which Tyler uses death to make this everyman character played by Edward Norton realize that he’s wasting his time on earth, living this meaningless life while thinking that he’s got all this time. Tyler wants him to understand that before he can find meaning in anything, he has got to realize that he’ll not be here forever.

Scene #1 – The Chemical Burn

First you have to give up, first you have to know… not fear… know… that some day you’re gonna die. It’s only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything.

Scene #2 – Just Let Go

Narrator: What are you doing?
Tyler Durden: Guys, what would you wish you’d done before you died?
Ricky: Paint a self-portrait.
The Mechanic: Build a house.
Tyler Durden: And you?
Narrator: I don’t know. Turn the wheel now, come on!
Tyler Durden: You have to know the answer to this question! If you died right now, how would you feel about your life?
Narrator: I don’t know, I wouldn’t feel anything good about my life, is that what you want to hear me say? Fine. Come on!
Tyler Durden: Not good enough.

Steve Jobs – Memento Mori

If you haven’t watched his speech at Stanford, you should watch the whole thing and listen deeply. Jobs’ thoughts on death start at 9 minutes 39.

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. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Steven Covey – What will your funeral be like?

Covey is famous for writing The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In the book he has this visualization exercise named “The Funeral Exercise” which has been hounting me ever since I read it a while ago. It goes like this:

In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral of a loved one. Picture yourself driving to the funeral parlor or chapel, parking the car, and getting out. As you walk inside the building, you notice the flowers, the soft organ music. You see the faces of friends and family you pass along the way. You feel the shared sorrow of losing, the joy of having known, that radiates from the hearts of the people there.

As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself. This is your funeral, three years from today. All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life. As you take a seat and wait for the services to begin, you look at the program in your hand.

There are to be four speakers. The first is from your family, immediate and also extended —children, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who have come from all over the country to attend. The second speaker is one of your friends, someone who can give a sense of what you were as a person. The third speaker is from your work or profession. And the fourth is from your church or some community organization where you’ve been involved in service.

Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate? What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?

Malcolm X – I am a man who died 20 years ago

First let me say that you HAVE TO READ this dude’s autobiography – it’s spectacular! I have the utmost respect for this man as he embodies the word Hustler as much as a man possibly can. I wrote down my favourite quotes of the book here.

Concerning “death as a motivator”, Malcolm X goes one step further than the guys above and considers himself dead already.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Death-At-Your-Heals Tactic

Most of us probably know Dostoyevsky as that Russian dude who wrote these humongous 1,000 page books. What most of us probably do not know is that if this man didn’t have had a certain life experience at age 23 we quite possible never would’ve heard of him.

When he was in his early twenties, Dostoyevsky was jailed after being part of Russian radical groups. After 8 months in jail, he and the other members of the group were told they would receive their sentence. A couple of months was the usual sentence for their crime.

When they arrived in St. Petersburg, Dostoyevsky couldn’t believe his eyes: what he saw was a scaffold, a priest, rows of soldiers, thousands of spectators and lines of coffins. Looks pretty clear to me.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Firing Squat Death Sentence

And indeed their sentence went the following:

All of the accused are guilty as charged of intending to overthrow the national order, and are therefore condemned to death before a firing squad.

As he realized what was about to happen, he thought the following:

If I do not die, if I am not killed, my life will suddenly seem endless, a whole eternity, each minute a century. I will take account of everything that passes – I will not waste a second of life again.

As the soldiers raised their rifles and took aim suddenly a carriage entered the square. A messenger got out and told the firing squad that the czar had changed his mind and cancelled their death sentence.

Dostoyevsky’s new sentence: 4 years of labour in Siberia. Here’s what he wrote to his brother after this near-death experience:

When I look back at the past and think of all the time I squandered in terror and idleness, … then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift…. every minute could have been an eternity of happiness! If youth only knew! Now my life will change; now I will be reborn.

All of his life, this experience had an effect on Dostoyevsky. He reminded himself continually of it, never wasting another moment. And whenever he found he was getting too comfortable after successful book releases he would blow all his money by gambling it away in a casino.

As Robert Greene writes in The 33 Strategies of War: “Dostoyevsky wrote as if his life were at stake.”

His motto in life:

Try to get as much done as possible in the shortest time.

Marcus Aurelius – Meditations 

Even though this Roman Emperor has been dead for almost 2,000 years this man has had the most influence on my life. Ever since I read his Meditations (a notebook in which his reflections on kind of everything are bundled together) I looked at the world differently. This is a quote of him that comes to mind:

Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what the world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.

Marcus Aurelius
Meditations (Book 2.4)

Find a Way to Remind Yourself

Every time I cross an intersection with my bike I visualize being bombarded 20 meters in the air by an in-coming car – then realize that in fact our time here is limited and I could’ve died on the spot. This is something we should all be reminded about every once in a while. Maybe even all the time.

Steven Pressfield starts The War of Art with the following words:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

You might as well rephrase that last sentence.

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands realizing we are going to die.

3 responses to Death as a motivator: 6 successful people who used death to accomplish their dreams


    You can add Curtis Jackson to that short list per his book The 50th Law:

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Until you realize that someday you will die, you are useless. « olivier goetgeluck - December 19, 2013

    […] Below I posted one of my favorite Fight Club scenes where Tyler Durden uses death as a motivator. […]

  2. Why getting a gun to your head is the best thing that can happen to you « olivier goetgeluck - December 19, 2013

    […] the bottom of this post I embedded one of my favorite Fight Club scenes where Tyler Durden uses death as a motivator as part of his human sacrifice […]

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