Success, like courage, is largely about overcoming your fears.

Sure, some people feel as though they have to ask permission before they chase after their goals in life. But the truth is that there's a larger, more fundamental fear lurking behind every choice we make in life--or don't make.

That fear is the fear of death. And it's the one holding most of us back.

No matter what any of us do, we--you, me, and everyone we love and care about--will one day die. Until we confront that fear, and learn to use it to motivate us rather than inhibit us, it gives us an easy, nihilistic excuse to avoid living a truly full life. Whether we admit it or not.

Enter Drew Houston, the 34-year-old billionaire founder of Dropbox. In 2013, he gave the commencement speech at his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As he recalled recently with Inc., he used the speech to outline his metaphorical "cheat sheet" for life. There are three items on it:

  1. A tennis ball
  2. A circle
  3. The number 30,000

The quick decoding

The tennis ball is about his memory of a dog chasing one tirelessly. ("Fin[d] your tennis ball, the thing that pulls you.")

The circle is about your network, the people with whom you spend your time. ("[F]or whatever you're doing, there's usually only one place where the top people go," Houston said--and in his case that meant packing up and moving to Silicon Valley. "You should go there. Don't settle for anywhere else.")

The last item on the list, "the number 30,000," is probably the most important. It represents the total number of days that you can expect to live.

Take 82 years, if you're lucky enough to live that long, multiply it by 365, and you get 29,930. (I guess we round up.) At age 24, it means you've got about 21,000 days left. At age 45, you're down to about 14,000.

When he realized what that number meant, and how it was dwindling every day, Houston said he learned not to fear death, precisely because it is inevitable, and it will eventually reach us all.

The biggest fear

There are thousands of commencement addresses each year. When you ask people to cite the best of them, there are a handful that come up over and over: Steve Jobs at Stanford. Jeff Bezos at Princeton. Sheryl Sandberg at Berkeley. David Foster Wallace at Kenyon.

Sure, they talk about finding your true calling and living your best life, but it's also striking how often that death itself is one of the big themes:

  • Jobs, at Stanford in 2005: "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."
  • Bezos, at Princeton in 2010, starts out by recounting how, as a 10-year-old, he calculated that smoking would take nine years off his grandmother's life--and spelled it all out to her, as a sort of joke. (This prompted his grandfather to admonish him, saying: "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever.")
  • Sandberg's speech is about resilience after the death of a loved one. Wallace's speech--in 2005, and I'm not going to pretend I can do it justice here, go read it--is about "life before death.
  • Even that famous commencement speech about sunscreen, that apparently wasn't really given by Kurt Vonnegut at MIT, contains the line, "Get to know your parents. You never know when they'll be gone for good."

"[T]here are no warmups, no practice rounds, no reset buttons," Houston said. "Every day we're writing a few more words of a story. ... So from then on, I stopped trying to make my life perfect, and instead tried to make it interesting. I wanted my story to be an adventure -- and that's made all the difference."

Published on: Jul 28, 2017
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