9 Things I’d do if I knew I was going to die today

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Nick had Hepatitis D, a relatively rare form of Hepatitis that is always fatal and quick. “There’s no point in taking medication,” he told me. “Its all experimental anyway and I have no insurance. Eventually my liver will fail and a few weeks after that I’ll be dead.” He was a good looking guy in this 30s and always seemed healthy to me. He glowed with the terrible secret he had been given to keep.

We’d usually meet at Steinway Billiards in Astoria and play backgammon all night. He taught me the three ways of backgammon that they play in Greece. One was the regular backgammon that we play in the US, one was a kind where you could land on top of your opponent’s pieces and prevent them from moving, and another kind was just a pure race, with no capturing. You’d rotate playing all three games. Not being Greek, I lost almost all the time. We’d start off the evenings by drinking super strong coffee and then play games until we were tired by about 2 or 3am. Then we’d take a walk through the streets watching the kids line up outside of clubs on Steinway Avenue. I always wanted to know what was happening in these clubs. Was everyone having sex inside? The lines were so long and never seemed to move. There must be some reason everyone wanted to get inside these clubs.

Nick didn’t have a girlfriend. “What would be the point,” he said. “I wouldn’t want her to get emotionally involved and then have to take care of me in my final weeks.”

The truth was, I was jealous of Nick. He was so close to dealing with questions I had never even encountered before. Why had he been given such a gift and I could only attempt to vicariously understand the gift through him. I had a whole life ahead of me to worry about. He just had to wait. To watch a sunset and really appreciate it because who knew how many more he’d watch. To really enjoy a game of backgammon. To feel pleasure from walking up and down busy streets, watching the people spinning around in a dream while he was pressed up against the wall of his fate.

I wanted to have this secret, like Nick. Where I’d walk around, incognito. The counter girls at the coffee shop having no idea of the secret I was trying to keep from them. Maybe only weeks left. Maybe days. Even today, we all know we’re going to die.. But we have no idea when. What would I do?

– I certainly wouldn’t return any phone calls to people I don’t want to talk to. That’s over. Nor would I visit anyone I didn’t want to visit or have any meetings I didn’t need to go to, etc. I wouldn’t do a single thing that I normally would not want to do.
– Sometimes my kids try to tell me a story and it’s hard to pay attention to what they are really saying. They pace back and forth, and the story is half in their minds, half in their words spewing out of them. Its hard to pay attention to them. My dad once told me, “I can’t really follow anything you’re saying” when I tried to tell him the plot to Star Wars. But I would try to put together pieces of the puzzles my kids were creating. I’d figure it all out this one time.
– I wouldn’t surf the web. I already know way too much about Kim Kardashian.
– When I try and picture what it would be like if I knew I was going to die today I imagine myself breathing very deeply throughout the day. Pay attention to how you breathe today. Most of the time we take very short breaths. Its like a mini version of huffing and puffing after a run, except we do it all day long. If I knew today was “the day” I think I’d take lots of deep breaths although I don’t know why this seems important to me.
– I’d empty all of my pockets for the entire day. I have a ton of stuff in my pockets right now. And these things never leave me. When I change a pair of pants I just move all this junk from one pair of pants to the other. I’m pulling a business card out of my left pocket right now. Its got only Chinese characters on it. Why do I even hold this from day to day? How many months have I been carrying this. I have no idea. I want to have empty pockets the day I die.
– I think I would be kind to people. I don’t think I would feel the urge to tell anyone off who has wronged me in the past. Most of these people already know how I feel about them anyway. And what was the point of all of those arguments. Those perceived wrongs. The hurt we all felt. It doesn’t really matter anymore. I’d want to make sure that I was kind to enough people so that after I was gone people would remember forever that last moment of kindness. They would think to themselves, “he liked me and he was about to die and this is what he did for me.” It would be a memory forever since everyone takes a mental snapshot of the last moment they saw someone.
– I’d probably want to at least write emails to everyone I wanted to say goodbye to. But I wouldn’t say “goodbye”. That’s too sad. Instead I’d write people a list of all the reasons I liked them. It would be somewhat embarrassing but why should I care?
– I’d want to be clean for the day, and happy with how I looked. I mean, what’s going to change now?
– I’d spend as much of the day as possible with my wife. I selfishly would want her to feel sad after I died so I’d need to leave her with some good memories.

Every now and then I try and tell myself, “live this day as if its your last.” No returned phone calls or irrelevant meetings. No mindless websurfing. Stop worrying about all the usual worries. Send emails to all the people you like, listing their favorable attributes. Or at least some of them. Appreciate this single unique moment. Every day I could do all the things on the above list. It’s a good thought. But its hard to do in practice while we are living the dream.

I moved out of Astoria when I started making more money. I was never good at goodbyes so I just packed up and left without talking to any of the people I had become friends with in the eight months I lived there. To this day I’ve never stepped foot in Astoria again. A few years later I ran into Nick on the street in Manhattan. We exchanged small talk. He looked about the same. I’m ashamed to admit I was kind of disappointed he wasn’t dead yet. Like maybe he had lied to me. Maybe he was thinking the same thing about me.

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  • http://www.MagnumOpusFinancial.com Brad Kelly

    What I love about you and Anthony Scaramucci is that in a world of finance surrounded by swirling ideas about what’s going to go up, or down…what to own…what to dump, commodities, taxes, unemployment, rumors, news, and on and on and on; you and Anthony take time to write things to your readers that might actually change the way we live our lives. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good report on a stock I’ve been watching or heck, one I’m long that proves my thesis or helps it and making money is what helps me keep the house my family lives in and put food in front of them. But writing, like you guys do takes time, and sacrifice. You have to pause the “rat race” we’re all running in and talk about life like it really matters. It’s not easy, and few people do it. Thanks for being one of them.

  • Sooz

    I’ve heard that people who carry a lot of things in their pockets will fight death until their pockets are empty.
    Please do use all a favor,at the very least,and keep transfering pocket to pocket that little piece of paper with the Chinese characters..;)

  • http://www.investingworks.com Robert Vollmer

    Really great post, James. I’ve always admired your insights into the market and your unique approaches to life. We all should live life as thought these are our final days. I need to perform this exercise too (though I think (hope!) I have plenty of time left)but I have a feeling most of my items would be focused on “covering my tracks/footprints” of the mistakes I’ve made. Great blog!

  • Pete Borini

    Outstanding slice of humanity. Thank you for sharing it. I’ll do more than link to it…I’ll come back to it, whenever I need a break from the race.

  • Ruth

    I love this post, James. Very applicable especially this time of year. Keep them coming . . . I really enjoy reading these. Take care!

  • HOLLYWOOD

    “live this day as if its your last.”

    Just remember that you have to go to work in the morning! ;>)

  • John

    I have that same situation with my kids, good point. Alhtough, there’s always a little more to learn about Kim Kardashian.

  • James Altucher

    @John good point. Maybe I have to leave the door open for a little bit of Internet surfing. “The World Wide Web”. Triple W.

    @HOLLYWOOD. thats always a good point. But as long as living in the moment doesn’t detract from going to work tomorrow then I think its all ok.

    @Ruth, thanks so much! As you know, I especially appreciate your opinion on these posts. Its been 8 years of writing about stocks and I’ve gotten a bit burnt out by them.

    @Pete, thats really nice to say. Thanks. I hope I can keep them coming.

  • James Altucher

    @Robert, thats funny about covering up your mistakes. I know what you mean. But I guess after we die, what does it matter? Except, I guess, you don’t want to leave hurt behind for those who survive you. Aach, its all complicated.

    @Sooz, for you, I will carry around the card with the Chinese letters. Thanks for reading these.

  • pjc

    Nice post. I love the bit about explaining Star Wars to your dad.

    I saw Star Wars 11 times when I was seven. It just blew my mind. My dad went with me once. Afterwards, he was shell shocked. The movie couldn’t have made less sense to him if it was performed in Mandarian. I, on the hand, had memorized every line of dialogue and wanted to discuss the ethical motivations of the Java desert people.

  • James Altucher

    @Brad, thanks. Looking forward to sushi in Orlando in February. Feb 10?

  • James Altucher

    @pjc, ha, thats funny. You’re probably about 1 year younger than me. And yeah, when I saw Star Wars it was as if Moses had just come down and given me the ten commandments and my dad somehow just didn’t get it. What was wrong with our parents?

  • Kyle

    Even though I love everything on the list… and CURSES for reminding me how much of my life I waste mindlessly on the internet… I was surprised to realize that the one I loved most was about noticing your breath. I can absolutely picture doing that if I knew it was my last day. It’s the miracle that keeps us on this side of the divide. It made me think of this saying/book title by Ilan Shamir: “A thousand things went right today.” We take so much of life for granted, but compared to someone who just drew her last breath, that’s quite a difference in our favor. A poignant post; I’m taking it to heart.

  • dc

    James,

    I used to surf the web looking for your posts about stocks and making money, but I think I’m enjoying these ‘life’ posts much more. Maybe throw in some bits now and then about how to make some money, and give us your latest thoughts on DNDN.

  • James Altucher

    @Kyle, I agree. When I was writing this and trying to figure out what I really wanted on my “last day” I found myself breathing deeply even just thinking about it. I think our bodies naturally want to breathe more but we cut them short. Too busy to breathe! Until we’re not so busy.

    @dc Thanks a lot. Also, if you want to check out my stock stuff, I’m on WSJ quite a bit, cnbc.com, businessinsider.com, aol, occasionally Yahoo tech ticker (tomorrow), and seekingalpha.com

  • http://stevenferreri.com Steven

    I think about this way too often. I’m just 26 and my biggest fear is not accomplishing everything I want out of life before I die. I mean, I wonder what it would be like to know your going to die and still have a couple of those goals go unfinished. That would really suck. I think i’m the only person my age that has a list of 10 or so life goals hanging on my computer. Some people wait until the last minute and write “bucket list’s”, which at that point it’s just too late. They had all their life to grow their businesses, sight see, or do something extreme, and now they want to write a list. I think your finale days should be spent with friends, loved ones, and those who who will carry your name on forever. Just remember, there are only two things guaranteed in life; one is death, the other is taxes.

    • Anonymous

      Perhaps younger people are troubled by what they must do before they die; perhaps older people are consoled by not having done anything terrible.

      • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

        Yeah, I’m not quite young. And I’m not quite old. So i’m sort of in the middle on this issue.

        • Tom

          I read someplace once that our internalized body image of ourselves is frozen at some date in our twenties. I think that rings true, though I am 68. I still imagine that I am about 26 in my self–image. Yes, I have mirrors and know better, but . . ..

          • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

            Tom, its interesting. It always makes me wonder about guys like George Soros who dump their wives and go for 18 yr olds. Does he really think he’s 26? Can guys ever cure themselves of “the disease” of thinking this way?

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  • KJP712

    I would like to trade currencies for 24 hours straight and then sleep for 2 days.Also drop a boxful of money from the top of a building.

  • Larry

    Dude: I thought you were just another pretty financial commentator face. You write really well.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Thanks. And I’m not so pretty. But I’ll take the compliment.

  • Hooch

    Nicely said James. I had open heart surgery as 4-year old, so for whatever reason I never expected to live a long life. Having said that, I’ve always focused on living a good life. The poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes once wrote that, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach” and with practice that’s not a difficult thing to do. At 47 years old, I’m certainly not wealthy but I plan for the future by investing 20% of my income for retirement, if for no other reason than I want the best for my wife and kids. I also live life like this is my final year on the planet. I see every play that captures my interest, attend dozens of concerts each year, travel extensively, dine out regularly, drink to my heart’s content, and spend loads of time with my friends, family, and dog.

    What I don’t do is own a cell phone or have a Facebook account.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Hooch, wow. Sounds like you have struck the healthy balance between taking care of your responsibilities and enjoying the moment. As painful as it must have been for you and your parents when you were four it sounds like it turned into a real blessing.

      Also, great quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I’m going to have to check her stuff out.

      reminds me of what a yoga teacher in India told a group of us recently: “Don’t worry about the world. Worry about your anus. “

      • Hooch

        Thanks James. Outside of familiy and friends, the most rewarding aspect of my life is my volunteer work with NC Outward Bound. Seeing inner-city high school students spend time in the mountains with other kids that they normally would not interact with and come to understand that they are not the center of the universe, can enjoy life without being tethered to their phones and video games, and can physically push themselves beyond their own expetactions is worth every hour I invest in the organization. We also work with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as local teachers and school administrators, so every day is different and rewarding in its own way.

  • http://goo.gl/QvKcQ SusieBlackmon

    I suspect these same types of my own personal thoughts are why, the older I get, the colors are more vibrant every day, the horses more spirited, and the cowboys much more appealing.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Yeah, Susie. I think maybe we learn to appreciate the subtler things in life. I hope thats it.

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=30303728 Gerald Gjini

    All Balkan countries play backgammon 3 ways

  • http://www.danzelikman.com Dan Zelikman

    Nice piece James, thank you.

    I think a lot about all the random things we do that seem meaningless in the grand scheme of things – you list a lot of them above. I do like the idea of trying each day to incorporate one or two “good” habits. One I hadn’t thought about was writing a quick note to a friend and telling them why I think they’re awesome. Sure as hell would beat some of the crap I write otherwise.