Before I dive into today’s post, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who preordered The Daily Dad! If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, I’ll be in New York City TONIGHT at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square at 6 p.m. with my buddy Casey Neistat (ticket includes a copy of The Daily Dad!). And if you’re in Austin on Monday May 8, I’ll be at the Barnes and Noble at the Arboretum with my buddy Austin Kleon at 7 p.m. Click the links for more details, and I hope to see you there!
At 6:45pm on Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014, I got an email from my friend Seth Roberts, the pioneering and peerless scientist.
I opened it, saw that it was to be the first of a long awaited column called “Personal Science” for the Observer, where I was then an editor. I assumed it was good–Seth’s work always was–so I marked it as unread and told myself it could wait until Monday.
On that Saturday, less than 72 hours later, Seth collapsed of a fatal heart attack while hiking in Berkeley. It would have been so easy for me to reply and and tell him how happy I was with what he had written. Or how much he’d helped me over the years and how excited I was to be working with him. How hard would it have been to give even the courtesy of acknowledging his email?
But I didn’t. And now I will never get to tell him anything ever again. This man who had mentored me, who had inspired me, who had made me rethink how I did so many things…I had left him on hold and now he was dead.
Of course, I was familiar with the Stoic concept of Memento Mori. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Of course, I knew that any of us could go at any moment. Yet there is, as always, a difference between knowing something and knowing it. And there is nothing like losing someone you care about suddenly and unexpectedly to help you understand how fragile and ephemeral life is.
In an interview shortly after the death of the musician David Crosby, Crosby’s bandmate Graham Nash talked about the falling out they never got to resolve. “He had sent me a voicemail saying that he wanted to talk to apologize,” Nash said. “I emailed him back and said, ‘Okay, call me at 11 o’clock tomorrow your time, which is 2 o’clock on the East Coast.’ He never called, and then he was gone.”
You think you can do it tomorrow. You think you have tomorrow.
You very well may not.
The grudges we hold on to. The strange priorities we hold. The nonsense we get bogged down in.
There is a kind of arrogance in it. It takes tomorrow for granted.
This is the one thing all fools have in common, Seneca wrote. “They are always getting ready to live.” They are always thinking that they have plenty of time. They are always saying that they’ll be able to get to it later. They think that opportunities, that other people, that life can be deferred to the future.
These things exist, as Tolstoy wrote, only in the present.
Procrastination is egotistical. It is entitlement, embodied. I carried guilt about that with Seth for a long time–you can see I was still wrestling with it in the eulogy I gave for him a few months later (Tim Ferris gave a really good one too)–and it’s taken me almost ten years to even be able to write about it.
Meditation on our mortality is not a productivity hack. It’s more than that.
For me, I’ve tried to take from this experience a relatively simple lesson: I tell people how I feel about them when I have the chance.
It wasn’t just Seth that taught me this. I remember I was in O’Hare Airport a couple years ago, and I saw something on a TV I was passing that reminded me of my friend Bret Bearup. I remember thinking, ‘Oh I should message him.’ Then I got distracted and boarded my flight. When I landed, I got a terrible bit of deja vu, more terrible news. He had died taking an afternoon nap.
If a friend pops into my head now, I take it as a sign: You need to reach out. Don’t do it later. Don’t leave them hanging. Don’t assume you’ll get another chance. Take the one that’s in front of you right now. Accept the gift in front of you–it is the present.
It’s very unlikely you’ll regret it. It may well be the last thing you get to do. For instance, in The Daily Dad (out now!) I tell the story of Bob Saget—legendary comedian, longtime host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” and Danny Tanner on “Full House”—who got a text from his daughter as he was about to go onstage to perform stand-up. We don’t know what she said, but it wasn’t urgent.
He could have easily said to himself, I’ll respond later. I’ll call her in the morning. We never want to consider that it’s our last chance. We tell ourselves that it’s nothing, that there will be other phone calls, other texts, more good-nights. But that’s not always true.
Saget took a second to send what neither of them could have known would be his last text. “Thank u,” he wrote. “Love u. Showtime!” Hours later, he was found dead, tragically, in his Orlando hotel room at age 65.
No one knows what their last words will be. No one knows how much time they have. So let’s use the time we have, before we lose the time we’re never guaranteed.
Let’s make sure we tell people that we care about them.
Let’s make sure we reply to the email, we return the call, we tell those we love how we feel about them while we can.