Prefer comedy over tragedy

Last week my mom died after a three year battle with cancer. I was fortunate to be by her bedside in the last few days of her life. At the beginning she was lucid and we got to say good bye— a great privilege. Then, for days, I watched her struggle for every breath as her breathing got shallower and shallower, until it eventually stopped.

Watching your parent die momentarily changes your executive depth of field. Important aspects of life near the foreground and assume unprecedented sharpness; unimportant ones recede and blur with the background. What matters and what doesn't becomes exceptionally obvious. For a moment, there is no mistaking one for the other.

In her last days, my mom had the long view on her life. Our conversations were emotional, but in part they sounded like a strategic postmortem, the way one might analyze key moments of a football game. Much of what she recalled was surprising— details that must have been mundane at the time, but turned out to have crucial importance to her in the end.

I wanted to write the lessons that seemed obvious to me while I was with her before they fade from memory. This is my writing and my view. If my mom wrote this, the list would have been different. In all likelihood, she would have disagreed with many of my conclusions. Most of them contradict each other anyway. Caveat emptor.

  • At the end, you will care about 3-5 things.

  • Your relationship with your parents, your spouse, and your children will be on that list. Get as many of these right as you can.

  • You can't know everything you will care about, but you can introspect the most important things. Do that early.

  • Always keep them in mind. Write them down. Review them daily. This is your North Star.

  • Declare bankruptcy on bullshit— faux emergencies, manufactured glitter, family and relationship drama, pointless errands, gossip, events you can't control, approval of strangers, the opinion of Jeremiahs, inner voices that chip away at self-belief. My god, what an exhausting waste of time! Let it all go.

  • Every time you do something that you regret later, write it down. Then do those things less.

  • There will be times when you will have to be ruthless. When those times come, do not flinch. Do what must be done.

  • Addiction, abuse, depression and violence erode your humanity. Extricate yourself from these situations without mercy. Be strong. Do not permit anyone to harm you.

  • Don't neglect your body and don't obsess over it. Eat good food, exercise, attend to medical needs when it becomes necessary.

  • Get off the internet.

  • Cultivate a reading habit, and read widely. Reading broadens the imagination and expands the space of possibilities. It's a way out of the prison of your circumstance available to almost anyone who wants it.

  • Do more. Don't wake up one day thinking you haven't done all you could.

  • Have faith that the powers of darkness will, in time, be crushed by the spirit of light.

  • Seek advice, but don't outsource your decisions. No one can make them for you.

  • Make a list of people you want to impress. Keep it very short. Be sure these people have your best interests at heart. Then ignore judgement from anyone not on the list.

  • Learn to think for yourself. The best way is to be around someone who can already do that. The second best way is to read correspondence of inventors, scientists, mathematicians, and artists. Third best is to read biographies. Ideally, do all three.

  • Examine your circumstance every few months. If something makes you unhappy for too long, make a change. Don't live a life of quiet desperation.

  • Strive for excellence, not greatness. (thanks Robert!)

  • The hardest battles are the ones you’ll fight with yourself.

  • Accept people as facts.

  • Every time you do something you don't want to do, but are happy about it later, write it down. Do those things more.

  • Have adventures that carry risk. Start a business, ask out the girl you like, climb a mountain. This is where you'll find the 3-5 things that matter.

  • Have children.

  • Cultivate a sense of humor in all things. Prefer comedy over tragedy.

My mom’s last words to me before she fell asleep and never woke up:

Wear warm clothes. There is apple strudel for you on the kitchen table. Be strong.

I’ll miss you every day, mom ❤️