Optimism and Pessimism and Living a Life of Purpose

memento mori

The Earth is a messy, cruel place and the best we can hope for is to die with as little physical and emotional suffering as possible.

Sorry to be a downer.  This article is actually about living better.

Stick with me.

How many of us were taught as kids that we will one day find our soul mate?  That good always defeats evil?  That we will have a nice house with a nice picket fence and a nice family to put inside it?

Why didn’t our parents give it to us straight?

Why didn’t they tell us that the world is brutal?  That life is brutal?  That everyone will be fired from a job at some point.  Half of us will get divorced.  We will lose friends, fingers, and get colonoscopies before the age of forty.

This video, from one of my favorite new Youtube channels – The School of Life, really irked me at first.  But I’ve come to appreciate its wisdom.


The point of all this isn’t to focus on the negative.  I think there are two takeaways:

  1. To base our expectations on reality so we can be happier and more grateful
  2. To live better lives with purpose

There are going to be bad days for sure.  But why do so many of us react when this happens?  It should be no surprise when things go wrong.  How much better would our mental outlook be if we didn’t feel crushed every time?  How much more grateful would we be after a great day?

The media is obsessed about mass shootings.  Yet if you ask an economist about the topic, they wonder why aren’t there MORE shootings.  About 34 Americans die from shootings each day.  It sounds like a lot until you remember there are 316 million people in the U.S.

At Ironman Florida three weeks ago, I raced sick and came down with pneumonia.  I almost quit 20 minutes into the swim, fought dizziness for the majority of the bike ride, and walked as much as I ran in the marathon, finishing the day 2 1/2 hours slower than expected.

Before the race my buddy Derek told me to remember the Idiot’s Running Club Rule #6.  When we talked afterward I was mentioning that I thought I broke the rule.  He said, “if you felt that bad and you still finished, dude, you didn’t break the rule.”

Yeah.  I like that.

Maybe I need to start every day, every race, every appointment with the certain knowledge that it could all go very badly.  Things will not go according to plan.  And simply fighting, even if we fail, can be heroic.

How many people do you know who are living with purpose?  Who have jobs that they love to go to every day?  Who are making a real difference in the world?  Not many.

Now, how many people do you know who are mindlessly repeating day after day, week after week?  Going about our business mostly based on habit.  Pretty much everyone?

Why don’t we take a lesson from Medieval artists who kept a Memento Mori nearby?  A Memento Mori is a small object that reminds us of our mortality.

I recently bought a plastic skull to keep on my desk to remind me to spend my time doing things that matter.  I’m going to die one day and right at the end I’m going to be pissed about all this time I spent on Facebook.

I’m probably going to be just as pissed if I don’t follow through on some of my bucket list ideas, such as being part of a massive food fight, throwing a giant party with lots of alcohol and karaoke and calls for the police, and running in a naked mile running race.

The Memento Mori sounds a bit dark, but thanks to that skull I truly have made better decisions lately about where to put my efforts.  It has given me the strength to say no a lot more.  If you know me, you know I HATE saying no.  But I’m coming to realize that I hate wasting my time even more.

You can always make more money.  Buy another house or car.  The one thing you absolutely cannot get back in life is your time.  Time is the only non-renewable resource known to man.

The ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote:

“There is nothing the busy man is less busy with than living.”


“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

This really rings true for how I’ve been living for a very long time.  As a result, I am making some big changes in my life that I’ll elaborate on soon.  Eliminating the clutter.  Getting less busy and hopefully living more.

I’ve always been a bit of a Pollyanna.  It drives my wife crazy.  Her realism/pessimism has similarly challenged me.

But I think I see a middle ground now.  Rational pessimism with an optimistic glint.  Expecting the worst but hoping for the best.

This new outlook is already changing the course of my life.  Maybe it could do the same for you?

If you don’t mind, please share in the comments what you could eliminate?  What changes will you make to live a more meaningful life?