This Ancient Roman Phrase Changed My Life Forever

Learn how this one phrase has helped successful people stay focused on their biggest goals.

This Ancient Roman Phrase Changed My Life Forever

Posted Monday September 25th, 2017 by in Analysis + Strategy.

This article originally appeared in Peter Kozodoy's Inc. column.

Remember, you die.

As grim as that seems, it's actually the phrase I wake up to every morning these days. More specifically, my morning routine involves picking up a large, copper-colored coin, with the words "memento mori" printed on it, which is Latin for "remember, you die."

It's a reminder that today's wealth of opportunity will come only once, and I better do everything I can to make today count.

I first stumbled upon the idea of reflecting on mortality while reading Tim Ferriss' Tools of Titans. In that book, the number one recommended book by the chapter interviewees was "The Obstacle Is The Way," by Ryan Holiday.

So, like any dedicated reader, I put Holiday's book on my reading list. Months later, I read "The Obstacle Is The Way," and promptly recommended it to every one of my friends.

One of the guiding principles of Holiday's book, based on Stoic philosophy, is memento mori, which means that in a world filled with distractions and unimportant minutiae, we must all remember to focus only on the stuff that matters, because life is fleeting.

In Holiday's words, "If today is the last day of your life, there are a bunch of things you're not going to do -- conversations you're not going to have, crap you're not going to put up with. On the other hand, there are a lot of really important things -- creative work, conversations you want to have, places you want to go -- that you are going to do."

But both Holiday and I have found that just thinking about the abstract nature of death isn't always enough to change our perspective and help us choose the important over the unimportant.

"In the recovery community," Holiday pointed out, "one of the reasons they give out those physical tokens for sobriety is because they want you to be able to reach into your pocket and feel something that reminds you how hard you worked to get to the point that you're at."

Holiday's physical coin follows the same logic: it's one thing to think about death, but quite another to reach into your pocket for your smartphone and come out holding an object reminding you that wasting time on social media may not be the best use of the next five minutes of your life.

What I've found most intriguing is that memento mori isn't a new concept. It was created and popularized well before the distractions of today's modern world, with Twitter battles and stressful holidays and impossible schedules.

The effect of memento mori is in the obvious nature of mortality -- that at the end of your life, there will be things you care about and things you certainly won't, and that constantly forcing yourself to choose between the two every day will inevitably keep you performing to your fullest, most fulfilling extent.

As morbid as it is, Holiday pointed out to me that "if you thought for a second you had cancer, you'd never feel more focused and alive and in the present moment than after getting that news. The truth is, though, that you DO have cancer; either literally, because the cells could already be in your body, or figuratively, because we all have a fatal diagnosis -- we just don't know whether it's six months or 60 years from now."

The power of that statement is why entrepreneurs like Tim Ferriss and Gary Vaynerchuk, and filmmakers like Casey Neistat and Jay Shetty, all carry a memento mori coin. It's why best-selling author Eric Barker says "For me, it's like a North Star."

It's also why, as soon as Holiday explained it to me, I knew I had to have one of my own to carry around.

As the late Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius famously said, "You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think."

It's a millennia-old reminder to enjoy life while we all still can.


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