Pursuit of a Memorable Life

You're not going to forget this
You’re not going to forget this

“Wow, the past 5 years went by too fast…”

“How did that happen?”

“Where did all those years go?”

Asked such a question before?

Me too. I’ve asked variants of this question a few times in recent years as I move past the care-free days of my early 20s. It’s not a question I ever came up with an answer to, though.

Time kind of accelerates as you’re older. Psychology offers scientific answers, but I’m not as interested in that as I am in finding an intuitive answer. Why does it feel like time went by faster, and why don’t I remember as much anymore?

Dustin Garis spent a year in search for the answer. He chose to carry out his quest by travelling to many parts of the world right out of university against the will of everyone in his family and social circle. I can imagine, but I’m glad he did what he did.

The answer that ended his search did not originate from his mind but that of someone he’d serendipitously met at a potato stand in Moscow: “Life is not about the number of days you live, it’s the number of days you remember.”

First thing that came to my mind was how Dustin was primed to receive this random person’s words as the answer to the old question of how time flies by, leaving us with nothing but a few vague memories. Watching him talk about this in his TED talk I can tell he had a eureka moment when he first heard it.

It’s the first thing that sprang to my mind because I know, for sure, that there’s a good chance someone else in this world had already heard that man say what he said to Dustin at the potato stand. But it would’ve fallen on deaf ears.

That’s the power of a mission. Dustin Garis had a mission. His mission gave him powers to discern a cliche from an important answer that’s staring him in the face.

Life is not about the number of days you live, it’s the number of days you remember.

Dustin offers a more in-depth explanation:

  • First, so you get a sense of urgency, ask yourself “How many days in the previous month do you remember?”
  • Dustin claims along with various scientists that Routine => Fewer novel experiences => Less memorable life
  • So more novel events => more days in a month remembered => more memorable (and fulfilling) life

Looking at the very question we’re trying to answer, I find that his answer is indeed the most adequate one. The question again: Where did all those years go?

Dustin tells us where. It’s gone from your hands into the abyss of the forgotten past!

Each of us can choose how to approach routine tasks, new challenges and broadly, even how we spend our time.

If commuting to work everyday by bus is mind-numbing, even if it’s the quickest way to get to the office, we can choose to take another route. (This reminds me of Derek Sivers’ epiphany that arose when comparing his 43-minute hardcore cycling routine versus a more relaxed cycling experience along the same path that took only 2 minutes more.)

If eating at the same few places near our workplace is turning out to be unmemorable, perhaps we can choose to have potluck in the office lobby for lunch tomorrow.

If we choose to spend our time doing things in fresh ways, we will have more novel experiences in our life, which Dustin reckons will help us accumulate “life capital”.

When that happens, gradually, we’ll stop asking how time went by. We’ll remember exactly how.

Thanks, Naz, for sharing this talk with me.