When You Learn How to Die, You Learn How to Live

by Alexander Heyne · 22 comments

“When you learn how to die, you truly learn how to live.”

- Tuesdays With Morrie

Tomorrow is my 26th birthday. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the following question:

If it were my last one, would I be happy with what I’ve done with my life?

Not in an egoic, “look at all the shit I’ve accomplished” type way. More of an “am I doing what I really am meant to do?” kind of way.

Would I be happy dying at 26 knowing that I’ve found my path, and have truly lived?

People have it all backwards

The above quote – when you learn how to die, you learn how to truly live – is something from Tuesdays with Morrie.

Morrie was a terminally ill professor giving his friend / former student lessons in life. And towards the end of his life, his teachings became increasingly spiritual.

One of the practices he took up was something that many Buddhists are familiar with:

Every day when you wake up, imagine a bird on your shoulder. It says: “is today the day? Am I doing everything that I need to do? Would I be content if this were my last day? Am I truly living? Is my life worth anything – is it meaningful? Am I being the person I want to be, and living the life I want?”

When You’re Dying It Cuts Away the Fat in Life

If I were actually dying, what would be the top things that are the most important to me in life? How would I actually live?

A couple months back I talked about a young friend who died of cancer – he told me about how he spent his entire life acquiring stuff to fill his NYC apartment. Literally, 20 years of work just to buy clothes and furniture for a nice bachelor pad, that now he was all giving away because he’d be dust soon.

So I thought about it: how would actually live? How would I maximize each day? What would change?

I came up with a list:

  • When you’re dying, 95% of the shit you go through every day is totally and utterly unimportant.  Bitching at people in traffic. Useless. Complaining about being shortchanged a dollar.  A job you hate, that you go to just so you can pay your bills in a lifestyle you hate. Reading celebrity magazines. None of that shit means anything. Dying just makes you realize it.
  • When you’re dying, most of the physical shit doesn’t matter anymore. Meaning takes more importance. People, higher meaning, work that is fucking sweet, finding your work, travel and experiences all take the foreground.
  • Everything you do really is special. I challenge those of you in a relationship to do something that is a reminder of this: Next time you kiss your girlfriend/boyfriend, spend 30 seconds and really be present. Pretend it’s the first and last kiss of your life – feel the texture of the lips, slow down and turn a one second kiss into a ten second kiss, then a 30 second kiss. Use all your senses. That’s why dying makes you feel alive. 

Most Of What You Do Everyday is Meaningless – Dying Just Makes You Realize It

Think about how inconsequential most of your day is.  It blows my mind that most people live this way. It terrifies me actually.

I creeped on my friend and asked about how most of his day went recently. It sounded like this:

Wake up at 7 (eh), go to work (eh), sit in meetings (FML), get lunch (yay!), work till 6 (eh), come home and watch tv (eh), play video games (eh), hang out with the girl (yay!), sleep. Rinse and repeat.

6/7 days of the week for him are “eh.” How is that not the most terrifying prospect in the world? If that doesn’t scare the shit out of you then I think you need to dial down the Zanex and start feeling human again.

Okay, I get it, having work that is fun is incredibly hard .I know. Been there. It’s not easy.  But that’s not my point.

My point is that your behavior would really change if you honestly lived like you were dying. And “YOLO” type bullshit isn’t the answer.

When you’re dying, small talk is fucking poison. You cut right to the heart of it and talk about life with strangers.

When you don’t have much time left, you realize how exhausting getting angry is. “No point” you tell yourself.

When you’re staring at the countdown clock, everything ordinary takes on extraordinary meaning.  Kisses are no longer kisses.  Smiling is no longer just smiling. Doing your work is not just work. They become sacred.

People become special. You understand the impact of one bad mood on another person. You understand the weight of being nice to someone even when you shouldn’t.  Everything becomes special.

Everything is special – but only if you act like it

Just like that kiss I talked about – if you kiss your partner ever day and just act like it’s a typical “good morning!” kiss, that’s all it becomes.

But what would happen if you treated it as an end of the world kiss? What would it be like if you were watching a massive nuclear war go down on TV and this was the last 5 minutes you had. What would that kiss be like? What was an ordinary kiss 1,000s of times before now becomes an extraordinary one. And it just took that intention to make it special.

I think this is just all the long way of me saying this: you never have enough time. I really want you to try to feel how urgent and important it is that you start going for the real stuff in life.  Forget all the other shit. The more you wake up to this, the more you’ll help others wake up and realize it too.

It’s time to wake up. When you learn how to truly die – when you spot what’s essential to life and what’s just excess filler, every day is perfect, because it’s filled only with the essential.

When you’re dying, that peck on the cheek becomes a 30 second kiss of perfection.  No wonder it makes you feel so alive.

When you’re dying, finding “your work” doesn’t become a side hobby, but an overwhelming quest in your life.

When you’re dying, things that people walk by every day take on extraordinary importance. Life is fucking magic.

So, as a little birthday meditation, I challenge you guys to ponder something that virtually everyone knows, but almost no one lives:

None of us have time. We just think we do.


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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Li Cain April 22, 2013 at 3:58 am

Wow, this is awesome. I think people take life for granted and that each day you wake up is a blessing. I’m sure I sound totally cheezy lol.


Alexander Heyne April 23, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Well writing the post I felt a little cheezy. It’s weird because the truest things in life we say are “cliches” but no one does anything about them.

“Life’s short” people say. Virtually no one lives like it until they can actually SEE the clock ticking though..


Sarah P | The Travel Spotlight April 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Hi Alex, your post is thought provoking, as always! I just came in to say Happy Birthday! Hope you had a good one!


Alexander Heyne April 23, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Haha thanks Sarah!

— Alex


Tim Frie April 22, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I’ve been telling other people for a long time that X, Y, and Z is pointless. But as I read this, it’s like you were screaming my own words back at me. And instead of just listening, I actually heard it.

Awareness has been huge for me over the past year or so. Since the very simple concept of checking in with myself and being in the moment was introduced to me, it was like a whole new perspective to situations were opened. It is so awesome to be in the midst of something and actually feel yourself doing it. Both physically and on a more emotional level.

Whoa. Awesome stuff, Alex.


Alexander Heyne April 23, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Hey Tim —

That’s awesome dude, so you’ve been more into meditation and that kinda stuff? I’m with you on that – being in the middle of something, and being aware of yourself doing it, both your thoughts and body, is amazing. The special perks of meditating !


Tim Frie April 23, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Alex, I’m just now introducing myself to the actual practice of meditation.

Having been through therapy, it’s sort of like a “task” – checking in with myself, noticing my surroundings. But I’d like to get to a point where it’s not habitual, but more so a way of my being, if that makes sense.

Rice Ng April 23, 2013 at 5:44 am

Hey happy birthday!
I have thought of this too. And it is quite surprising that the most important thing I would do is not travelling or seeing the world, but to stay with my family. It seems never enough time.


Alexander Heyne April 23, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Hey Rice !

Well there you go, learned something new about yourself eh? For me, traveling would be a small part. But overall it makes me wonder: is the path I’m on now the one that really matters? That is the million dollar question to me.


Mike April 23, 2013 at 10:01 am

It is impossible to answer this question. I’ve tried. I’ve spent nearly twenty years in a career that I’ve enjoyed and been successful at, but I often wonder if I made the best choices years ago when I could have gone different directions. Without the benefit of seeing those alternate realities spun out in front of me, they are nothing but speculation.

That said, the fact that I ask these probing questions fairly often suggests to me that I’ve probably made pretty good choices along the way and I guess that’s all we can ever do!

Nice post!


Alexander Heyne April 23, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Hey Mike —

We can only ask questions about what we’d do now, and will do. Asking questions about the past rarely results in happiness, yea?

Yeah man I totally agree. I think if you are asking yourself those hard questions, without a doubt you’re leading yourself down the road to a much better quality of life.

But again for me it was just a matter of one question: Am I on the path that I want to be on? Obviously I can’t see the future, and obviously I’ll make mistakes, will get sidetracked, lost etc. But do I really feel like I’m living the path I was supposed to? For many people that answer is no, and I hope this will help be a wake up call to avoid that life of quiet desperation.

— Alex


Damianne April 24, 2013 at 12:33 am

You are dying.
It’s not just a thought experiment, you have “mortality” and it’s 100% fatal, no hope of recovery.


Alexander Heyne April 24, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Well-said Damianne – I’m with ya there!

— Alex


Suvi May 12, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Hi Alex

I just found out today your blog and read a few posts. What caught my eye was the next sentence: “Wake up at 7 (eh), go to work (eh), sit in meetings (FML), get lunch (yay!), work till 6 (eh), come home and watch tv (eh), play video games (eh), hang out with the girl (yay!), sleep. Rinse and repeat.” It is kinda like straight from my normal working day except the video games I replace with sports and the girl part with a boy :).

I have been feeling the repeat ever since my mother was diagnosed with cancer at last fall. It woke me up to try things out of my normal comfort zone. I’m still not there where I want to be but I must believe I will get there one day.

I liked your post a lot and you just encouraged me to try harder to get where I want to be even thought I don’t exactly know yet where or what that will be.



Alexander Heyne May 13, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Hey Suvi,

I’m glad I helped give you that friendly kick in the pants needed to keep going :) Let me know how it goes and how I can ever help!

— Alex


Suvi May 16, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Hey Alex

Yeah, thank you, I will keep that in mind :)
I have already come a long way when I figured out what I want, but I don’t exactly know yet how to get all of it.


Quoc May 13, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Hi Alex!
Thanks for the amazing article! This itself has confirmed to me I should be working for something bigger in life.. a step I’m doing.

Love the no nonsense page and everything in it.



Alexander Heyne May 13, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Hey Quoc,

My pleasure, I hope it helps you see life a bit differently.



olivia August 18, 2013 at 6:28 pm

what a beautiful post.


Moon October 7, 2013 at 4:34 pm

I was reading about tuesdays with Morrie ..then I find myself here …

I like your words…..
but I think you should find the answer of this questions “why we are a live?? “& “what is after the death ??”

wish the best for you ..^_*


Neko June 1, 2015 at 10:40 am

As someone who is dying, may I say this is both true and false. I do try each day to focus my attention on the meaningful moments. I pause a bit longer to appreciate those I love. I savor the sips of coffee or bites of a good meal. I enjoy the warm, soapy water on my hands as I wash the dishes.
But the mechanics of life bind us. I cringe with pain a thousand times a day. I scoop the cat litter, clean the refrigerator, pull weeds. I suffer through useless, uncomfortable, dehumanizing medical procedures hoping for a few more weeks pain free.
I guess the secret is to find the upside as much as possible; the constant little joys and smiles. Laugh a lot. Show your love.


Paul January 27, 2017 at 7:55 pm

My religion professor at UH Manoa, Hawaii, told me this exact line in the early 70’s. He started a movement with his, Death and Dying, classes. His name was Mits Aoki. Mitch Albom might have gotten it from Dr. Aoki.
When I saw the movie, Tuesdays With Morrie, I cried and rejoiced that Mits’ quote lives on. He died 8/19/10.

Paul in Honolulu


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