I love skulls.
I think they are beautiful. A little morbid sure, but beautiful. Over the years, I have accumulated a few skull-related paraphernalia. I had this really nice skull vase that sat on the table in my living room to hold odds and ends. I have a skull decanter and a skull cup. I wear a bracelet with a skull as its center piece. I keep skulls around me as a reminder of death…and as an invitation to life. In this, I follow a long standing philosophic, religious and artistic tradition spanning thousands of years.
Last week, I joined my extended family to lay my late uncle to rest. It was a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, it was a sad thing to say goodbye to one of our own. We mourned a life cut abruptly and unexpectedly short. On the other hand, it was great to see cousins, uncles and aunts I had not seen in so long and to celebrate a life that touched so many. The entire experience was a mix of excitement, celebration, grieving and sombre reflection.
Of course, funerals are a poignant time to think about our mortality.
Remember you must die.
This seemingly haunting, but inspiring phrase has a rich history, evolving through many forms of practice and interpretation in literature, art, fashion, and even current popular culture. To this day, many people keep Memento Mori coins or similar physical totems as reminders of the ever-present nature of death.
For the stoics, memento mori was a key meditation device. A reminder that our time on earth in finite, and this thing called life is fragile, and precious. Most times we don’t think about death. We are too preoccupied with the business of living to stop and ponder something so morbid, so depressing. But such is the fate of all of us. That we are born, and one day, we will die. It is the one constant in a world full of flux.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”- Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
In art, the genre ‘Danse Macabre’ or the ‘Dance of death’ grew in the late Middle Ages, a time when the Black Death decimated a third of Europe’s population. Paintings included kings, peasants, young and old dancing with the grim reaper or with skeletons, to convey that death comes for everyone. ‘Vanitas art’ arose with Dutch Golden Age artists, emphasizing the emptiness and futility of earthly items. Their still art paintings depicted compositions of skulls, wilting flowers, rotting fruit, time pieces to remind observers that time is relentless, and death is inevitable.
It is said that a lot of our neuroses, our fears and frantic scrambling, stem from our inability to cope with our innate mortality and limitations. We do a lot of things to avoid our death. We seek comfort in things, and pleasures, grasping for security, to stave off facing our end. With all our creature comforts and amenities, we pretend we have all the time in the world, and that we will live forever.
This is understandable, the fear of death is a tough burden to bear. Man lives in constant tension, peering into the sublime and eternal on one hand, and yet severely limited by time, and the fleeting nature of life. Easier to just live and be distracted and try not to think about it for as long as you can.
Yet we must die.
What if we embrace death? Not as something morbid and to be feared, but as something to be inspired by. The necessary end that is death makes the time we are alive that more precious. In the larger scheme of things, none of the things we do will matter much. No matter how much we achieve or accumulate, we will die. Our time will pass, our names will be forgotten, our monuments will wash away with the sands of time. But right now, in our experience, in our lives, the things we do, do matter. How we live, matters. Our actions reverberate across the universe. It’s a paradox.
Steve Jobs called death, probably the greatest invention of life. Life begins, life ends. And it does both all the time. If it didn’t, life would be stagnant, not going anywhere. But we are born, we grow into our prime, and then we die. As we leave, others come to replace us, to do it all over again, to do it differently, to tear down what was done before and create anew. The cycle of births and deaths allow us to continue as a people, as a species, ever present, ever reinventing, ever dying, ever renewed. It is a beautiful thing. Embracing this truth brings release.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs
If we must die. then perhaps life, is just learning how to die well. Can we live in a way that honours the people we were made to be? Can our short time be used to mean something more than just our happiness and pleasure? Can we live with a sense of urgency, not putting off our great work to a day that may never come, but tackling it right now, today? Can we live in such a way, that after we are gone, we still live on, in the hearts and minds of the people we touch, and the marks we make in the world?
If we must die. Perhaps we can spend less time and energy trying to impress others, taking on things that do not serve us. Perhaps we cannot be so swayed by the crowd. Perhaps we can allow our truest selves to unfold. Perhaps we can truly value our time, and not waste another second. Perhaps we can pursue our dreams, and goals. Perhaps we can embrace purpose. Perhaps we can unleash our true potential.
If we must die, then we must live. With urgency. We must think of how we want to exit, and what we want those we leave behind to say and feel about us when we are no longer here. If we must die, then we must also savour life, making sure to enjoy it, to live in the moments, and enjoy life’s simple pleasures, not being preoccupied with worries and fears. Knowing that the forward march of time is relentless, we can live so we get to the end with no regrets, having truly lived, having fought the good fight, having left everything on life’s stage.
“On this occasion when you have such a bounty of opportunities in terms of your body, environment, friends, spiritual mentors, time, and practical instructions, without procrastinating until tomorrow and the next day, arouse a sense of urgency, as if a spark landed on your body or a grain of sand fell in your eye. If you have not swiftly applied yourself to practice, examine the births and deaths of other beings and reflect again and again on the unpredictability of your lifespan and the time of your death, and on the uncertainty of your own situation. Meditate on this until you have definitively integrated it with your mind… The appearances of this life, including your surroundings and friends, are like last night’s dream, and this life passes more swiftly than a flash of lightning in the sky. – Dudjom Lingpa
Hope…ah, that wonderful promise, that longing for a better day, for a better future. We are all too familiar with it. Hope keeps us sane, makes us feel that yes, today might not be ideal, but tomorrow will be better. It can help us put in more effort, hang in there yet another day. But hope alone does not translate to results.
Hope is not a strategy. Luck is not a factor. Failure is not an option. – James Cameron
The first time I came across that quote about two years ago, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It may have been some blog post. It might have been a Tai Lopez podcast. But it definitely woke me up. I wanted things to change, I wanted more for myself, but apart from hope that something good would happen, I had no real strategy to speak of. How often are we guilty of this? How many times do we rely on hope, instead of taking real action to get the things we want?
Hope is easy. It gives us the warm fuzzies. It broadens our vision and fills our heart. That is a good thing. Rather be optimistic than pessimistic. See the world as glass half full. Stretch your imagination and want the very best for yourself. But expecting the best does not preclude the work, does not excuse you from doing everything you can, from dealing with the realities, including preparing for the worst.
I have written previously about going on the offensive. There are two main ways of viewing and interacting with the world. You either see the world and life as something that HAPPENS TO YOU or as something that YOU HAPPEN to. Too often, hope is passive. You hope for better conditions, or for something to fall in your lap. You hope for next year to be better than this one. You hope to get a job. You hope to make more money. You hope the right clients will find you. You hope to get lucky.
And sometimes, you do get lucky…sometimes. Why rely on the vagaries of lady fortune? Why rely on something you can’t control? It just means you are too lazy to do what you need to do to increase the odds in your favor. You want someone else or something else, or even God to do it for you.
The correct way to look at it, is to contemplate what a strategy is. A strategy is a directed plan of action. It involves careful consideration and research into all the factors at play – the conditions, the other players on the board, the lay of the land and environment. And then a plan of action on how to move against all the variables to achieve your goal. Coupled with the will to do whatever it takes to get what you want. That is a strategy. It is active, it takes responsibility, it puts the ball in your court and the power in your hands.
Sure, it is the tougher way, a harder way, but it is the active role. And it is much better than just baseless hope. Our posture towards life, if we are trying to get what we want, and achieve things, must always be active. Pressing forward, actively, aggressively. When we do pause and wait, we do so intentionally, we do so to read the times, to understand what to do next, to wait for our opening to pounce. But the mindset, the approach is always active.
The only place for hope, is to wake up, after having made all preparations, and done everything you could possibly do in your quest to get what you want, and pray for favourable conditions, for a successful outcome.
The work belongs to you. The results belong to God.
And even then, it is with humility, knowing that all of it could be for naught. You can do everything you can, you can do your absolute best, but even that doesn’t entitle you to the results. The only thing you are entitled to, the only thing within your control, is your attitude and your actions. So we hope still, but we do all we can, until we get what we want.
It is never too late to be what you might have been. – George Elliot
Lately, I have been thinking about the concept of repentance. It is a core tenet of the Judeo-Christian faith, its entry point in fact. The idea that you can make a 180-degree change. You can go down one path for the longest time, and all of a sudden, you change and go down a different one. It is the idea of dramatic change. That is the promise of Christ’s message. That no matter how bad you have been, no matter how far you have fallen, no matter how ignorant you have been in your actions and approach to life, there is hope. There is potential for change.
To repent is to turn away, from one course of action and follow another. It is a promise that your past does not have to be your future, that your mistakes do not have to define you. And when you combine that with the concept of substitution, that you can trade in your raggedy-ass self, your less than ideal behavior, and take on the perfect ideal that is Christ instead, you get something profoundly powerful. It doesn’t mean an instant change, even though that is possible, but it speaks to a spark, an awakening, an enlightenment, a cracking open of a hurt soul, so the light can get in and heal.
We know that the way you view yourself influences how you behave, what you go after and what you even think is possible for you. The concepts of repentance and substitution allow you to simultaneously get off one track and adopt a new better one. And the more you walk in this new light and nurture it, the more solid the change becomes, the more this new nature emerges.
But first you have to accept, and then you have to release. You have to admit the mistake and you have to ask and accept forgiveness. If you keep knocking yourself down, playing your mistakes over and over again, you start to punish yourself. Most times you do it subconsciously, shying away from things you should do and be because you do not feel worthy. And then you keep repeating the pattern because you are stuck. You take on the identity of your mistakes, not as things you do, but who you are. You continue to spiral down the less than ideal path.
To change is to forgive. To accept the wrong, to set it aside letting go of all the hurt and negativity around it, and to pick up the right. In Christianity, Christ’s forgiveness is only a prayer away. A true prayer, born of true remorse, born of pure intent. But even if you are not there yet, even when you still like your mistakes, knowing they are not good for you, a simple request for help will do, you can ask for a change of heart, for an evolution of your nature.
The hope here is that you don’t have to be what you have always been. You can be more. You can change. You can be better. And you don’t have to let anyone, even yourself, hold your mistakes against you. If God has forgiven you, surely you can forgive yourself, and sometimes that is the hardest thing. But until there is forgiveness, there can be no progress.
It might take a long way to become the person we want to be, but the fact remains, the great hope, that you don’t have to be what you have always been. You can be more. You can embrace your potential for change.
Every day, something new is created in the world. The effects of most of these – events, inventions, products, and new knowledge are linear. They build on top of what has been done before, what we know for sure is possible. They improve, they optimize, they make things slightly better. Then there are those events, inventions, and breakthroughs that are simply revolutionary. They spark an incredibly far reaching change in a relatively short period of time. They upend everything we understand and take for granted about the world and open up new possibilities.
To innovate is part of human nature. Forever restless and full of creative energy, we are always inventing. Major milestones in our history like the development of language, the written word, the concept of money, modern finance, the printing press, gunpowder, electricity, the steam engine, the electric bulb, the computer, the internet, the smartphone, and space travel did not just make our lives better, they radically transformed them.
I’ve been reading an incredible book lately – My Vision by Mohammed bin Rashid Maktoum. It’s a book about the thematic ideas guiding the growth and development of the UAE and Dubai. I don’t pay enough attention to world politics and global trade, but between this book, talking to people, being home and looking at things with fresh ‘outsider’ eyes, I am inspired, and I have ideas. It is apparent, there is a clear way to development, growth and wealth creation on the African continent, if we can fix the underlying issues of leadership, unity, vision, commitment and political will.
Every great achievement or victory does not happen by accident. From the global stage to our personal lives, they happen as a result of an ambitious vision backed with real work ethic. Painstakingly, with great effort and perseverance, despite obstacles and set-backs, great heights can be attained. But it begins with vision, the ability to see the unseen, and to imagine what does not yet exist.
It is no easy task. It is much easier to match the status quo, to say, let us rise to this benchmark, the set standard. We have seen what an efficient company looks like, so let us imitate and build one like it. We know what functioning healthcare systems behave like, so let us create one just like it. And that certainly does work. A big part of personal growth is the idea of modelling winning behavior. Look for people who have what you want and model how they live. The problem with that, is that where you can go is capped by what has already been done.
The visionary studies the best solutions and thinking and then pushes them even further. The visionary stretches the imagination to create something never achieved before.
When you face a challenge that demands a solution or a decision, you have two choices – you can either emulate the example set by others, or use your own creativity and intelligence to formulate a new idea.
– Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (My Vision)
To rise from bottom in our lives and as a nation or a continent, we must reclaim the pioneering spirit. It is not enough to be like the greats, we have to go where no one has gone before. We have to be committed to doing more and going further. It can be as basic as being a pioneer for excellence in a surrounding sea of mediocrity. Or as boundary pushing as changing the game. Why settle for good enough, why not shoot to be the best? Why stop at building a great company, why not revolutionize the entire industry?
One way of thinking is incremental, the other is exponential.
If you want to lead, if you want to get ahead, then you must go even further, take the pioneering and creative approach. Break the rules, change the playing field.
Be an instigator.
Start something new. Let the world be different and better because of it. Even if it is just your neighborhood, or your company, or your class.
Be a pioneer.
Sure, you will be mocked, you will become a target. The pioneer disrupts the status quo. By her very existence, she throws shade on everyone else who is passive and subservient to the system. You will be misunderstood, you might even be accused of terrible things, of being foolish, reckless, or willingly seeking to harm or exploit people. But pioneer you must anyway.
First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.
– Nicholas Klein
It is easy to color in the lines, and do as you are told. Sit still, blend in, don’t ruffle feathers or stir up the pool. But pioneers, the ones who stoke the fire in their bellies are the ones who expand our understanding of what is possible. They end up building higher than we have ever seen and exploring depths we have never imagined. They expand our world.
But it takes huge vision, ambitious vision, crazy vision. And faith, faith that it is possible, faith that if we work hard at it, confident in its resolution, this project will take shape, this obstacle will fall, and a new era will dawn.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
– Rob Siltanen
We live in an exciting time. Sure, we have tremendous challenges, unsolved problems, deepening inequality, crises in climate, in economics, in politics, in finance, in development. All around the world. With these challenges also come tremendous opportunity, to think differently, and pioneer new paradigms. For the first time in history, we are connected to each other and to storehouses of knowledge at a bigger scale than ever before. It is the age of ideas, and it is our inspired ideas that will change our lives radically. If we do not become pioneers, we will fall even further behind.
If our sole goal is to attain the level others have reached, then we are setting our target too low…Do not fool yourselves into believing that we are moving forward when we are only keeping up with general trends, while the real opportunities are slipping away.
– Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (My Vision)
To be a pioneer means to embrace the unknown, to trust instinct and curiosity, to try over and over and fail, and try again. To embrace every obstacle not as an invitation to stop, but as a challenge to solve. To work harder than anyone else but driven by passion, by love and obsession. It is hard work, but it is worthy work.
Reclaiming the pioneer spirit means that you are not limited to solving problems you have seen before. But you can confidently face the future and tackle completely new and left-field scenarios because you have the mental toolkit and resources to meet the challenge and create transformational solutions.
And in case you thought it was the work of the lone ranger, the lone genius working in the basement, know that it is also born of community, of a shared belief and shared hope for a collective destiny. A pioneering group of people united will build the world of the future.
Going home is always interesting, but going home after a long time, is its own ball game. Things feel familiar and comfortable, but at the same time different. Everything has a quality of strangeness as you settle and reacclimatize to a space you haven’t occupied in years. You are different, home is largely the same, and every interaction is a renegotiation of hierarchy, atmosphere and energy.
For different people, home means different things. For some, they are happy places, for others not so much. As we grow older, what home means to us also changes. They evolve from spaces we occupy as dependents, to spaces we occupy as individuals with agency. But no matter what age we are, children or full-grown adults, going home has a restorative quality. Home is a place of memory and grounding.
Home is where our story begins…
The act of returning home has great significance to us. It is a thematic thread or component of many stories. The hero’s journey codified by Joseph Campbell outlines the typical stages of a protagonist’s adventure. The hero is called or dragged into a quest, goes on the long journey to defeat something evil or acquire something valuable, and then returns back home with the bounty, changed or transformed.
This pattern is recognisable from The Odyssey to The Matrix. They resonate because they are primal archetypal myths, metaphors and stories for our personal journeys. We recognise ourselves in these stories because we play out the same drama in our lives.
The journey to getting what you want is the hero’s journey. We leave the warm cocoon of our comfort zones and head into unfamiliar ground in search of the prize. Sometimes we go willingly, more often, our world is turned inside out, and we find ourselves thrust unwittingly into a quest. Guides appear to help along the way, trials arise to challenge, temptations and sirens sing to test us. On this tough road we press on. We do the work, we experiment, we break the rules, we confront ourselves, our previously held beliefs, our ideas, our expectations.
We lose our way, fall into holes, wind up in dark deep places where we are almost overwhelmed by the chaos. We deal with uncertainty, with fear, with our desires. We battle the dragons of doubt, the beast of a subconscious out of control, plagued and goaded by unresolved trauma and wounds from the past.
But we get through it. We learn lessons, we adapt, we improve. We evolve, we change. We slay the dragon, we win.
This journey necessarily separates us from home. We go into the world, and wrestle with it, and with ourselves, to come into our strength and to become fully formed individuals. If we do it well, we are able to build an internal locus of strength and form an internal compass. We become ourselves, honouring our specific inclinations, impulses and nature. We stand mature, able to engage effectively with world around us, of our society and our time. This journey makes us fully formed and realised people.
However, the journey is not complete once you have slain the dragon and obtained your goods. To complete the cycle, and it is a cycle because you will undertake this journey again, and again, you must return home.
Your expulsion sparked the process of the dissolution of your past self. From those ashes, a new you was born. To move forward, there must be an integration. You have to return, to reconnect with your past so you can move boldly into the future.
The other day, I was watching Joe Rogan have a conversation with Guy Ritchie, and the filmmaker broke down the story of the prodigal son in a way that I had never heard it before. In case you have never heard it, the prodigal son is a parable in Bible about a rich man and his two sons. The younger one asks for his inheritance and goes off into the world and just does the absolute most. Whores, partying, living and squandering his inheritance. Eventually he blows it all, and finds himself taking on a job feeding pigs, and being so hungry, he was tempted to eat those scraps.
This is rock bottom for him, so he finally comes to his senses and decides he is just going to tuck his tail between his legs and go back home. At least, he could get a menial job working for pops. No point dying out here for nothing.
So, he heads on home, and the moment his dad sees him, he is overjoyed, he embraces him, places fine robes, jewellery and orders the fattest cow killed for a feast. In the midst of the celebration of the prodigal son’s return, the older son is not impressed. He has stood by his father’s side the entire time, being the good and dutiful son, and here is dad, celebrating this good for nothing waste man brother of his. His father’s admonishment to him is that he should chill and be happy his brother is back.
On the surface, it is a weird read, why is the father so chilled about the younger son’s behaviour? What’s the deal with the response to the older son? Do we take the story as an admonition to not be like the wasteful brother, or do we embrace the idea that it’s fine to squander our inheritance because of the seemingly boundless redemptive love and acceptance of the father?
As with many stories and parables, there is the literal plot, and then there is the deeper esoteric meaning. In this case (according to Guy Ritchie at least) the story is about inner conflict. We are the father, the older son is our reason, and logic, the younger son is the more primal and indulgent emotions.
Reason teaches us the rules we must follow, the norms of society, the duties, the structure, the status quo that holds up the empire. It is safe. It is boring. In the younger son, we see our emotional selves, the rebel within, the need to break the walls and escape, to explore past what is ‘safe’ and to investigate what the world has to offer. It is exciting but dangerous business.
And both sides exist within us, and the balance between the two forms our expression.
It is that exploration that questions our beliefs and helps us understand why they exist and how to take them up consciously and powerfully.
It is the experience that allows us to become ourselves and stand on the strength of our experience and forged convictions. It is after this journey, that we are able to reintegrate. We are able to revisit the past, reconcile with the older brother of reason, and tradition, and navigate the middle path. A path that respects and honours the past but looks innovatively to transform and create into the future.
We come back to share the gifts we have won. We also come back to relearn, to recover and to strengthen ourselves, to enter a new phase, take on more responsibility, to embark on a new, even more challenging journey.
It is the Hero’s journey. We leave a child, we return to become King.
This is the mantra I have been repeating to myself often lately. As someone who usually has a mild level of anxiety going on at most times, my mind races towards all the ways things can go wrong. I hope to succeed and win at whatever I am doing but I am also too familiar with the worst-case scenarios.
But recently, I’ve started to wonder, ‘what if I flipped it?’. I mean, my present thought patterns are really just that, a pattern. And patterns, I can change. We get addicted to thought forms and used to certain ways of observing or experiencing the world. But it takes just as much energy to think of positive outcomes as it does to think of negative ones, so why not let go of that pessimism and experiment more with optimism.
Even if the actual results don’t change, even if things don’t go our way, the very act of changing our expectations changes the texture of our lives and our experiences. Last week, I walked into the bank trying to get something sorted out, and as I sat in the consultant’s office, I felt the tension rise within me, my mind racing with disaster scenarios, not only would I not get the thing I wanted, but something even worse would happen. So, I took a deep breath and started to repeat to myself, ‘the world works for me, the world works for me’. I did not get what I wanted, but I left with the sense that the consultant was on my side, he genuinely wanted me to succeed. He even wished me good luck on my way out.
I try to live in an intuitive way, responding to and moving according to my heart, whatever I feel in my core to do. I won’t take a decision until I felt the answer had revealed itself to me, and I would follow whatever path I felt I needed to, to get there. It is sometimes frustrating to the people around me, but it is my process.
And lately, I’ve been feeling like…eh…like bleh.
After a long season of hustling, pushing and fighting and making things happen, it is kind of hard knowing what to do next or where to go next. What happens after you get what you want?
Sometimes it is nothing. You do nothing. You just wait it out.
And waiting is something we don’t understand too well as a culture. The periods of rest and inactivity are just as important as the periods of grinding and creation. Sometimes you just have to be still. It’s in that time that you recover, that you are strengthened. It is then your vision is restored, and the path opens up to the next things.
But you have to be open to it. You have to accept it all, understanding that the universe and life moves in ebbs and flows, in cycles. Sometimes things are great, sometimes things are not. Sometimes things are slow, sometimes they move with determined ferocity. It is not up to you to control it, but to surrender to it and flow with it.
For the world to work for you, you have to let go of ego. It is not about you, and about what you ‘want’. Although there is a space for that. It is more about ‘what is’. The universe is infinitely bigger than you and knows more than you. Where has it placed you in the larger scheme of things. Where does it want you to be? What does it want you to do?
It takes some time, practice and openness to be able to listen and discern the times. To see things happen and recognize how to respond. But once you understand this, life becomes a collaboration with source. Life brings things your way, and you are present enough to seize the opportunities, the open doors, the gaps in plain sight that you ought to slip into.
You join the eternal dance, having everything, and holding on to nothing, living, being, creating.