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
It was something he said in passing, talking about business and social media – It’s either you are on the offensive, going out there and conquering ground, or you are on the defensive, pulling back, trying to protect the little that you have, making excuses for why you can’t win.
And that is really a statement about life isn’t it? There are two options, two main ways of existing. It is either you are on the offensive or you are on the defensive. You are either conquering or being conquered, by life, by the unfair conditions, by other players, by your excuses.
It is the difference between those who get what they want and those who don’t. It is the difference between the warriors and the slaves. To get what you want, you have to fight for what you want. You can sit around waiting for an opportunity or you can go right ahead and create opportunity. You can be proactive, pushing your agenda, or you can be reactive, being at the whims of everyone else.
Too many times, we wait around for something to happen to us. We wait for the opportunity to fall in our lap, for the situation to resolve itself. We live as victims of our own lives. But we have the potential to be so much more.
It starts with the shift in mentality.
You have to move from the defensive to the offensive.
The key to possessing this supreme power is to assume the active mode in dealing with your fears. This means entering the very arenas you normally shy away from: making the very hard decisions you have been avoiding, confronting the people who are playing power games with you, thinking of yourself and what you need instead of pleasing others, making yourself change the direction of your life even though such a change is the very thing you dread. – 50 Cent & Robert Greene (The 50thLaw)
Sometimes things do fall in our laps. Sometimes we do get lucky. But…
Hope is not a strategy. Luck is not a factor. Failure is not an option.
To be on the offensive means to be actively moving towards your goals. It means to do the work. It means making the product. It means building the platform. It means networking and connecting with the people. It means searching relentlessly for the job, and while doing so, doing everything you can to make a buck. If you can’t get the job, then you will be the job. It means being awake to the reality of the world and attacking it as it is.
To the warrior on the offensive, there is simply no excuse that will do. The problems are not problems, they are obstacles that will be removed, climbed over or dug under or chipped away. Either way, the only acceptable result is winning. You can let your problems stop you, or you can rise to be bigger than your problems. The choice is up to you.
They can take away your resources, they can take away your choices, they can frustrate you. But they cannot take your mind, or your will and resolve.
To be proactive, is to set a goal in mind, a vision, and act in direct relation to that. Steadily, consistently. It means to take initiative, by yourself, even when you are not prompted to. It means to start. It means to create. It means launching. It means drawing a line in the sand and planting your flag. It means claiming your territory.
It means being awake. It being keenly aware of opportunities. It means increasing the odds of your success with relentless effort. It means doing the things that will actually move the needle. It is going above and beyond the call of duty.
Not to say that you will succeed. You will make mistakes and you will fail. But you will correct them, and you will keep going.
Some mistakes will be made along the way, that is good. Because at least some decisions are being made along the way. And we’ll find the mistakes, and fix them. – Steve Jobs
Your efforts on the offensive will sometimes land you in hot water, you will run into brick walls and obstacles. You will push, and the world will push back. But if you keep on learning and pushing, soon the world will yield.
What’s the alternative?
Being on the defensive? Complaining about how hard things are? Being bitter about the way things are today and the state of the economy or the attention landscape? What good will that bring you except coddle your fragile ego?
There will be a time for being defensive. There is a time for everything under the sun. Sometimes you will be on the offensive, doing things and expanding your reach. Other times you will be on the defensive. But you can only defend when there is something to defend. Are you defending your empire, your home, the life you are creating or you defending your excuse?
The best defence is a good offense.
So, go on the offensive this week, and the week after that, and the week after that. Do something you have never done before. Take a bold step, put yourself out there, reach further than you have ever reached before. That is how you will get what you want.
My father, Nnimmo Bassey, is the greatest man I know. A legit superhero in my eyes. Two days ago, it was his birthday. His 60th. A milestone. This year is a milestone year for me too. Tomorrow, I’ll be half his age.
I don’t know what my earliest memory of my dad is. I just know my initial perception of him was fear. I was scared of my dad in the same way most African kids are scared of their fathers. Dad is usually the disciplinarian, the booming voice, the quick glare that can shut whatever mischief you are up to down. That’s just the honest truth, I was scared of my dad. But being an adult now, and dealing with kids too, I get it. Kids can be rambunctious. And as a young man dealing with young children, these things would happen.
That fear transformed as I grew over the years into deep respect. He became committed to Christ when I was very young, maybe around 5-7. And that marked the bulk of my childhood and teen years. Our lives revolved around 3 places – home, my parents office and the church. Well, there was school too, but that was the bulk of my universe.
I remember the day he came home with a friend, I think it was the late professor Wangboje. I had to draw something to show him, and afterwards, I attended art lessons down the road from our house every Saturday. It was in those lessons, I learned to draw. Funny the moment I learned to draw was instantaneous. I was watching an older kid draw and all of a sudden, my perception shifted, and I understood how to draw in a perception-based way as opposed to a symbol based way. Anyway, I digress.
Watching my father serve at church and become more recognized and called to deeper and higher levels of service was inspiring. There are the pressures of being the child of ministers, but there are also the benefits. Part of that is the air of respectability that is passed on from the parents to the children, and we are blessed to be a part of a loving community. I used to joke that all I needed was to say who my Dad was and feel the energy in the room change.
My dad is an early bird, I take after my mum personally. We can both rise early, but I’m sure given the choice she would rather work to the late hours of the night than wake up at the hours my dad does. I remember the many Sundays he was out the house by 6am to join the beginning of first service at church. The rest of the Bassey Clan would get there at 10-11 for the second service.
My dad is always the one to lead by example and go harder and further than anyone else. I can see him in my mind’s eye now, on the days I woke up and went with him on those early Sundays, standing on the pulpit, sometimes leading the first prayers. I see his selfless service in the outreach to the leper colony in Oshiomo, and his tireless campaigning against environmental degradation by oil companies.
I loved to hear him speak. He is always so articulate and thoughtful in his delivery. My dad is incredibly wise. As a family, we gather in the morning and evening for devotion, we pray together, read scripture and discuss, and those were always powerful times, with guidance and words of wisdom. I remember some of the things he said in those times, such as, ‘you don’t go to school to learn, you go to school to learn how to learn’ and ‘just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it’, a statement I go against a lot lol. But the words echo in my mind often.
One thing I really picked up from him was the love of books. Our house was always filled with books, I was reading novels before I was 10, dabbling in play writing, poetry, and stories. In a way, he’s the reason I blog now. My favorite thing to do as a teen was to raid his stash. I would go to the study and his bookshelves and pick out whatever looked interesting to me and take a stack back to my room and pore over them. He’s always asked me when I was going to write a book, and I would shrug and smile. I always thought I would write when I felt I had something important to say.
Even when I made decisions he didn’t agree with, especially in my early 20s, even when he was disappointed, he allowed me to fail on my own terms. Somehow, he trusted me to figure it out, and do what I loved. Which I think is the biggest thing I learned from him. See my dad is an architect and practiced for about a decade, until his work in human and environmental rights activism pulled him in full time. In watching him do what he does, I built the conviction that it didn’t matter what you did, it mattered more that it mattered to you. You have to do what you love, you have to burn with a sense of mission. It was watching him do him, that has given me the drive to do me. To not merely do something respectable or applaudable, but to do something that matters.
My dad is a humble, simple man. He is kind, he is generous. I see the way people interact with him, I have seen the work he does, and the many ways he tries to help. His heart is pure, and bleeds to see the people around him uplifted, and he will speak truth to power from the dusty roads of Benin City to the hallowed halls of Washington. He is a man of true dignity and integrity, and an immense inspiration to me.
I asked this question on WhatsApp the other day, and I got back a few interesting answers from friends. Most people said something along the lines of they would sacrifice time, or energy to get what they want. To be honest, the first thing that popped into my head when I asked the question was…myself.
…I know right. I’ll explain just now, but let’s talk about desire and sacrifice for a bit.
So, this whole year, I’ve generally been writing on the theme of how to get what you want. The idea has been to share the concepts and lessons I’ve picked up from reading too much and thinking too much, so you don’t have to.
When I think about ‘what you want’, I think about the general drive to be successful and to acquire things. We all want to grow and achieve and climb. It is hardwired into our nature as human beings. We are driven by dissatisfaction and desire. And there are great things to want that are part of the human experience – success, education, money, relationships, family, safety, stability, etc.
But should you always get what you want though?
Desire is a tricky thing. How many times have we desired a thing, eventually gotten it and then realized we wanted the wrong thing. We strive for it, get it and tragically realize that we were worse off. Sometimes not getting what you want is the better outcome. Sometimes for what you avoid in not getting it, sometimes for the person you become or the perspective you gain from not getting it.
It might seem the better strategy, to want things, and to focus on achieving them while being completely open to the universe bringing things of the highest good to you. Things that you may not be able to imagine right now.
What you want is a reflection of what you value, and what you value is a reflection of who you are and what you believe. And you are probably not that great, so you can’t want properly.
But let’s assume your desire is valid and noble. What are you willing to sacrifice what to get what you want? That is the question that tests the strength of your desire and willingness to do whatever it takes.
For every move upwards and onwards, two things usually happen in tandem. We must gain something – a new skill, a new perspective, a new connection, a deepening sense of mastery, whatever. We must also lose something to move up, something that is keeping us anchored to this level – a habit, a perspective, an emotional kneejerk reaction, an unresolved fear, trauma, a grudge, a fear, etc.
The gaining we sometimes find easy enough. It is the sacrifice that gets hard.
To move to the next level, and to get what you want, you have to cut away things that don’t serve you anymore. And that is the crux of sacrifice – giving up something you value, something you are attached to, to gain something of greater value or good.
Sacrifice is the release of attachment. There is the call to sacrifice when there is a need for a change in the status quo. And when this need arises, it is a sure sign that there is something, someone, a situation, a behaviour, a habit, a belief pattern, a mental model that does not serve you anymore. This thing that you are so attached to, this thing that may have brought you here, is also the reason you are stuck. It should not be there anymore. You must identify it and you must sacrifice it.
And it is painful. Sacrifice is violent, and bloody and fatal. Sacrifice means death.
But sacrifice is powerful. It is an explosive release of power, and as an archetypal idea, it is the idea of submitting something of great value to the highest ideal.
But sacrifice must be done with skill. A half-hearted sacrifice is no better than no sacrifice at all. That is why in the bible, Abel sacrificed correctly, and Cain didn’t.
If you will sacrifice, you must come correct. The higher the value of the thing you sacrifice, the more power you release.
And what greater thing to sacrifice than the self.
The self is our biggest source of agency and our biggest stumbling block. It is the self that holds desire and strives towards them. It is also the self that holds on to patterns and habits and behaviours that keep us trapped and stagnant.
And so, to sacrifice something of greatest value we must go within. You go looking for the chaos dragon, for the shadow, the sacrificial lamb. You do deep self-introspection to realise that if you want something, if you are to achieve it and hold it, you must give up something of yourself. You must let go of an attachment.
It could be as innocuous as hitting the snooze button or as life threatening as shooting up drugs. It could be a relationship or interaction that does add some value to you while crippling you in fundamental ways. Many times, it is precisely the thing we don’t want to address.
The weakest key skill sets the height of your results and the height of your income. You can be excellent in a variety of areas, but the one essential area where you are the weakest, determines how far and how fast you move upward and onward.
Your breakthrough, your potential for explosive growth is precisely in the place you have refused to look. It is the place you have allowed yourself to be the weakest. That is the place your sacrifice is. The thing we refuse to address is where the key to what we desire is hidden.
And so there we must go, we must descend into the depths. Sometimes to the very foundation of our thoughts and emotions. Sometimes the thing we must sacrifice is ourselves, the things we have built our identity on, the perception we hold of the world, the perception we hold of ourselves, the self-doubt, the fear, the comfort, the limiting beliefs, the grudge, the hate.
To get better, we must become better, and that means continual perpetual skilful self-sacrifice.
This is my first blog post in…forever. I don’t even know when I stopped writing. I suppose at the time, life just got so intense I was really spending all my time trying to stay above water. But after the fire and the flood, seated on this metaphoric mountain looking out on the landscape…I have gained a new perspective…or maybe these are old ideas, just freshly ingrained. As the new year gets to a running start today, I reflect on the ideas that have been swirling around in my head lately…lessons hard won from the year past.
No-one has the answers:This was a particularly important mental shift to hit me in 2015. No one has the answers. Everyone is winging it. I used to follow people, look to people for guidance, especially in the area of business. I was looking for the formula to business. But no one has it. Maybe they have it for them, but no one has my answers. There’s a lot to learn by watching other people and by listening to them. At the end of the day though, I must provide my answers, I must propose my strategy and my solutions. It’s up to me, no one else to create what I think is possible. I must take the wheel and steer the ship.
Saying no: As an extension of the last point – a lot of people are going to come at me with ideas and plans and dreams and requests on my time. I would have to decline though. I cannot afford to invest my time in things that would not add value or bring value. I have to say no to things I don’t really want so I can focus on that which I really do. I must steadily and consistently take action towards the things that are important to me.
Know what’s real: This idea is the most recent and most pervasive one right now. So much so, It has caused me to lose a lot more interest in media – social and otherwise. I’ve been deeply drawn to the core of things. I like to gaze through the noise so to speak and try to grasp the one core central truth of the situation. I’ve been thinking a lot about my life at this point in time and the future…where to go, what to do next, how to jump to the next level, the long term effects of my past actions and how to course correct some of them. I also look around at all the noise around, the gurus, the advertisers, the media, the society, social media – all the white noise of ideas telling us what we should do and who we should be. It is incredibly easy to get lost in the chaos. To craft an effective strategy, I must have a clear picture of what really matters. I don’t have to impress anyone, because I am okay as I am as a human being, no one is higher than me (regardless of who they are or what they have). But I do have a responsibility to explore my potential and gifts and exhaust that as much as possible. I have a responsibility to contribute to the world in a true authentic way. It’s okay if I don’t have the latest thing yet, even though its all good and great to have it. That’s because the source of true happiness (The thing we are all seeking anyway) is in the smallest, realest of things – genuine friendship, nature, stillness, engagement. As long as you cover those basics and are not hypnotized by the bullshit the world tries to feed you every day, you will have true success and true happiness. Know what’s real with people. Know what issues are really at play when you are dealing with stakeholders. Know who’s really there and who isn’t. Take care of the most important ones, the ones close to you, the ones that matter.
I was listening to an audio version of Robert Greene’s ‘Mastery’ yesterday. He took me on a journey through the lives of various individuals, including Buckminster Fuller. And as he told it, I was drawn to the darker points of the story, the points of adversity. I’ve been going through dark times and I just wanted a peek into the lives of others who have faced similar and conquered them. Everyone goes through some dark stuff, even the greats, especially the greats. I reckon its in those dark times that they rally and tap into greater depths of force lying deep beneath.
So as I made supper, I was there with Bucky at the end of a spectacular company failure. As he stood by the riverside thinking to himself that he has failed everyone, his wife, his family, his friends, his father in law, his investors. Suicide he reasons, is his best bet. At least his family will receive a large insurance payout and can rely on care from his wife’s side of the family. Suddenly, there is the ‘voice’. The realization strikes him…the conviction that steels his resolve and fuels his steady movement forward, taking him to great heights of fame and fortune.
I’m interested in those points. From experience, those are the most interesting points. We are generally seduced and distracted by the actual triumph and win. But in the dark, in the pit, this is where the magic actually happens. This is the shit where the seed is buried, rained on and left to die…and be reborn.
Stay focused, bend but don’t break. Wipe your face, steel your resolve and get back into the ring. Do whatever you need to survive, and use this darkness, this pain to forge something of incredibly value, something indestructible.