The Slideshow of Your Life
A New American Friend
Last week I had the chance to go to the naturalization ceremony of a coworker here in San Francisco. I’d never been to one, and it was something to behold:
- Over 1,200(!) new citizens, all packed into an auditorium with friends/family
- Representing over 100 origin countries (India, Mexico, and China were the top 3 represented countries. There was no one from Russia.)
- Multiple speeches from various bureaucrats who were basically reading complicated, detailed instructions to the new citizens that should have been delivered via a piece of paper
- We all stood and recited the pledge of allegiance. First time I’ve done that in probably a decade.
- An a cappella group that sang a bunch of Americana music, most of which I’d never heard before
- A welcome video to the new citizens from the President that at least half the audience didn’t clap at once it was over
- A music video of “Proud to be an American” that had to be at least 25 years old…
Imagine taking thousands of people from all over the world and putting them in a single room together. That’s literally what happened…
Afterwords I told my coworker friend that I had a lot of fun, and that “it was a great memory to bank.”
It was such a unique experience that I knew I wouldn’t forget it for a long time.
Begin with the End in Mind
I’ve been rereading one of my favorite books of all time: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. What makes the book great is that, more than any book I’ve ever read, it shows you that you are the programmer of your life.
The 2nd habit of the book is called “begin with the end in mind”. The chapter starts:
“In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral of a loved one. Picture yourself driving to the funeral parlor or chapel, parking the car, and getting out. As you walk inside the building, you notice the flowers, the soft organ music. You see the faces of friends and family you pass along the way. You feel the shared sorrow of losing, the joy of having known, that radiates from the hearts of the people there.
“As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself. This is your funeral, three years from today. All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life.”
It goes on to describe the 4 speakers at your funeral: a family member, a close friend, a coworker, and someone from your church or volunteer organization.
The point of “begin with the end in mind” is to ask yourself: what would you want those 4 people to say about you at your funeral?
What kind of person would they say you were? What contributions and achievements of yours would they remember? What difference would you have made in their lives?
The exercise is to help you think seriously and deeply about what you value. To make you work backwards from the very end until today, and to design your life in a way that ultimately yields what you find to be most meaningful.
The Slideshow of Your Life
We make a lot of slide decks at Lambda School. They serve a lot of purposes, but often we use them to tell a narrative.
I like to think of life in terms of a slide deck. Year after year you’re crafting the story and the narrative of your life. It will contain all sorts of slides. Some with numbers and accomplishments, some with pictures, others with just big headlines (“GOT MARRIED!”).
When you look back on life, it will consist of a few but specific memories. Like the ones I had with my coworker friend – that day with him will be a slide in my deck.
Put all those memory slides together and you get the slideshow of your life.
Problems = Purpose
We like movies because we like good stories, and all good stories have ups and downs. The reason you even care about a protagonist at all is because of what they go through. Whether self inflicted or from an external source, the pain and challenges are what make the movie worth watching.
And so here’s the point: if you want a compelling life, an interesting life, a fulfilling life, it’s going to have problems. There will be pain.
If we begin with the end in mind and we’re thinking about how to build the slideshow of our life… what do we want in those slides?
I think the default answer for most would be a bunch of happy times and accomplishments. Back to back to back.
But if one could design such a life slideshow, I think that person would be missing out on some of the most meaningful parts of life.
Problems are what make stories good. Why would we expect anything else from our own lives?
In fact, the very thing that makes the good slides so good – usually memories with people we love – comes from the problems we endure together.
As I’ve said before, a goal is nothing more than a selection of problems you’ve chosen to overcome in order to give meaning & purpose to your life.
So when you’re going through hell, remember this: the bad slides are what will make your life worth living. They’ll form your strongest relationships, and those problems will help make the rest of your life slideshow glorious.
If you liked this essay....
Then consider signing up for my newsletter, How It Actually Works.
It contains the best material I find anywhere – this means books, articles, podcasts, research, videos, Twitter threads... the most interesting stuff that will give you something to say.
1,000s of Silicon Valley executives, investors, and leaders read it every week.