I went to an amazing art exhibition recently, on a very famous artist. (You’ve probably heard of the guy; he goes by the name of Raphael.) (Erm… I’m sorry, I’ve got no idea why I’m being all patronising all of a sudden.)
If you stopped by the entrance of the exhibition, and you looked at their little timeline of important events in Raphael’s life, you would notice that Raphael’s year of birth was exactly 500 years before mine (here’s to everyone born in ’83!!!…) So I felt an instant affinity with Raphael. (He, too, would have been one of those ‘millennial’ types, like me. Or something. You know what I mean - he would have lived his life with similar milestones to mine, a turn of the century as he came of age, and so on…)
And then if you did some maths (which I did, and it always takes me a little bit of time), you worked out that… Raphael was only 37 when he died.
I am 34.
I stood there for a bit and considered this, and I thought to myself: … live as though you only have three years of your life left. This thought has occurred to me before, now and again: none of us know how much time we have left on this earth. I could be hit by a car tomorrow and my life as I know it could be over. I could get cancer tomorrow. Today might be the healthiest I’ll ever be. Today might be the happiest, richest, most carefree, most productive I will ever be. You just can’t know these things. So when people tape postcards to their fridge that say things like ‘Live as if this is all there is’ - this is what they mean. Live as if this is all there is. Live as if you only have three odd years left.
(The Barbara Sher book which I have mentioned on this blog before asks you exactly this question: ‘What would you do if you had six months to live?’)
This is all a bit tricky. On the one hand, we don’t know how much time there is left and we should live each day as though this is all there is. On the other hand, I am occasionally brought up short by the panicky thought: Oh my God I don’t have a retirement plan!… Oh my God, I haven’t got a pension!… That six-months-to-live question, whenever I consider it, always brings me tremendous clarity: I always know exactly what work I would desperately want to bring into the world if I suddenly found out that I have limited time to get my best work out there. And I know that, if I needed to, I would beg, hustle, be pushy, and never hesitate to draw on every single contact and advantage I have ever gained in my miserable little life, if I ever thought that this would help me achieve my goal.
Interestingly, though, whenever i do this exercise, I always end it by thinking: but I CAN’T do that in real life, because if I did only have 6 months to live, then, d’you know what?… I wouldn’t have to worry about money. I would’t have to think about safety nets and paying bills and retirement plans and the future. I would only need to get by for six months. I could just plan to live off my savings, and sit down and do the work I want to do, and it wouldn’t matter if I got paid for it or not. It wouldn’t matter. And it does matter to me now, in real life, because I need to pay bills. And I need to think about the future. And so I find myself distracted by needing to look up occasionally, and accept paying jobs, and fill in job applications. And then I wonder why I’m not spending as much time as I should on my own important projects.
The eternal conundrum. Do I live as if this is all there is - ignore the I-don’t-have-a-pension voice, assume I might die at any moment, and just throw myself into living life in the now?… Or am I actually being very foolish if I do that, and will I look up in 20 years’ time and see all my friends comfortably moving on with their elegant lives, while I still have to scrabble round for low-paid contracts to survive?…
I don’t have an answer. And I don’t have any advice, either. (I don’t even know what is right for myself; let alone what anyone else should do…)
Anyway, I’m going to try to strike a balance. I once read an interview with an actress who was maybe in her fifties, sixties (forgive me, famous actress, for I can’t remember the exact things you said…) What I remember very clearly is that she said that she tries to live as though she were still 27. Whenever she is offered an opportunity, or a challenge, that might make her think ‘I’m too old; I can’t do that; I should have done that years ago, now it's really too late’ - she tries to respond to the invitation as though she were still 27. I love that idea. I’ve been trying to copy it.
So: I’m 27 (though really sometimes I’m also 34); I might live another three years; I’m going to make that three years the nicest and the most productive ever; I’m going to live as though this is all there is.
(But I’m also secretly hoping that, if I do that, maybe the next bit - the ‘if you build it, they will come’ bit - will fall into place too. Maybe if I just focus on doing my best work, someone will eventually pay me for it.)