How much work did you do today that you will be proud of tomorrow? I don’t mean just how you handled the big things, but also how you addressed the little, seemingly insignificant ones. Did you make progress on what matters most to you, or did you allow the buzz, busyness, and expectations of others to squelch your passion and focus?
I’ve been asking these questions of others and myself each day for more than a decade, and they are the main reason I originally felt compelled to write Die Empty. Through my work I’ve encountered many teams of brilliant, sharp, amazing, talented people who have at some point “settled in” or begun coasting on past success. Unfortunately, this often leads to deep regrets. It’s not that these people aren’t getting things done; perhaps they are even succeeding in the marketplace. It’s that in “settling in” they are ignoring the small hunches, ideas, and bits of intuition that could lead to something truly remarkable. For this reason, many of us have had to sacrifice long-term greatness on the altar of short-term efficiency. We have stopped unleashing our best work each day.
Unleashing your best work means ensuring that your daily mix of work includes the important work that you should be doing for yourself (but may have been ignoring) in addition to the work that you must do as a function of your job.
Your best work may include choosing to have the difficult conversations you’ve been deferring, setting aside time to invest in future results rather than just focusing on immediate outcomes, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in order to learn a new skill or sharpen your thinking. In short, it means choosing not to defer your contribution, but instead working with urgency and diligence each day as you make progress on building a body of work that represents your real values, hopes, and ambitions. It’s about putting your focus, assets, time, and energy into the work that matters most. Your best work.
I have learned that there are no clear rules for success, but I believe there is enough evidence to make this claim: a person who intentionally structures work and life around what matters most to them will find a greater degree of gratification and will ultimately produce better results than those who don’t. Unfortunately, our culture often doesn’t provide for this kind of fulfillment. We spend more time trying to find easy roads to success or comparing our career paths to those of others rather than striving to maximize our contribution in our own areas of influence. It’s clear that a significant share of the energy expended by employees is spent playing politics or clamoring for the next promotion. Many have lowered their sights from working toward the long-term goals of their organization to the short-term gratification they might be able to achieve as individuals. Even those who came in bright-eyed and optimistic have become worn by short-term thinking and eventually settle into the fold.
The good news is that we all have the ability to shun mediocrity and can instead live and work by design. If you refuse to settle, then there has never been a more opportune time for you to build a remarkable body of work. The current marketplace might have job uncertainty, but the upside is that it’s now necessary to take your career into your own hands. You can no longer count on your company, your manager, or your industry to define your next steps. Instead, you must stay diligent and alert and plot your own course. Opportunity abounds for those who are willing to step into the heart of uncertainty, find their voice, and commit themselves to battles worth fighting. Now more than ever, we are each accountable for plotting our own path.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” I believe that the most gratifying life you can live is one that’s committed to ideals that go beyond your own comfort and enjoyment. This doesn’t mean living a life of martyrdom or always shunning pleasure. Rather, it means that to build a remarkable body of work you must commit to doing the right thing even when it’s uncomfortable and to emptying yourself every day rather than deferring action. Since Die Empty was published, I’ve received countless e-mails from artists, managers, entrepreneurs, writers, and others expressing that they have adopted the ideal of emptying themselves and acting on what matters most each day. My wish for you is that you will muster the same courage and take action today on the things that you’ve been holding back. Unleash your best work, and refuse to take it to the grave with you. Choose to die empty.
Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.
—OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, THE VOICELESS
In February 2011, the artist, designer, and urban planner Candy Chang transformed an abandoned home in her New Orleans neighborhood into a living work of art. She had recently lost someone she cared for deeply, and was reflecting on the meaning of life and what truly mattered to her. She was curious to know if other people had similar thoughts about living with a sense of urgency and purpose so she created an enormous chalkboard running the height and width of one side of the abandoned home. She then stenciled the words “Before I Die . . .” at the top of the wall, and created dozens of spaces with the words “Before I die, I want to _____________” in grids across the surface. Chang provided the chalk needed to fill in the blanks, and waited in anticipation to see what would happen. Would people participate? Would it be vandalized? Would anyone even notice?
She didn’t have to wonder for long. The installation was an immediate hit, as neighborhood residents and passersby filled it with their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Some of the contributions were impersonal and matter of fact, and some were deeply personal:
“Before I die I want to . . . sing for millions.”
“Before I die I want to . . . write a book.”
“Before I die I want to . . . understand.”
“Before I die I want to . . . tell my mother I love her.”
“Before I die I want to . . . be someone’s cavalry.”
Word quickly spread, and visitors began showing up from throughout the region to inscribe their dreams and creative aspirations on the wall. It wasn’t long before others were inquiring about creating installations in their own communities. At present, there have been more than one hundred “Before I die . . .” installations in cities across the globe, and Chang and her collaborators have developed a tool kit and detailed instructions for spreading the movement.
Why did Chang’s project take off quickly and become so widely covered by international media? I believe it’s because the “Before I Die . . .” wall resonates with what we both know and fear to be true: we have only a certain amount of time available to us, and how we choose to spend our days is significant. We’re also aware that there are things we would like to do and experiences we would like to have before we die, many of which are desires we’ve suppressed for months or even years. We feel the ticking of the clock, and the accompanying sense that we may be missing our opportunity to make a contribution to the world. However, we often ignore these impulses as a result of the relentless pragmatics of life and work.
Your days are finite. One day, they will run out. As a friend of mine likes to say, “You know, the death rate is hovering right around one hundred percent.” Many people I know spend their entire life trying to avoid this fact. They fill their lives with frantic activity, bouncing from task to task, and no matter how successfully they perform in their work, as they close up shop for the day they are left with the question “Did the work I did today really matter?” Others I’ve met are incredibly successful at, vested in, and highly compensated for their work, but over time they’ve grown stagnant. They sense they have something more to give, but they can’t quite put their finger on why they’re stuck in first gear. They have a nagging suspicion that they are capable of contributing more—maybe even being truly brilliant at something—but have no road map for unlocking what that contribution might be.
This begs the obvious question: How do you set in motion a course of action that will allow you to unleash your best, most valuable work while you still can? The marketplace is filled with (often simplistic and unhelpful) platitudes about living a life of fulfillment, landing your dream job, and discovering your purpose, but when you are in the midst of the fray it can feel futile to think about anything other than hitting your deadlines and chasing the next promotion. It’s easy to get lost, and wake up many years later in a strange land asking yourself, “Who am I, how did I get here, and how do I go back?”
The only way to avoid this scenario is to instill consistent practices into your life that keep you on a true and steady course. An ounce of preventative discipline today is worth a pound of corrective action later. This book is about cultivating the mind-set and the methods you need to unleash your best work each day, and to increase the odds that, at the end of your life, you will not regret how you spent your days.
Don’t Die Full of Your Best Work
In my first book, The Accidental Creative, I recounted a meeting in which a friend asked a strange and unexpected question: “What do you think is the most valuable land in the world?”
Several people threw out guesses, such as Manhattan, the oil fields of the Middle East, and the gold mines of South Africa, before our friend indicated that we were way off track. He paused for a moment, and said, “You’re all wrong. The most valuable land in the world is the graveyard. In the graveyard are buried all of the unwritten novels, never-launched businesses, unreconciled relationships, and all of the other things that people thought, ‘I’ll get around to that tomorrow.’ One day, however, their tomorrows ran out.”
That day I went back to my office and I wrote down two words in my notebook and on the wall of my office that have been my primary operating ethic for the last several years: Die Empty. I want to know that if I lay my head down tonight and don’t wake up tomorrow, I have emptied myself of whatever creativity is lingering inside, with minimal regrets about how I spent my focus, time, and energy. This doesn’t happen by accident; it takes intentional and sustained effort. But I can say with confidence from my own experience and the experiences of others I’ve worked with that the effort is well worth it.
You’ve probably heard “No one ever lay on their deathbed wishing for another day of work.” I think this saying is wrong, and perhaps a little dangerous because of what it implies. First, I believe a great many people do regret not having treated their life with more purpose, and would give anything to have one more chance to approach it with the kind of intention and conviction that imminent death makes palpable. They know that they consistently ignored small twinges of intuition, inspiration, and insight. They recall how they cowered away from risk in favor of comfort. They spent their days regretting their past decisions rather than taking aggressive steps to redirect their life in a more hopeful direction.
Second, this saying presupposes that work is an inherently miserable act that people engage in against their will, or that it’s something that necessarily pulls us away from the people and activities we really care about. But work encompasses much more than just how we make a living. Any value we create that requires us to spend our time, focus, and energy—whether in the context of occupation, relationships, or parenting—is work. Humans, it seems, are wired to find satisfaction by adding value through toil. Thus, for centuries work has been a deeply ingrained part of our identity and our understanding of our place in the world. I believe that the more you apply self-knowledge to how you engage your labor, the more satisfaction you will find in the very act of work, and thus the more joy you will find in life.
If there is one overriding goal of this book it is this: to bring a newfound clarity and sense of urgency to how you approach your work on a daily basis, and over your lifetime. I hope to help you lock onto a focused understanding of what’s really important and help you make a commitment to chase after it with gusto rather than simply settling in for the ride.
I’ve struggled to write this book, and in full disclosure, I realize I’ve got some things working against me. Here’s the honest truth: no one really wants to think about death, let alone adopt it as some kind of motivational slogan. In fact, my colleagues and I often laugh as we imagine the words “Die Empty” inscribed on a giant banner behind me as I take the stage at a conference. It’s not exactly the kind of feel-good, warm and fuzzy sentiment that large public gatherings are typically designed to cultivate. It would be much safer (and perhaps more lucrative) for me to stay squarely in my lane and continue to write about innovation or collaboration.
And still, I can’t not write this book. As I’ve shared this message with thousands of people over the past few years, I’ve received countless e-mails from around the world about how it’s changed their life perspective and challenged them to approach their work with more urgency. At the same time, I continue to encounter professionals every day who are abandoning their contribution and forfeiting their best work because they’re stuck or deceived into believing that the path they are on will eventually become more bearable. It pains me to think about their unfulfilled potential while knowing that implementing a few simple, daily practices to eliminate areas of ineffectiveness could set them on the right path. Thus, in writing this book I’m taking my own advice to not leave inside me the work I care about the most.
What Die Empty Doesn’t Mean
The phrase “die empty” could easily be misunderstood to mean spending every ounce of yourself on your career. I can imagine a sinister, evil-mustached boss manipulating employees with a motivational poster containing the words “DIE EMPTY!” in an attempt to squeeze a little more effort out of the team. This, friends, could not be further from what I hope this book will accomplish.
It’s not about getting everything done today
is a Japanese term that means “death from overwork.” In the past several decades, it has become more common in Japanese culture, which in the years since World War II has heavily emphasized the importance of work productivity over all other aspects of life. Many high-ranking executives have died in the prime of life for no apparent reason other than the ill effects of overwork. To be clear, this is not what I mean by “die empty.” It’s not about ignoring all areas of your life so that you can exclusively focus on getting work done. In fact, working frantically is actually counterproductive in many cases. Emptying yourself of your best work isn’t just about checking off tasks on your to-do list; it’s about making steady, critical progress each day on the projects that matter, in all areas of life. Embracing work with this mind-set will not only increase your chances of tackling your goals, but will also make it all more gratifying.
It’s not the same as “live like there’s no tomorrow”
Opportunity is always accompanied by its twin sibling: responsibility. Today you have a chance to make a difference through your work, but you must also be mindful of how today’s actions will affect tomorrow’s outcomes, and how your work impacts the lives of others. You must be conscious of how today’s choices beget tomorrow’s regrets.
It’s not about following your whims
You have a responsibility to leverage your passions, skills, and experiences to make a contribution to the world. You also need to make sure that you are delivering on your expectations and honoring the people who are paying you to produce results. The most frustrating part of work for many people is the tug-of-war between making a contribution you believe in and honoring the expectations of your manager or client, even if it means doing work you are less proud of. But as you’ll see throughout the book, the tension between these two forces can often be remedied with a subtle shift in mind-set, which will also lead to more satisfaction, and, ultimately, better work.
What Die Empty Does Mean
Throughout the rest of this book we will be operating by a set of core beliefs that underlie the practices and principles you’ll learn along the way. These beliefs will help you be more purposeful in how you approach your work.
Your days are numbered—finite—someday they will run out
This is indisputable. We live with the stubborn illusion that we will always have tomorrow to do today’s work. It’s a lie. We need to live with a sense of urgency about the work we do today. It matters not just because an opportunity lost today is an opportunity lost forever, but because the way that we engage in our work ultimately affects the way that we engage in our life as a whole. As you grow in your capacity to engage in your work, and as you discipline yourself to make continuous growth a part of your daily approach, you will find that latent capacities arise in every area of your life. Don’t waste the opportunity.
You have a unique contribution to make to the world
This is not self-help mumbo jumbo; it’s the truth. It’s easier to dismiss this notion than to own up to it and do something about it. You possess a one-of-a-kind combination of passions, skills, and experiences; there is something you bring to your work that no one else could. If you relinquish that power, then it will never see the light of day and you will always wonder “what if?” The price of regret is incalculable.
No one else can make your contribution for you
Waiting for permission to act is the easy way out. Everyone has to play the hand they’re dealt. This means that you can’t make a habit of pointing fingers, blaming others, or complaining. As painful as it can be, unfairness is baked into every aspect of life, and to make a contribution and empty yourself of your potential, you have to come to terms with it and refuse to be a victim.
Your contribution is not about you
You cannot function solely out of a desire to be recognized for what you do. You may be rewarded with accolades and riches for your work. You may also labor in obscurity doing brilliant work your entire life. More likely, you’ll fall somewhere in the middle. There is an overemphasis on celebrity and recognition in our culture, and it will eventually be the death of us. Cultivating a love of the process is the key to making a lasting contribution.
Avoid comfort—it is dangerous
If making a significant impact was easy, it would be commonplace. It’s not common because there are many forces that lead to stagnancy and mediocrity. For example, some people, whether co-workers, managers, or even friends, may not want you to fully engage in the pursuit of great work because it places an onus on them to do the same. If you begin to rise above the pack, they will quickly try to bring you back to earth. Also, organizations often make it easy to settle in, providing you with a good salary, a nice title, or a sense of stability—the proverbial “golden handcuffs.” It’s easy to fall in love with these comfortable perks, but the love of comfort is often the enemy of greatness. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing comfort as a by-product of your labor, but you can’t make it your chief goal. Greatness emerges when you consistently choose to do what’s right, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Take a stand—don’t shape-shift
You are better positioned to make a contribution if you align your work around your values. Don’t be a mirror, passively reflecting the priorities of others. You must dig through the rubble to the core principles that guide your life, come hell or high water. Then commit to engaging your work with a clean conscience, knowing that you are holding true to those principles. There is plenty of room to experiment and try new things, but if you don’t stand for what you believe in, you will eventually lose yourself in your work.
Your understanding of your “sweet spot” develops over time like film in a darkroom
In baseball, there is a place on the bat called the “sweet spot,” the best part with which to strike the ball. It will send the ball soaring a lot farther than if you hit it even a few fractions of an inch off the mark with the same effort. Similarly, you have a “sweet spot” in your life by which you will add the most unique value through your efforts.
Too many people want to come out of the gate with a clear understanding of their life’s mission. There is no one thing that you are wired to do, and there are many ways you can add value to the world, while operating in your sweet spot. However, these opportunities will only become clear over time as you act. They will develop slowly like film in a darkroom, giving you clues as you experiment, fail, and succeed. You have to try different things, and devote yourself to developing your skills and intuition, before you will begin to see noticeable patterns and understand your unique value. Patience is required. This is a long-arc game, but it must begin now.
You must plant seeds today for a harvest later
What you plant today you reap tomorrow, or further down the road. You must structure your life around daily progress based on what matters to you, building practices and activities that allow you to plant new seeds each day, with the knowledge that you will eventually see the fruits of your labor.
While the universal principles outlined above are not overtly expressed in the remainder of the book, you will find that they inform many of the specific practices you will learn. In the end, my hope is that you will embrace the importance of now, and refuse to allow the lull of comfort, fear, familiarity, and ego to prevent you from taking action on your ambitions.
How to Read This Book
Die Empty is divided into three sections. The first three chapters discuss the nature of contribution, why work matters, and why so many brilliant, skilled people end up settling for less than they’re capable of. Chapters 4 through 10 share specific principles that will help you cultivate the mind-set and methods to unleash your best work. The final two chapters offer strategies for applying these principles in your daily life, and using them to uncover a deeper sense of cohesion and purpose.
While the entire book is intended to be practical and immediately implementable, there may be some chapters that resonate more than others. If this is the case for you, I’d recommend spending extra time with these chapters and doing the exercises and questions contained therein before continuing with the rest of the book. Doing this may provide an extra measure of clarity as you consider other, less pressing issues. There are also suggestions for sharing the ideas in this book with people you know and work with. I’d encourage you to do so, as one of the best ways to internalize a concept is to teach it to others.
A final word of caution: the following chapters don’t contain quick fixes or shot-in-the-arm tactics designed to make you look on the bright side of life. (Of course, in picking up a book titled Die Empty I suspect you probably weren’t expecting lollipops and rainbows.) While I believe that a positive outlook is critical to maintaining traction, no one is served by false promises of effortless bliss.
Rather, my goal is to tell it to you as straight as I know how. I believe you’re capable of more, and that your best work is still ahead of you. However, all the positive thinking in the world will not amount to anything without decisive action. The rest of us need you to act, because if you don’t, you’re robbing yourself, your peers, your family, your organization, and the world of a contribution that only you can make.
The cost of inaction is vast. Don’t go to your grave with your best work inside you. Choose to die empty.
The average man does not know what to do with his life, yet wants another one which will last forever.
Principle: Your body of work should reflect what’s important to you.
How much of your day do you spend doing work that you’ll be proud of later?
In his commencement address to the Stanford University class of 2005, the late Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs exhorted graduates with this:
“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
He continued, “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. Because 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.”
The most common response that I’ve encountered when sharing these words with others is an immediate “YES!” followed by a numb look of “Now what?” The notion of blazing a path into the unknown is exciting, but it can also lead to a kind of “purpose paralysis” (fear of getting it wrong) or worse, frustration when the daily grind of work doesn’t seem to reward your pursuit of those flashes of inspiration. It seems like fine advice for someone with no obligations, limitations, or baggage, but not for people living in the real world with grown-up responsibilities such as a family and a mortgage.
However, engaging in deeply gratifying work does not require you to check out of life, pack your bags, and head off on a pilgrimage to India. It simply requires consistent, focused efforts to cultivate your instincts and skills, and make measured progress on your goals. Brilliant work is forged by those who consistently approach their days with urgency and diligence. Urgency means leveraging your finite resources (focus, assets, time, energy) in a meaningful and productive way. Diligence means sharpening your skills and conducting your work in a manner that you won’t regret later. When you adopt the mind-set of urgent diligence, you’ll pour all of who you are into your days, and subsequently you’ll find that the unique value you bring to the world comes more clearly into focus.
Revue de presse
—STEVEN PRESSFIELD, AUTHOR OF THE WAR OF ART AND TURNING PRO
“Todd Henry says to create a life of meaning and impact you need to map, make, and mesh. You’re probably doing one or two of those right now, but just imagine how interesting your work will get when you incorporate all three into your daily life. Todd gives you the tools and points the way.”
—MICHAEL BUNGAY STANIER, SENIOR PARTNER AT BOX OF CRAYONS, AUTHOR OF DO MORE GREAT WORK
“Die Empty looks past simple slogans to highlight detailed strategies for building a meaningful life; a must-read for anyone interested in moving from inspiration to action.”
—CAL NEWPORT, AUTHOR OF SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU
“In this powerful book, Todd reminds us that the world will not be changed by what we want to create, it will be changed by what we created. Life is short. Learn how to die empty.”
—PAMELA SLIM, AUTHOR OF ESCAPE FROM CUBICLE NATION
“No matter your role in your family, community, or business, Todd Henry will open your eyes to new ways to unlock your purpose and set you on the right path to pursue your personal mission. Die Empty will keep you on a true and steady course and help you
reach your full potential every day.”
—TIM SCHIGEL, FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN, SHARETHIS, INC.
“You have a limited number of days on Earth. This book sends an urgent message: make them count!”
—CHRIS GUILLEBEAU, AUTHOR OF THE $100 STARTUP AND THE ART OF NON-CONFORMITY
“I can think of no better phrase to live your life by nor any better person to explain the message. Bravo.”
—JULIEN SMITH, FOUNDER OF BREATHER.COM AND AUTHOR OF THE FLINCH