Often when you pick up a book, the title does not make much sense. But once you have read the book, the title suddenly makes sense.
All the words in the book have come together to take you on a journey back to the title.
And it takes your breath away.
And that is exactly what happened after I read the book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, by Paul Kalinithi.
The title ”When Breath Becomes Air”, is taken from a 16th-century poem by Fulke Grevillepoem:
You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.
The poem refers to life itself; the air turns into breath when we are alive and returns to being air again when we die. The very act of breathing itself is what makes us inherently alive.
As it all too often happens, we only really understand what life is when we fully understand what death is.
This book is about an ambitious young neurosurgeon who was on the cusp of qualifying as a Consultant Neurosurgeon.
He had his entire life mapped out ahead of him only for him to have to re-plan his life when he discovered he had brain cancer. It was a rare type that had no cure, and he was given a diagnosis of a few years to live if he was lucky. He died at the age of 37.
When struck with such news, it forces one to reflect on where they are in life and what they need to do next. So often we complain that we do not have enough time, but what would you do if you knew you really didn’t have enough time left?
What if you knew for sure you only had a few years at best, to live. What would you spend your time doing?
How would you spend your days?
How would you spend your time?
Why You Must Follow Your Dreams
In the case of Paul Kalinithi, despite accomplishing his dream job of being a neurosurgeon, he had a lifelong affinity and passion for words and literature.
He always dreamt that one day he would get around to writing a book, but he decided to pursue his medical ambitions first as a priority. The writing could wait for someday, perhaps after his medical career was over, he had thought.
He had chosen to focus all his efforts on his medical training, but when faced with a real-time deadline he decided to pursue spend the time left on pursuing his passion and dream of being an author. This book was written by him in his last few months and published just after his death.
This is one of the central themes of my upcoming book ‘Escape The Cubicle”.
It’s a topic close to my heart because I wholeheartedly believe that we can only survive and thrive when you spend your days doing something that brings you feel alive.
I spent 12 years working in corporate jobs I didn’t enjoy. I was trapped by the financial rewards and the lifestyle I had created subconsciously.
But once I broke free of these and looked beyond the cubicle cell I found myself in; I was able to chase my dreams of being an author and entrepreneur.
I now spend my days building my online author business and running a start-up in another field. Both ventures are creative endeavours where I am using and pushing my skills to the limits, as well as constantly learning and growing. I can finally say I enjoy how I spend my time. I am growing, learning and creating value. I feel I make a difference.
And these are the principles I share in my book, how you too can create a life living your passions and living with purpose.
How Do You Spend Your Time?
Kalinithi talks eloquently about time and what it means. To determine what to do with our time means we make decisions.
For it is in our decisions that allow us to choose, to some extent, what we will do with our time.
Kalinithi states that he faced the dilemma of what to do with his remaining time when his doctors were unable to give him an exact estimate to how long he had left to live.
Should he continue working in medicine? Or should he devote his remaining time to be with his family and loved ones?
But Kalinithi knew he didn’t have much time left. A few years at best. He said if he knew he had ten years left, then he would return to his medical practice.
However, if he knew for certain he had only a few months left, then he would give up his work and spend the remaining time with friends and family and loved ones.
But it’s what his Oncologist said that struck me.
Every time Kalinithi asks his consultant how much time he has left, she responds with ‘spend your time on what you value regardless of how much time you have’.
So often we take a lot of stuff for granted. I know I do this all too many times. Why is it that we have to be told we have a limited amount of time for us to show time the respect it ultimately commands and deserves?
Is it perhaps because time seems to fly by that we think we have all the time in the world?
Or is it the fact that we live in a society of death denial and do not like to talk about death and think about the limited time we really have?
We all know that every day we live takes us closer to the day we die. Living itself is a process leading us towards death.
Once we have lived and spent all our resources (i.e., our health), we die. Even today, death is a taboo subject.
People don’t know what to say other than ‘i’m sorry for your loss’ when they hear of death. I mean what does that mean anyway? Why are you sorry for my loss? Why are you apologising for a loss that belongs to me?
Facing death is the only way to understand it. And understanding death is the only way to know how to live.
Look back at your life and think of all the key or pivotal moments that occurred. What caused them? Was it an urgent need to do something, the need to change something, the loss of a loved one?
My soul had slowly been draining away over a period of ten years as I slaved away in the corporate cubicle. The city was swallowing me up daily and spitting me out tired, exhausted, fat and grumpy at the end of each day.
I no longer felt joy in the work I did neither did I feel I was making a difference. All I said to myself was that ‘one day’ I would leave this grey corporate life and do something else. That mantra continued for another three years until I had no choice but to face my fear of death.
Face to Face With Death Itself
My dad had a near fatal heart attack and stroke in 2012. This lead to months of him being in a coma, sustaining brain damage and having to re-learn basic tasks such as eating and drinking to brushing his teeth. His stroke left him paralysed from the waist down leaving him bed-bound.
My dad had lots of plans. Only a year away from retiring, he had saved all his living for after he left the day job. He never complained but worked diligently and was a good employee.
But if he had a choice I bet that he would rather not have spent such a big chunk of his life just in his day job. He was a man full of life. The life which ran out on him when he turned 62.
It was during this time that I took a good look at where I had come to in my life. Everything I had been doing over the past 30 years had led me to this point.
I worked hard and was rewarded with a well-paid city job in the heart of the London financial district. But I was tired of the 4-hour daily commutes. I was tired of working with obnoxious and aggressive people. I was tired of doing work that no longer mattered to me.
I was tired of having to straighten out the line on the powerpoint slide for the seventh time knowing this presentation would never see the light of day, yet my boss insisted it was done before I left the office, despite it already being 9.30pm.
Time Waits For No Man
Kalinithi realised too late that time does not wait. Perversely, the more time we have, or seem to have, the more inclined we are to squander it.
The less time we think we have, the more focused our efforts become; the more clarity we gain in deciding what it is we want to spend our time on.
So is time the issue? No, not at all.
Time continues to move at a constant linear straight-line fashion. It has no rewind button as many of us already know (but sometimes wish it did).
But what Time forces us to do when we perceive it to be less in quantity is that it asks us a glaring question which we don’t want to face, ‘Hey Mr, you are going to die. Your time is short. What do you want to spend your remaining Time on?’
After my dad had died, I made a promise to him.
I promised him that I would live. That I would be happy. I would live the life he would have wanted me to live. And that is by being fearless in chasing my dreams. To banish fear and doubt.
Granted, I am still working on the fear and doubt but I did make the transition of leaving the corporate day job to become a creative entrepreneur.
The transition took me less than a minute to make because I just needed to make a committed decision.
But the process had started ten years ago when the grumblings of frustration were becoming louder and louder on a daily basis as I got the tube to the office every morning.
We all know our Time is limited
We just don’t know when and how the time will eventually be cut short. But that’s OK. We already have the most important insight we need to ensure we make the most of our time. And that is simply ‘what do you want to spend your time on?’. Think about it and choose carefully. Then action it.
Adding action to the mix keeps the fear and doubt away (albeit for a short while hence why you need to take consistent daily action).
The best way to get started if you need some help is to determine what is most important to you. Clear away the clutter and noise and zoom in on what it is that is important to you.
What Matters Most When The Noise Dies Down?
For me, freedom and creativity were at the top of my values list.
I wanted to have freedom to work where and when I wanted. I was tired of working for an endless line of megalomaniac mid-tier managers frustrated at their lack of promotion.
I was tired of working with people who drained my energy and whom I found quite boring.
Instead, I longed for autonomy in my work, to study and learn about things that excited me and fed my curiosity.
I yearned to have the time to go to the gym and have the energy to do other activities that I had stopped doing over the years such as painting, dancing and writing.
I had stopped living, and I was tired of that. I wanted to feel alive.
I wanted to breath, not just exhale air.
Gary Vaynerchuck, a serial entrepreneur and investor, says ‘there is no reason to do shit you hate. None’.
Are you doing shit you hate? What are your reasons for this? Or more likely, what are your EXCUSES for doing crap you hate?
Take action now:
How much time do you think you have left? Recognise that you have NO idea how much time you have. Instead, make a vow to respect how you spend your time.
So what will you commit to spending your time on? When will you start writing your book? When will you start prioritising your health? When will you start to live?
If you liked this blog post, sign up here to get my upcoming book ”Escape The Cubicle” for free when you join the Launch team here.