That "What if you knew you were going to die" question

Photo: Philip Brewer

You've no doubt seen the question in many different forms. Sometimes it's, "What would you do if you learned you were going to die tomorrow?" Other times it's "What would you do if you knew you'd live a hundred years?" Some people try to pack the whole thing into one exhortation, "Live like you were going to die tomorrow, plan like you'd live forever." It's always bugged me.

I understand what the question is trying to get at. It's trying to get you to think about what's really important. If you only had a little time left, hopefully you'd spend it doing the things that really matter--connecting with family and friends, perhaps. Contrariwise, if you have vast amounts of time--enough to see a really big plan through to fruition--it frees you to think big. But neither version really works for me.

See, if I were going to die tomorrow, I'd probably do stupid stuff--the sort of fun stuff that I normally keep under strict limits because it has long-term negative consequences. If you're going to die before the negative consequences kick in, there's no need for limits. If I were going to die tomorrow I could pack a lot of pleasure into one day--but if a miracle treatment gave me one more day I'd probably make very different choices for that next "last" day. Maybe the question would work better if the time frame were, let's say, six weeks--short enough to focus the mind, but long enough that there's still value in moderation and thoughtful consideration. But, for me, it's not the right question.

The other one isn't either. If I knew I would live forever (or even just a very long time), I'm sure I'd take the long view on certain things--my investment portfolio, for example--but I'm also sure I'd be prone to some serious procrastination, knowing that I had the whole vast future to get around to doing whatever it was that I didn't feel like doing today.

For me, the issues these questions are supposed to help with are dealt with much better by thinking in terms of balance. Happiness doesn't come from packing each day with as much hedonistic pleasure as possible--although one day like that can be a lot of fun. At the same time, taking the long view is great, but it doesn't make any sense to spend every waking minute in your first few decades working towards having big, big fun in the later decades. Even if you knew for sure that you'd live that long, it's still no way to live.

So, how then can one find that balance? The answer comes down to your values and your goals.

It's your values that the early-death question is supposed to get it--what's so important to you that you'd choose to devote your last hours of life on it? If it doesn't work for me, maybe it's just my own immaturity that puts too high a value on pleasure. But, as long as I stay away from the artificial "last day" question, there are plenty of other things I value--friends, family, the respect of my peers, the satisfaction from doing good work, making a positive difference in the world, helping others. Those things--along with pleasure--are the things that you miss out on if you focus too much on the long term. Keeping them in mind helps you find your balance.

It's your goals that the live-forever question is supposed to get it--what would you do if you felt free to think big? But you don't need that artificial circumstance. However long you might live, you're always free to think big. I have plenty of big projects in mind--books I want to write, fields I want to study, skills I want to master. It's in service of your goals that it's worth deferring short-term pleasures. But these goals only matter if they also advance your values.

For me, it's not about when I might die. It's about where to find the balance between short-term pleasures and long-term goals. It's about thinking big while still living in the moment. It's about living my values every day, not just at the supposed end of my life.

(I'm prepared to concede that I think way too much about this sort of thing.)

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Guest's picture

I'm glad to see there is someone else who doesn't like the trite analysis of these things. For me its the uncertainty that makes the balance. Not every day is awesome, but enough are. I would regret my super aggressive savings if I died tomorrow and I might be very grateful if I live to 100. The things you really value along with the accomplishments that mean something will stick with memory, and story for decades.

Guest's picture

Woman (to boyfriend): If I could tell you the exact time and manner of your death, would you want to know.

Boyfriend: No, I wouldn't want to know.

Woman: Ok, then never mind.

Guest's picture

I have to respectfully disagree, at least w/ part of your analysis.

Since you are obviously the kind of person who does think about this -- way too much, but so do I -- I think it's safe to say that some of your response is off. If you truly knew you were going to die tomorrow, I doubt that you would actually do the "stupid stuff with consequences" -- I just don't think a person who thinks about the statement in that manner would actually...

(of course I may be off; wouldn't be the first time, won't be the last)

Same w/ living 100 yrs. Yeah, we procrastinate, but know the length of time left wouldn't necessarily worsen that.

Philip Brewer's picture


You may well be right.  Until actually faced with the circumstance, there's no way to know what one would choose.  But as a tool to guide my thinking, what I'd really do doesn't matter as much as what I might imagine I'd do.

I'm all for any little trick or tool that helps people balance their short-term and long-term plans and choose when to grab a little short-term pleasure and when to defer it in favor of longer-term rewards.  I just find that these particular tools don't do the trick for me.  If they work for you, use them!

Guest's picture

George Kinder, founder of the life planning movement, asks three questions designed to narrow the responses to what is really important:

1. Imagine you are financially secure, that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything? Let yourself go. Don’t hold back on your dreams. Describe a life that is complete and richly yours.

2. Now imagine that you visit your doctor, who tells you that you have only 5-10 years to live (guaranteed 5, no more than 10 years). You won’t ever feel sick, but you will have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life and how will you do it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited funds.)

3. Finally, imagine that your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have 24 hours to live. Notice what feelings arise as you confront your very real mortality. Ask yourself: What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

Note that his "24 hours to live" question doesn't ask what would you do, rather what did you not get to do.

I think these questions end up being more helpful in defining an actionable answer for you than the two extremes you asked at the beginning of your post.

More in this 3 minute video on youtube.

Guest's picture

I agree with this. As a spark to get people thinking about their short-term values and long-term goals, it's not too bad. But, knowing exactly when you'd die isn't realistic (unless you intend to commit suicide at a specific point in the future, but that's a rare case). It's better to have fun while you can, save up enough that your twilight years aren't unbearable, and work to meet your goals along the way.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Thought provoking as usual, Philip!

Guest's picture

People always talk about the "things I'd do" if you were to learn of your impending death, but many people DO learn that their time is short and don't do anything any different. Sure, some will take the opportunity to say or do what's important to them (a la Bucket List style) but if anything, they either do nothing or they become self absorbed and ponder the afterlife (think of that bitter old Granny; we all have one).

My father was diagnosed with cancer and was told he had less than 3 months; he only lived 1 month past his diagnosis. His last few weeks were a complete and utter disappointment... which (unfortunately) aligned with his first 57 years. There were questions left unanswered and hearts that needed mending and he made no real effort to resolve anything. He never stepped up to the plate before... how foolish to think he would step up to the plate in death.

The reality is: how you behave in life is how you will behave in death.

Though it is not my intent to snip at the choice of topic selection, I am personally not a fan of this topic. If you wish to talk about values and short term pleasures or long-term goals, then talk about them. If you wish to talk about living life to the fullest, or taking care of those you care for or being fiscally (or otherwise...) responsible, then do it.

But attaching it to the "if you were to die..." question grates.

For me.

Worth every penny paid, of course.

Guest's picture
martha in mobile

when I was diagnosed with cancer. When this question was a playful "what-if" game, I had always thought I would travel, have big experiences, skip the mundane tasks, etc. But when it was a very real possibility that I would die within a year, my answer was quite different. I realized that my possible impending death didn't matter to me (because I would be DEAD) but it would affect the people I loved (and who loved me) very badly. So my choice was to actually attend to all the mundane tasks that I could in order to make their life-after-me easier. Is all the insurance in order? Are the files in order? Has all my stuff been gone through and the clutter discarded? What else have I been putting off --the 529 for the kid? Is my will in good shape? Do I have any requests for memorial arrangements? Are my family's favorite recipes easily available for them? Have I told them I love them, love them, love them enough?

I guess what I am trying to say is that the "if you knew you were going to die" question has nothing to do with reality, and strikes me as self-involved navel-gazing.

Guest's picture

Thanks so much for your made my day!!! I too am in a similar situation as you and have reacted exactly as you have. I was wondering if there was something wrong with my reactions until you verified what my feelings.....I've had a full and good life (58 years) and find my only concerns are for those left behind. There is no exotic "bucket list", just preparations to assist your family who will be left behind. I guess I've already lived my "bucket list" or else I'm just a boring person...

Guest's picture

This will show me as a huge movie geek, but I find two quotes about this very interesting.

1) "You know, some people say life is short and that you could get hit by a bus at any moment and that you have to live each day like it's your last. Bullshit. Life is long. You're probably not gonna get hit by a bus. And you're gonna have to live with the choices you make for the next fifty years." Chris Rock - I Think I Love My Wife.

2) "I have had cancer, and believe me, during convalescence after surgery the last item on your bucket list is climbing a Himalaya. Your list is more likely to be topped by keeping down a full meal, having a triumphant bowel movement, keeping your energy up in the afternoon, letting your loved ones know you love them, and convincing the doc your reports of pain are real and not merely disguising your desire to become a drug addict." Roger Ebert, in his review of The Bucket List.

Guest's picture

There is an alternative to living recklessly and living for the future. It's living in the moment. Greater awareness of the present moment can lead to a more more fulfilling life. There is so much beauty already present in our lives that we don't even pay attention to. Recognizing it and enjoying it doesn't require us to throw caution to the wind. We can practice it every day. I'm certainly trying to let go of some of the daily worry that accompanies me by appreciating and noticing everything wonderful that already surrounds me in the most ordinary of ways.

Guest's picture

Great article. I agree.

Guest's picture

I think about my "bucket list" all the time . . .

Bottomline: Don't take life for granted . . .

Guest's picture

I don't know from personal experience, but I expect that in practice my answers would be like Martha's. A couple of times I've been crossing the road and a car has nearly hit me - one of my first thoughts on reaching the other side of the road is that I can't let anything happen to me because my house is a mess and how would anyone find anything.

Questions like "what would you wish you had done?" are probably more helpful in giving you ideas about what you should actually do. Still, you've got to balance those against what you can practically afford to do right now. I mean I'd wish I had learned the oboe better, travelled more and got drunk with friends more often. I can't do all those things at once though, and if I did them a lot more I might not be able to afford a retirement I'd like.

I think that Philip is actually making the same point that you are. Looking at end of life situations is not as helpful as just thinking about values and goals.

Guest's picture

To me this question has always seemed backwards. You never know how long you're going to live. What you should know, however -- and never forget -- is that your life could end at a moment's notice. One thing I really liked about the book Journey to Ixtlan was the idea of always seeing your death out of the corner of your eye, stalking you, and using your death as an advisor. The question should not be "what will I do with the rest of my life", but rather "what do you want to be doing when you die" -- because that might be what is going to happen to you next. I have found that most helpful for me in terms of analyzing what I'm doing: would I feel good knowing that what I'm doing now is the last thing I did in life? If you can feel good about that, I think a lot of the rest takes care of itself.

Guest's picture

Having dealt with my dad's death and now my mom's passive irresponsibility, I think my goals would be more like Martha's. Methodically practical. It was/is insane getting my parent's stuff in order. I would never deliberately dump that on my kids and husband.

Guest's picture

I don't mean to over simplify this but we all know we are going to die, we just don't know when.

Guest's picture

...but the answer is useless.

It's helpful to think about what you'd do if you knew you were going to die, but the next day when you wake up with a hangover you'll still have dependents, a job, a need to eat, and the knowledge that you'll have to pay for yourself in your old age.

That's not to denigrate thinking about how you'll die, but I think it's a good thing you'll immediately realize you're more immediately going to have to consider how you'll live! :)

Guest's picture

I think Jean Luc Picard might have said it best: "Someone once told me that time is a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, that reminds us to cherish every moment because they'll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we live it. After all, Number One, we are only mortal."

Just imparting a little Star Trek wisdom.
P.S. I have always hated those "what if you knew you would die when" questions, too.

Guest's picture

....But if a doctor tells me I have 24 hours to live, I'm ridiculously limited. It would take at least 12 hours to get to any of these paradise locations, and I don't want to spend half of my last day on a plane. So I'm stuck within a small radius around the doctor's office. Unless I was on holiday in Hawaii when I was diagnosed, I'm pretty limited, hedonistically speaking.

In any case, it's always about more than hedonism, isn't it? Because surely, the most pleasurable thing would be to get high on a load of illicit compounds (presumably)? If you just wanted pleasure, why not just do that for 24 hours? No worries about any physical consequences, you're dead tomorrow anyway!

Or maybe you'd be more altruistic, perhaps if your friends and family knew you only had 24 hours left, they'd want to spend them with you.

But there's the fallacy of the question, as someone mentioned above. A decision you make with 24 hours of life left isn't really translatable to a longer life, because you don't have to live with the consequences!

Interesting post though, I'd never thought of it like that. I'm quite looking forward to the next time someone asks me this now!

Guest's picture

Instead of "What if you knew you were going to die", here is what I think the biggest quesiton is (for making decisions big and small):

If I am going to die the next moment, can I go with peace if I do this? If I am going now, can I forgive myself and what I have done?

This focuses on your values and priorities in life and puts your actions on course with them, and this is instead of being hedonistic and thinking "Oh, I may die soon anyways, what the hell, I will..."

So, if you die now, will you die in peace?

Guest's picture

This post really made me think. I've already printed it, and I intend to keep it somewhere, like a drawer at work, where I will come across it often. It gave me peace to read it, and it would be nice if I could remember to keep working toward that "balance". Also, I think it's hard when you're trying to survive in the rat race to keep your values and goals in the forefront of your mind. That's sad because I think I'm happier and more peaceful when I'm living in a way that honors them.

Guest's picture

I've always hated that question, for many of the same reasons you mention.

And having been there with my husband, I can say that the reality is much more like what Martha describes -- find a notary, make sure the will is done, etc. Also, remember that if you know you're going to die very soon, you probably don't feel great. Although there are exceptions, chances are high that you're tethered to IV morphine or other serious meds and are not exactly in a position to go running off to Europe.

About the only really helpful insight you can gain from this thought experiment is: love your family, try not to hold grudges, and don't put off *all* pleasures for the future...

Guest's picture

If I was going to die tomorrow, I would do nothing special today. Everyday I tell my family that I love them, I tell my friends that living the life they have is all they can do. Since we only have now and even that can be a fallacy the most we or I can do is live this moment the best I can. If my head is right then I'll be alright if not then I should try to make it right. Planning for the future is important but when the question is about tomorrow then all future plans are a waste. The only true answer at this point is what has your life meant to you up to this ending point?

Guest's picture

i never thought that i'd see someone like this, im guessing you are a INTJ(personality type from a psychological test) ....i am also planning on going into software engineering, and also tend to think through things like this much, but i just try not to show it because some people find it odd....but i also tend to do very well in my writing i looking to a future similar to yours mr. phillip brewer?? haha that'd be interesting :D

Guest's picture

At birth I think it would be cool to see your birth and death certificate. Knowing how and when you will die. A lot of people I have asked if they would like to see their death certificate say no. Of course this is fantasy we are not God. But it may be a good plot for a movie. I just like to know the future although I am powerless over many things it would be powerful to know your death.