Lessons from the Journey: Being Aware of Our Mortality Can Help Us Focus


From my own 193-country journey to the stories of many other people who were kindly willing to share, The Happiness of Pursuit attempts to extract and convey the lessons of modern-day quests. This series explores some of these lessons.

Lesson: Every day matters. The awareness of our mortality can help us focus.

We all have a limited amount of time on earth. Those who live in active awareness of this reality are more likely to identify goals and make progress toward them. Or to put it another way: everyone dies, but not everyone truly lives.

In 1981, Phoebe Snetsinger received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Phoebe had primarily been a homemaker, raising a family in the American midwest. Her first thought upon receiving the diagnosis: “Oh no. There are so many things I still want to do.”

Phoebe was fortunate: the diagnosis was premature, and she ended up living nearly twenty more years. She spent many of those years in pursuit of a goal: to see more birds than anyone else in history.

The goal became a quest, with Phoebe traveling hundreds of thousands of miles and trekking further and further afield into parks and nature reserves across the planet.

(Note: Phoebe’s story is fascinating. I wrote a lot more about it in the book, and there’s also an excellent biography of her written by Olivia Gentile.)

As I studied people who undertake quests, I heard a lot of stories like Phoebe’s—not necessarily people who devoted themselves to seeing a lot of birds, but people who’d had some sort of brush with death and were inspired to focus on a goal or quest in the aftermath.

I also heard from several others who pointed to moments of “mortality awareness” as instigating moments in their quest. They often identified a shift from an intellectual awareness of death to an emotional or more personal awareness of death.

Intellectual: “Everyone dies”

Emotional: “Someday I will die”

We all know that life is short. But when we really know that life is short, we tend to make different choices. That’s what the awareness of mortality is all about.


Other lessons:

The Happiness of Pursuit is available from or your favorite local bookseller. You can also join me on tour in your choice of more than 40 cities.

Image: Isidro

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