Memento Mori

A topic pops up periodically in some of the books I’ve been reading over the past year, grabbing my attention and then disappearing under the surface of my thoughts again, in cycles, like some kind of sea creature of consciousness.

Memento Mori. Remember you must die.

This is something I would rather not think about, having already spent a half-century not yet being dead. But Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, William Irvine, Ryan Holiday, Derren Brown, and many others have spent time thinking about it, and so have I. Especially over the past year in lockdown. And not just because of the words of these writers.

The sense of “running out of time” is pointed. Sharp. It pricks me at unexpected moments. Not because I’m afraid to die, but because of some ambiguous dread about not having accomplished… what, exactly? I’m not sure. Having had a youth with very little, I’m thankful for what I have. I have a family, a home, work. Nothing’s missing. So what is that feeling?

think I know what it is.

Derek Featherstone wrote a small piece about the fear of becoming irrelevant. I’m sure this is part of it for me. Five years ago, my career transitioned from doing design leadership work from my own companies, to doing this as an employee in other companies. During this time, I practically stopped speaking at conferences. I made no time to keep up with web development on a deeper level. This partially stripped away one of my strong career expertises: the integration of development practices into design processes. Any writing I did dwindled away. My blog had become a ghost town of outdated perspectives. My book, itself appealing only to a very specific audience, went out of print. Ideas I talked and wrote about more than a decade ago were discovered again by others on their own; no one knew about my previous work. It seemed lost. I seemed lost.

Then the thoughts came. Ignore the 30 years of experience: how did I get here? What footprint have I left in the field? What do I have to offer? Am I even any good at all? I’ve climbed to the top of a mountain, only to see a sea of more peaks. All the things I don’t know.

This focused awareness of being a perpetual beginner, this concern that my work and I matter less as time goes on… these are parts of the feelings I’ve been having. But there’s something else. Something my friend Brad unknowingly touched upon once while poking some fun at me about one of my blog posts:

“I don’t always blog, but when I do, it’s fucking brilliant.”

I love this because it’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever had. But it has a flip side. Brad’s quip reveals my problem: I only put work out there when I think it’s good enough. And as a chronic compare-my-work-to-the-greatest-hits-of-others-er, that’s not often. This is the problem. Not legacy, impact, fame, whatever (though ego is part of it). It’s that I’m happiest as a maker. I need to make things. Design, art, funneling my perspectives into writing, teaching, learning.

What stopped five years ago was the making for the sake of making. But also sharing it. Learning is also making, so learning should also be shared, as it inspires more making. It occurs to me that even since college, it never mattered to me what other people thought while I was making things. That only mattered when I wasn’t making, and was latched onto what I had already made. That’s a mistake.

I wonder why I’m writing this. If I should write it. If I should publish it. But I will. And if you’re reading this, I have. Because I don’t think I’m the only one who has felt like this. I’m not the only one who can feel down on themselves at times, unable to explain that feeling to others. So, if even one person gets something out of this little article, it’s worth it. Even if—maybe especially if—that person is me.

In much art, process is more important than the end result. The work becomes a snapshot of experience, experimentation, thinking, and learning. This is what makes the work interesting and fun. I want to do this, and I’m starting now. As I learn, I intend to share. If you’re reading this and have similar feelings, this might not help you, but I doubt it will make things worse: Create. Share. Memento Mori.