The Lottery of Life

“A friend of mine said to me: “What is it that haunts you?” I can tell you exactly what haunts me, now. It’s the sense of my days running through my fingers like the finest sand, and I can’t stop it.” – John O’Donohue

“How do I balance this drive I have and not lose sight of what matters in life?” asked my client, torn between his ambitions to grow his company out of a lifestyle business, and the very comfort of that lifestyle business he’d created. “How do I not lose sight of enjoying my life if I choose to go big with the company? Taking investment to scale and exit sounds stressful. I don’t want to waste my time buried in this company, losing control of it to the pressures of scaling. It’s doing well enough now, and I have a good lifestyle. I wonder, though, if I am wasting potential by not taking the chance?” 

These were the questions that weighed on his entrepreneurial heart on the cusp of realizing a big idea and worried about getting lost in the fire of it. We explored these themes during our session. After an hour I asked him if I could make an introduction to someone who had not only lived through the questions of scale and successful exits but might keenly know about deciding what matters most in life. That person was Gino Zahnd.

I first met Gino at our second Italy Bootcamp. His big reveal on the morning of our first full day set the tone for that camp cohort and helped us all face big questions about what mattered most where spirit meets bone not only when we discover the limits of our genetic lottery tickets, but also of the decisions we faced. For Gino, the echo of a ticking clock was part of his backdrop, which influenced looming questions and big choices. 

‘Time is the revelator’ is a line one of my colleagues, Virginia Bauman, anchors her work around. In leading workshops for death doulas in the past, I know that facing our limited time on earth may be perhaps one of the clearest delineators of what matters most for the time we have left. It helps sort out the priority list pretty quick. If we’re lucky enough to reflect on our death before we arrive there, we can be so grateful to meet such a swift agent of change and transformation.

There’s a recording floating around the internet of John O’Donohue talking to an audience at the Greenbelt festival years ago entitled Imagination as the Path of Spirit. It’s about an hour long, worth a few times on repeat, and works as a balm for one’s entire being. In it, he mentions an experiment for us to do in order to wake us up a bit from the unexamined life. The exercise is as follows: 

Try to imagine the view of your life from your deathbed. From that point looking back at your life, think of what you’d like to see that’s not yet there. Then, think of what’s there now that you wouldn’t like to see and that maybe needs to be transformed. 

For some of us, we have defining moments: lab results, a call from the doctor, or another moment that acts as a threshold in which after experiencing it, we can’t go back or un-hear what we’ve heard. The news changes our future, our plans, life, and everything in it. For some of us, we get lucky to get a coconut of wakefulness lobbed at us, jostling us out of our ill-aligned lives.

J.K. Rowling writes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows of a time Harry wakes up to his life in one of those defining moments from the plot twists of the Dark Lord at Hogwarts: 

“Slowly, very slowly, he sat up, and as he did so he felt more alive, and more aware of his own living body than ever before. Why had he never appreciated what a miracle he was, brain and nerve and bounding heart? It would all be gone…or at least, he would be gone from it. His breath came slow and deep, and his mouth and throat were completely dry, but so were his eyes.”

Just like Harry, here we are: a miracle, alive with nerve and bounding heart. If we’re lucky, these moments make us more alive or give us the courage to step more fully into our lives. We step into it with fortitude, with clarity, and with a hungry sense to suck the marrow out of it while it’s still with us, because, as John O’Donohue notes above: we feel our days sliding through our hands like the finest sand, and we can’t stop it. It’s wild, precious, fleeting, ours.

What do we want to do with it? How do we choose between our ambitions and what we know matters in life? What might we miss out on if we dive deep into one or the other? What might we miss out on if we lose sight of what matters most to us? If you imagine looking back on your life as it is now from your deathbed, what do you see? What would you change? What haunts you?