Set Your Egg Timer to Six Months

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I wrote the following in early February after my trip to Europe (as part of my Jet Lag Series), which started in Switzerland and concluded in Northern Italy (Venice to be exact). Yes, the part of Italy that today is devastated by coronavirus. We missed the virus by only two weeks. In that short amount of time we have transitioned into a different world – a new era (at least temporarily). As I reread what I wrote below, it suddenly has a new, added meaning for me. It is even more relevant now than it was in early February.

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I bought all the girls bracelets at the Venice airport on my way back to Denver. When we changed planes in Frankfurt, I realized I had left the bracelets in the airport gift shop. I was upset for about five seconds, and then I remembered a story from The Last Lecture, the book I was rereading for the third time on the flight home. It’s the first-person story of Randy Pausch, a 46-year-old (same age as me) professor who had only six months to live – he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Here is an excerpt:

Once, about a dozen years ago, when Chris was seven years old and Laura was nine, I picked them up in my brand-new Volkswagen Cabrio convertible. “Be careful in Uncle Randy’s new car,” my sister told them. “Wipe your feet before you get in it. Don’t mess anything up. Don’t get it dirty.” I listened to her, and thought, as only a bachelor uncle can: “That’s just the sort of admonition that sets kids up for failure. Of course they’d eventually get my car dirty. Kids can’t help it.” So I made things easy. While my sister was outlining the rules, I slowly and deliberately opened a can of soda, turned it over, and poured it on the cloth seats in the back of the convertible. My message: People are more important than things. A car, even a pristine gem like my new convertible, was just a thing.

This story actually took place before Randy was diagnosed with cancer. I forgot this detail when I told the story to my brother Alex, which made the point even stronger. Though we don’t think of ourselves as being in Randy’s situation, we all are – we have an expiration date. Randy’s egg timer had been set for six months by his doctors (he actually lived for 11 more months). Others of us have our lives suddenly interrupted, like Kobe Bryant, or greatly extended, like Kirk Douglas. We don’t know.

How would you live your life if you knew you had just six more months to live? Would you let yourself care about the same things? Would you let yourself be upset about leaving some tchotchkes at the airport? Would you let a stained back seat or dirt on your car upset you? Think about it. Randy died 12 years ago. Where is his car today? Does it have clean backseats? Does it have dents? Does it really matter? The truth is we make a choice when we allow (let) ourselves to value things that are so fleeting and unimportant.