How Death Changed My Life (& Why It’s Important to Think About Yours)

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For most of my life, I kept a tragedy to myself.

An event that I witnessed at a young age altered my thinking forever. It fueled the way I approach life. In recent years, I began sharing how death changed my life.

When I was a freshman in high school, I saw a good friend of mine die.

Paul Kartlick was playing basketball in PE class one day and tripped. He hit his head on the outdoor concrete court and died on the spot. One moment we were playing basketball and the next moment he was gone. He was 14 years old.

Paul’s death made me realize something—death is imminent. It’s closer with each passing minute. I realized that quite literally any day, at any time, I might die.

If Paul could die while just playing basketball, when and how might it happen to me?

From that day forward, I began living with an odd sense that I, too, might die young.

With an indefinite number of days to live, I began to seek out ways to fulfill my purpose, whatever it was. I wanted to live a life of meaning. At 14 I may not have fully understood my purpose, but I knew I had to make each and every day count for something.

I began asking two questions every day about everything I did:

1) What is important now?

2) What is next?

Each day we live is filled with “the little things.” For some, that can become mundane, but I reasoned that all the little things in my life would add up to something bigger—my purpose. I devoured the little things in my life, accomplishing them with the urgency and commitment based on the belief that they were painting the larger picture of my life’s purpose.

I realized something: if I could die at any moment, that meant that the next 15 minutes could very well be the most critical part of my life! What could I do in the next 15 minutes that would radically change my life and the lives of others around me?

Little things—taking a few of my sister’s chores so she could leave for her date a little earlier; writing a letter to let someone know how much they meant to me; making my bed so someone wouldn’t have to do it after I was gone.

Living a life of meaning does not have to be as complicated as we make it out to be.

Start small, every day. Make that phone call, write a letter, research that idea—these are the kinds of little things I do as soon as they occur to me. Don’t put off the little things. They add up together, creating the bigger purpose of your life. Act as if today is all you have.

Life is short.

Our days are numbered.

Our lives are limited.

Life passes quickly.

We know we will die, but we don’t know how long we will live.

Every day, ask yourself, What is important now? What is next?

These two questions will lead you to your purpose in life, one day at a time.

Photo by disparkys

Robert D. Smith

Robert D. Smith is the author of 20,000 Days and Counting, a crash course in living every day with maximum intensity and purpose. He writes about personal growth, entrepreneurship, and more at

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