How many of us are on track to complete our life’s work? To borrow a sports cliche, we should be “leaving it all out on the field.” But we’re not. Todd Henry, the “accidental creative,” has a new book on the subject titled, appropriately enough, “Die Empty.”
When Steve Jobs was a young man, a neighbor invited Jobs over to his garage one day to check out his rock tumbler. He asked Jobs to go into the yard and find some rocks. The rocks Jobs came back with were rough-edged, jagged, and asymmetric.
You know, regular rocks.
The neighbor plunked the rocks and some grit paper into the tumbler and started the machine up. He told Jobs to come back in a day.
Here’s what happened, in Jobs’ own words:
The following day, the neighbor stopped the tumbler and removed “amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this [smacking hands together], creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.”
The experience left a lasting impression on Jobs, because he was still talking about it in interviews in the mid-90’s.
Jobs came to believe that the rock tumbler was a model for how healthy teams should function.
I had never heard or read this story about Steve Jobs before.
This is just one of the many fascinating tidbits I picked up from reading Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, the 2013 book by entrepreneur and “accidental creative” Todd Henry.
In it, Henry argues that what people regret most is not living their life with more purpose. On our deathbeds, many of us would give anything to get one more chance to approach life with the full intention and conviction it deserved.
Thus the title of the book “Die Empty.” As a creator or entrepreneur, you don’t want to die with your best work still inside you.
It always looks like there’s plenty of time to do meaningful work—until there isn’t. Sooner or later, time catches up to all of us.
How you choose to spend your days is how you choose to spend your life.
Here’s a collection of my favorite tips, exercises, and thought experiments from the book Die Empty.
Top 5 Takeaways from Die Empty by Todd Henry
1. The “Last Day” Fallacy
Todd Henry isn’t a fan of the “What would you do if today were your last day on earth?” question. He says, “it’s not very beneficial in motivating action because it removes any sense of responsibility or commitment to others from the equation.”
In other words, it’s not a realistic way to live your life.
Instead, Henry asks you to imagine that you have a note-taker accompanying you for an entire day.
“Once the day is over, this person will spend the next few days processing their observations, draw conclusions about your motivations, and compile their notes into a book about you that will stand as the definitive record of your life and work.”
- Knowing that your actions would be recorded in this way, how would you act?
- Would you change what you say or do?
- Would you change how you do them?
Henry’s advice is to ask yourself, “How does your imagined behavior compare with how you are actually living your life today?” If there’s a gap between how you actually live your day-to-day versus how you would act in this imagined exercise, then there might be a problem with your lifestyle.
I think this is a good exercise. My only note of caution: Don’t interpret this advice as live your life as though others are watching. That would be the wrong takeaway. It might lead you to subconsciously follow the Herd mentality in an effort to make your life “presentable.”
Instead, take Henry’s advice about your “Last Day” as a call to leave your legacy. Ask yourself:
Is what you’re working on today getting you closer to your life’s work?
2. Operate in Your “Sweet Spot”
Too many people want to come out of the gate with a clear understanding of their life’s mission. There is no one thing that you are wired to do, and there are many ways you can add value to the world, while operating in your sweet spot. However, these opportunities will only become clear over time as you act. They will develop slowly like film in a darkroom, giving you clues as you experiment, fail, and succeed.
This is what opponents of finding your passion (like Cal Newport) don’t understand or appreciate about passion.
Passion is a process.
Passions, like people, can evolve, adapt, and change. The key is that passion is what gets you through the tough times, the slog, the Resistance. Discipline, perseverance, resilience—these are all byproducts of passion.
No one spends twenty years attaining world-class proficiency at something they don’t give a shit about us. It’s way too hard. Instead, we muddle our way through jobs we don’t like after our skills plateau.
Critics of the passion mindset are right about one thing: Taking action separates the hopeless dreamers from the high achievers. Experimentation, iteration, and learning are critical to finding your “Sweet Spot.”
The “Sweet Spot” that Henry is talking about is also related to the Personal Hedgehog concept. Your Personal Hedgehog stands at the intersection of your talents, your passions, and what the market wants from you. In Henry’s words, you can “add value to the world, while operating in your sweet spot.”
That doesn’t mean blind, unrealistic belief in a “calling” that will make you happy forever and ever. As Henry says, there’s no “one thing” that you are wired to do—a person (unlike a business) can have more than one Hedgehog and still be successful.
3. Are You Auditing or Are You Accountable?
Near the end of Die Empty, Henry makes a great point about “auditing” versus accountability.
“Auditing” is the practice of attending classes in college without having to take exams or get graded. It’s a low-accountability way of getting an education.
Henry is skeptical of auditing. “You can go through the motions without facing up to the fear of failure.”
The fear of failure is one of the most important psychological barriers to change. Especially with the rise of MOOCs, I wonder how prevalent (and problematic) “auditing” is going to become. Learning is the process of repeatedly failing until you succeed.
In a similar vein, Henry worries about people who seem to be “auditing” their real lives:
They are present, and they may even be succeeding in their career, but they are not actively seeking opportunities to do better and more unique work. They are not engaging in the difficult work necessary to find their voice.
If “auditing” your life seems like a recipe for midlife crisis, it’s because it is. You are both the designer and end user of your lifestyle. This means you have enormous accountability for the way you live.
There are tricks to finding your voice, but eventually you need to embrace the possibility of putting yourself out there and falling flat on your face.
That’s how progress is made.
4. Cover Bands Don’t Change the World
A cover band plays other people’s music, and often fills venues and makes money, and may even provide good entertainment. However, when a better cover band comes along, one that plays slightly better versions of the same music, it’s out of a job because there wasn’t anything unique about it. Cover bands are often quickly forgotten, but the music lives on.
To his credit, Henry notes that “imitation is a key part of early growth and development as you are discovering your voice.” So he’s not saying that copying is always bad. But copying without adding something new to the mix lacks meaningful value.
As a writer, I spent many months in the early going aping the styles of other writers I admired. It was instructive to think through how others would approach the same subject matter. It helped me write.
But I’ve also been freelancing since 2005. And it would be a bad sign if I still sounded the same as I did back then.
I believe strongly that you should do your work in public—warts and all—as soon as you can. But it’s important to be trying to do your own stuff instead of being a poor man’s substitute for someone else.
5. Does the Work I Do Today Really Matter?
Your days are finite. One day, they will run out. As a friend of mine likes to say, “You know, the death rate is hovering right around 100%.”
Many people I know spend their entire life trying to avoid this fact. They fill their lives with frantic activity, bouncing from task to task, and no matter how successfully they perform in their work, as they close up shop for the day they are left with the question, “Did the work I did today really matter?”
Now we get to the heart of Die Empty.
It’s all about priorities.
Yes, feeding your kids and keeping a roof over your head are important priorities. No one’s disputing that.
But everything else you do? The brand new cars, the social obligations, the expensive home remodeling? What’s that for? Why are you wasting your time?
It’s the unwritten novels, the unlaunched products, the unstarted businesses that will haunt you on your deathbed.
Your time and your health are not inexhaustible resources. You get a finite allotment of life to do what you are going to do.
“Die Empty” might sound fatalistic, but it’s not—it’s about hope.
The Steve Jobs Rock Tumbler story (as I call it in my head now) does have an ending:
Jobs went on to explain how this metaphor informed how he believed great products were made. He said, “It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these beautiful stones.”
In a culture that seems content to not ask much of us, I think this is a wonderful metaphor for success in the age of agility.
Whether you are a creator or an entrepreneur or both, your best work emerges from the random collisions between your people and your ideas with the marketplace, with reality, and with each other.
Die Empty is ultimately about doing your best work every day to increase the odds that you won’t regret how you spent your time on Earth.
It’s not an easy thing to think about.
But for creators and entrepreneurs, it’s the ultimate vantage point from which to keep your actions in perspective. And it’s the key to unleashing your best work.
Let me know in the comments what you thought of “Die Empty.”
Image adapted from the cover of Die Empty by Portfolio / Penguin Group.