If in Doubt, Take the Deathbed Test

Sometimes we must refer decisions to the deathbed test. In a moment of complete hindsight, the dying you may have some important thoughts to share.

It begins on a bed that’s not my own. My body feels different. It’s mine, that’s for sure – but I’m lighter, my skin battle-hardened and my bones weary. Through half-shut eyes, the vaguest outlines sit beside me. They offer up no faces, nor voices, but I feel it in the room. It’s drenched with their sadness.

I know why they’re here, of course. My body feels it; the room screams it. But my mind has relented. I’m no longer under the clutches of gut-wrenching worry. That moment has arrived.

Everything to this point was far from as I’d imagined: the physical pain of age, the gradual loss of faculties, the palpable agony of loved ones. What we conjure up from healthy-bodied imagination can scarcely contemplate the devastation.

But at last I’ve reached a point on which I’d demonstrated extraordinary prescience. As all the weight of worry dissipates, and as I accept the stark reality of my fate, that moment gladly arrives.

It’s lucidity unlike anything I’ve ever felt. Memories cut through like vivid film scenes. The good, the bad and the ugly confront me, dusted off from some long-forgotten neurological archives. It is the most profound system of reflection one can imagine. Reflections upon which it really is too late to do anything about.

But I’m too tired to feel regret. I’m too accepting to confabulate a different version of events. This is my absolute truth. Today I’m going to die.

What is the deathbed test?

The deathbed test takes us to a scene just like this one. We have lived our lives and are faced with a final moment of clarity and reflection before darkness falls. The big decisions confront us like spectres in the night. And there on that bed, with the benefit of our most complete hindsight, we objectively determine what was a good use of our life and what wasn’t.

As we come back to the present, we ask ourselves a simple question to guide a choice: What will I think of this decision on my deathbed?

The deathbed test in action

Back in December 2018, I set an expiry date for my corporate job. By the time I’m 35 in 2025, I will quit corporate life for good.

This target is unnegotiable. Why? Because I put it under the scrutiny of the deathbed test.

I took myself an unknown time forward to that bed and that moment of stark reflection. As I stared out of my office window, the rain crashing down outside, I asked myself how I’d view that use of time on my deathbed. The answer still terrifies me.

But though it terrifies me, I think the dying me will give the living me some slack. I don’t think I’ll be riddled with regret for spending 12 years in corporate life getting my house in order financially – that’s so long as enjoy my life while I’m doing it.

The scale of regret if I go beyond that, however, will be immeasurable. I simply cannot and will not go further than 2025. The dying me won’t permit it. I know without a shred of doubt that in that moment of final reflection I’d regret it.

The deathbed test is the simple reason why I won’t play it safe. There are too many lost opportunities and memories in doing so. The routine, the shallow work, the slow and steady – I know I’d die regretting it. I need space in my life for creative ventures, for the unpredictable, for successes and even failures, for new networks, new stimulus, new thoughts.

If it’s a choice between the predictability of doing someone else’s paper-pushing or the unpredictably of starting with my own blank piece of paper, I know which one I’ll regret.

You are not bound to a path

To some, of course, this idea is absurd. It’s unrealistic fantasy, predicated on some dreamy millennial YOLO mentality. “Quit at 35! How could they possibly do that? Get real.”

Others simply lament the waste. After all the hours of studying and career progression, they can’t understand why I’d throw it away. “You’ve put in all this effort to get to this level. Why waste all that future salary potential by quitting?”

These are views bound to a path they’ve chosen. Nobody is bound to a path.

Is it an unrealistic fantasy? No. I have a plan. My expiry date is an outcome of the deathbed test and the carefully considered financials. It’s not a perfect plan – far from it. But while it would be advantageous to quit having achieved financial independence, it’s not essential. What is essential is that I’m able to free up considerable time through accumulated wealth.

Is it a waste quitting at 35? Of course not. The time and effort I have invested to this point will have financed my decision. To base a future decision on a past investment is simply the sunk cost fallacy in action. And it also ignores what I’ll be doing instead.

And what of the opportunity cost? If I stayed on, I could progress to a senior level, comfortably financing a retirement that would be considered early. But so what? I don’t want to ‘retire’, per se, nor do I want the senior corporate life. I want the freedom to choose – in short, to be my own boss.

When faced with something that doesn’t conform with the get-a-degree, get-a-corporate-job, get-promoted, get-married, have-kids narrative, conformers – from whom there is much to admire – freak out. But there is no right way of doing life. None of us are bound to a path we’ve chosen.

Use the deathbed test wisely

That moment of reflection on the deathbed is unlikely to consider what you had for lunch on 27th February 2014 or what you did at work on 15th December 2015, unless they brought about life-changing consequences.

It would be stupid, inefficient and darn-right depressing, therefore, to take all our decisions using the deathbed test. Instead, the deathbed test should focus on decisions that affect a significant proportion of our time or have the capacity to produce long-lasting memories.

So use the test when it matters. When that decision arrives, visualise the scene I set out at the beginning of this post. Ask the dying you a simple question: Do you regret it?

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