Book Review: Chasing Daylight

I finished Gene O’Kelly’s book Chasing Daylight in tears. Seeing that this is a highly infrequent occurrence, it says something about the effect this relatively short book had on me. I highly recommend Chasing Daylight to everyone, especially driven business types.

Here’s the Cliff Notes summary of the book, from Chris Yeh’s review:

O’Kelly, then the CEO of KPMG, discovers suddenly that he has inoperable brain cancer, and has around 100 days to live. He sets out to achieve the best death he can by reaching closure in his relationships with colleagues, friends, and family, while documenting his quest in his book.

Here’s more from Brad Feld’s review:

He determines to have the greatest possible existence during those last 100 days, systematically saying goodbye to all the people that have touched his life, trying to have as many “perfect moments” as possible, to live always in the present, and to chronicle the experience of dying as one of his last acts on this planet.

The book spoke to me on a number of levels.

First, it brilliantly captured the common mortality we all share and the classic Type A response to such a realization. If I were told I had 100 days to live, I would do the same as O’Kelly: Pull up Excel and systematically organize how I would want to spend the rest of my existence. This is nothing to be ashamed of.

Second, it reinforced the point we hear time and time again but oft ignore: We spend too much time chasing material successes and pursuing activities which are only a means to an ends and too little time with the people in our life we care about.

Third, it showed how O’Kelly grappled with and ultimately conquered his fear of death. Fearing death is, again, nothing to be ashamed of. What’s admirable is how honestly O’Kelly presents this emotion and the practical insight he offers to grapple with it yourself.

Although I’m sure O’Kelly’s story will rattle around in my head for a long time, this much I know: I will feel grateful when I see the daylight stream through my bedroom window tomorrow morning; I will try to tell the people in my life how important they are to me; I will try to focus more on the present than the distant future; and most important, I will try to remember Jonathan Swift’s immortal words: "May you live every day of your life."

11 comments on “Book Review: Chasing Daylight
  • I think my expectations were a bit too high when I read this book – it didn’t touch me like I expected it too. But I did love this passage:
    “Commitment had come to mean reliability, proving that you’d been there already and promising to be there again. If you gave away huge amounts of your time, then it followed that you had exhibited commitment. If you did not give so much time, then by definition your level of commitment was suspect. Time alone was the bellwether.
    …I had come to wonder about the true nature of commitment. In fact, it’s not about time. It’s not about reliability and predictability. Commitment is about depth. It’s about effort. It’s about passion. It’s about wanting to be in a certain place, and not somewhere else. Of course time is involved; it would be naïve and illogical to suggest otherwise. But commitment is best measured not by the time one is willing to give up but, more accurately, by the energy one wants to put in, by how present one is.”

  • Ben, in your opinion, how does one find the balance between living every day as it’s the last one in your life and not living your life as if you cannot (all of a sudden) die tmrw?..

  • Alexander — That’s a terrific question. I hardly have it figured out. On the one hand, you want to live “each day as if it’s your last”. On the other hand, statistically, you should be alive tomorrow, so adopting such a mentality to the hilt is just plain stupid.

    Let me chew on this some more.

  • Great question from Alexander, and great answer from Ben. I think we all grapple with this one, one way or another.

    Let me work out of what Ben said.

    One part of the puzzle may be keeping death in mind daily. Eventually you should overcome the fear of death, then embrace the reality that it’s going to happen.

    You can then do everything in your life considered in the context of death: every failure becomes a learning lesson, every shortcoming becomes laughable, every situation becomes a gift, when you realize your time here is limited.

    So I think it’s very important to live in the now, to embrace your body, and choose what to do with every day (as I’m sure you already do.) When you make your daily decisions with death in mind, your mind becomes sharpened and you become focused on the things that really matter.

    Do not take out the Excel sheet, and plan the rest of your days, only when you’re certain you’re going to die. Plan the rest of your days so that you can live, because you are going to die.

    “I may die in the next few years, so I’m going to take that trip to my favorite destination.” “I may die in the next few days, so I’m going to go talk to that girl.” “I may die in the next few hours, so I’m going to tell everybody I love them.”

    On the other hand, if you want to think of death daily but do not overcome it, you will lack the focus that can give traction to anything of permanence. This leads to an instant gratification mentality. As Ben said, you should statistically be alive tomorrow. I don’t think it’s good to not write that book, to not start that company, to not have a child, to not embark on a lengthy project, just because “I might die tomorrow.” The key is to cultivate your day so that you think about the possibility of dying tomorrow, but also about the possibility of dying 70 years from now. (James Dean alludes to this in his most famous quote).

    Death is the ultimate time management tool. At one point, I went to ask one of my mentors if he had any books or strategies for time management. Instead, he asked me how old I was, and then counted and multiplied in his head the amount of days I have remaining if I die at 75. Let me tell you, the number is always less than you think (isn’t there a book called “The Number” or something like that that deals with this?) I was never concerned about time management again.

    Because it’s only through the “little” things you do, and the permanent things you do, that you can achieve mastery and fulfillment. When I’m on my deathbed, I want to say, “I didn’t let too many sunsets go without being appreciated, and I didn’t let myself be boggled down by the challenges in creating _________.”

    Let’s hear some more. Good stuff Ben.

  • Note: I don’t recommend counting the days until your death. This can become quite counterproductive and unsettling, especially if someone hasn’t gotten over their issues with death.

    As Eugene demonstrates, you can live more in a few months than in a whole lifetime, so the amount of days should have nothing to do with it. It’s about those precious moments.

  • Now that’s why we celebrate our birthdays. Life’s all about celebrating little incremental wins all along. You can’t possibly give yourself that “one last hurrah” after having done it all because, that is death itself !

    Viewing death as a programmed end of life, as an expiry date, will certainly help us see life in right perspective. At least, we’ll fear it for all the right reasons – to gain a sense of urgency in doing things left undone, giving us a good enough reason not to procrastinate.

    Persistent effort in itself is a joyous experience in the end, and it releases its full reward only when we fail to quit. we’ll realize a sudden surge of happiness coming thro doors we don’t even remember leaving open -and that makes us get the most out of every day we live.

  • So, this book once again proove that we must live as we really want to live and not as we have to want to. Death is the most dreadful occurence of our lives. When a man feels it nearness, he falls into a stupor. But the time goes, the man is getting accustomed to the thought of his death and his willing to proceed with his life overcomes all the other things. Now he starts the new life, a life without fear. He’s no longer afraid of being stupid, funny and unsuccessful. Nothing prevents him from understanding, what he really wants, what makes him happy and content.
    Why knowing all that we can’t allow ourselves to be as we are and enjoy, while death is beyond..?

  • I had a chat my friends over the past weekend about Ben’s post and my “balance” question. Many people seemed to like my rather “logical/methodical” approach to finding that balance, so I decided to share it here (as I don’t have any blog – yet).

    I suggested to live one day every month (or, say, one week every six months) as if that day/week is the last one in your life. That way you can “sample” how that feels and get a chance to make a better decision as to how much of that “stuff” you want to do on a more regular basis.

    It’s will not give a true “representation” though: you cannot “demo” meeting someone truly for the last time in your life, but treating that meeting as such is better than not meeting at all.

  • Actually, Brad Feld is already doing smth similar, albeit for a different reason. I think at least such a pre-determined “disconnection” from our daily routine is a great way to recharge the batteries, clear our minds, re-value/re-adjust the focus and ponder on life in general (hm, I don’t think, though, Brad does a lot of “general pondering”, but then he wouldn’t have become who he is, in terms of life achievements 🙂

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