Before I Die...

Written By Michael Donahue

A little over five years ago Glenna decided to redo much of the main floor of our home. G was intent on doing what we had been doing for years; including people who visit our home and finding a way for them to leave a bit of themselves, with the belief that this created a sanctuary spirit in our home. She contracted the house painter to cover an entire wall in our kitchen area in black chalkboard paint, so people could answer a simple question with various colors and sizes of chalk.  They only had to consider and answer one question “Before I die I want to...”   use the wall and chalk and their thoughts to fill in the blank.   This has been so widely well received that when we opened our basement apartment as an Airbnb three years ago, we added another wall with the same question and now have the visions, hopes, and dreams from over 200 people who come from all over the world adding onto hundreds more on the first wall.  The youngest author being six years old and the oldest well into her 80’s.

Here are some samples of those visions and dreams...

  • Build an art school in Cameroon
  • Win a Best Director Oscar
  • Grow a garden that creates hundreds of other gardens
  • Ride my bicycle around the world
  • Rhyme in 12 languages (likely to happen)
  • Play guitar on a stage with a band (which happened)
  • Build a home for my mother
  • Meet my grandchildren
  • Create a ruckus
  • See the Cubs win the World Series (they did)
  • Live under a female president (sadly has not happened yet)

I would be remiss to not point out that this last one, Live under a female president, resides in our Airbnb and is the only one to have been altered by someone other than the original author, (a Professor of Economics from San Francisco) as if it is some kind of incitation and needs another’s response.   Sometimes the f and e in female is rubbed out and days later it will be replaced by another guest to read as the original. A female president.  

There is -

  • be calm                                                  
  • be generous
  • be love
  • be daring
  • be bold
  • be wild
  • be free
  • be a mother

And -

  • write a masterpiece
  • write a novel
  • publish a book
  • direct a play
  • visit India
  • travel Europe
  • see the Aurora Borealis
  • climb Everest
  • trek Machu Picchu

And one I love in its simplicity - Live out loud at least once every day. 

Some are in other languages, many could only be called artistic, some the scrawl of a child and others as meticulous and exacting as machinery.  Small, large and medium type. Some shake with trepidation and others majestic in their confidence. Complete sentences, poetry, and one word visions.

And the only two that are repeats? To be a pirate!

You get the picture.

So, for five years I have observed the data grow.  I work at the table that sits under the wall and clean the Airbnb at least twice a week.  I have watched people sneak around the corner to write in anonymity, to people wondering out loud when they are going to be invited to write on the wall as if we must first offer it up to them.  The guests in the apartment have even started to use sticky notes to get their thoughts on the wall or move the microwave so they can find blank space behind it.  The last to write on the home wall was a woman and her three young children, all girls, from ten years of age to as young as six. The question was certainly confrontive, but they whispered to each other like sisters do and found the few spaces in their range that still made space for their own dream or idea.

In the five years that I have stared at the “Before I Die” visions of others, I have come to note only two things are happening.  Desired experiences that scream “I am alive.” To know that we have lived. As well as an overwhelming desire to contribute to others with an emphasis on family. To experience and to influence/contribute.  I am almost always reminded of the quote from Philosopher Robert Nozick we use at BoldLeaders and introduce to all the people we work with.

“We want experiences of profound connection with others, of deep understanding of natural phenomena, of love, of being profoundly moved by music or tragedy, or doing something new and innovative, experiences very different from the bounce and rosiness of the happy moments. What we want, in short, is a life and a self that happiness is a fitting response to and to give it that response.” (Nozick)

In his most recent book, Lost Connections, by Jonathan Hari, he relates the work of Tim Kasser, a professor at Knox College, who studied and wrote on the idea of Intrinsic Value vs. Extrinsic Value. These are two ideas that permeate a great deal of literature, from psychology to economics, philosophy to culture and business. For Kasser, in a simple form, it is the study of materialism and the effects on different cultures and nations. Knowing I have simplified his work, it would go something like this: materialism as a driving force relates to the extrinsic values we hold dear and we have intrinsic values that when focused on, lead to a more connected life. As Nozick (and myself) would declare, these are the experiences beyond the normal bounce-rosiness we generate and would be labeled “happiness.”  A focus on our extrinsic values tends to leave us far less connected and therefore our experience of life may be less happy and even stressful.

As you may imagine, the walls of my home reflect only desired experiences that one would likely and very quickly identify as intrinsic values.  In fact, upon a deep review of the walls I found only one that could be considered extrinsic - “make 1 Billion Dollars.”  Yet I also imagine that could have been generated by a desire to contribute. Most people understand you can’t take it with you!  And maybe, as a response, next to that deceleration was “cause 100,000 smiles with a smile.” 

I have always been struck by the nature of these two walls and their relationship to “experiences” beyond the normal bounce of life, and the clear desire, even possible need to contribute to others.  They connect, and they connect us to the ability to not only envision futures for ourselves and others, they also allow us to confront, even anticipate the challenges those efforts may cause. 

These walls also clearly reflect our desire to be connected and very possibly are laments by the more senior writers that they may have left something behind, disconnected, and the desire to reclaim that connection. 

At BoldLeaders, I was always made aware of the value of the tools that allowed people and myself to experience that they are able to influence their environment.  As the newest member of GForce Strategies, I am also reminded that the mission of GForce is to accelerate results and to have people as well as organizations thrive, both intrinsically as well as extrinsically.  To provide a space for others to experience one’s life as a contribution is certainly worth the Force.

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