A Life-or-Death Question to Start Your Day

My wife Eleanor and I were alone on a three-week kayak expedition in Prince William Sound in Alaska. Eleanor was in college; I had just graduated. We had spent plenty of time in the wilderness but never just the two of us, and never this kind of wilderness. When we landed in Anchorage, I looked around for a currency exchange desk before Eleanor reminded me we were still in the U.S.

Prior to arriving, we prepared meticulously, studying the nautical charts, plotting our route, and practicing our kayaking skills. We paddled into the nastiest surf we could find and then rolled ourselves upside down to see how quickly we could either roll back over or get back in the kayak if we came out. In Prince William Sound, there’s no margin for error. You can survive in the freezing water only four to five minutes.

Now that we were on Prince William Sound, we were thankful for all the preparations we had done. And knowing how quickly the weather changes in Alaska, we had a ritual of precautions we took every morning before pushing the boat off the relative safety of the beach. We carefully packed everything in waterproof bags and placed those bags in the watertight compartments in our boat. We kept all our essentials — VHF radio, sun block, signal mirror, peanut butter, and chocolate chips: the stuff we couldn’t live without — in a dry bag in my kayak cockpit.

And every morning, before we left shore, we asked the same question: If we died today, what mistake would Sea Kayaker magazine get us for?

Before coming to Alaska, I read through the accident reports in every past issue of Sea Kayaker magazine I could get my hands on. The reports identified the mistakes and poor decisions people made that led, more often than I shared with my parents, to their deaths.

One person knew he shouldn’t paddle that day because the weather was bad and the surf was rough, but he had a meeting to get to and didn’t want to miss the ferry home. Well, he missed that ferry and every one since. Another kayaker, on the last day of his trip, didn’t bother to pack his gear in waterproof bags since he didn’t expect to need it. But then a wave hit his boat, and he flipped, and everything got wet. He got back to shore but had nothing to keep him warm, and, eventually, died of hypothermia. Then there was the Outward Bound course that found itself surprised by strong winds and currents off the coast of Baja. Three of the students died.

So each morning, before pushing our kayaks away from shore, I stood there for a few minutes thinking about the day — our plan, the weather, our gear, pull-out points, our skills, challenges we might encounter — and then I asked the question: If we died today, what mistake would Sea Kayaker magazine get us for?

And now, years later, from the safety of my office chair, I still think that’s the right mentality with which to approach each day. The questions are slightly different. The risks are very different. But the idea is the same: are you prepared for this day? For the meetings you have planned? Have you really thought about the work you plan to do? Anticipated the risks that might take you off track? Are you focused on the larger goals you want to achieve? Will your plan for this day bring you one day closer to achieving them? And, finally, if something goes terribly wrong, what mistake would you get yourself for at the end of the day? (See my last post, The Best Way to Use the Last Five Minutes of Your Day, for advice on how to incorporate a five-minute review into your daily routine.)

In Alaska, we completed our trip successfully because we took the time to prepare for each day as if that day was the most important day of our lives. Because, in fact, the risks were great enough that if we had not prepared that way, it might have been the most important day of our lives — the last one.

Why not treat today, given that it’s the only day you’ve got right now, with the same importance?