Before I Die
Chang took to the streets and painted the side of an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood with chalkboard paint and then stenciled the sentence “Before I die I want to _____________.” She left plenty of chalk so that others could fill in the blanks. Within a day the wall was covered with chalk dreams as neighbors stopped and reflected on their lives. This first project ignited others. Currently, over 600 “Before I Die” walls have been created in over 70 countries. Chang has since given a TED talk about the walls, and photographs of many of the walls have been made into a book.
What’s interesting to me about the walls is how collaborative and contagious the project is. Reading someone else’s response makes you want to write your own. And the responses are profound. Had the wall just said, “I want to _____________,” the responses would have been shallow and smug. But by adding the reference to death, the tone takes on a more creative and beautiful form, removing the risk of self-consciousness about what you are going to write. Death is the great equalizer and helps us stop worrying about ourselves. Death reminds us that in the grand scheme of things, all of us, great and small, will meet the same fate.
Chang’s “Before I die....” question reminds us that death can help us dream. The composer Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Chang’s question helps us with both. It reminds us of both the brevity of life and that we have to get to work chasing our dreams. The sun sets soon, and none of us have enough time. You don’t have enough time. And your time is running out.
Like all of us, you probably feel busy and overwhelmed, but this slice of time is all that you have. You will never have more time than you do right now. The time to live is now. We tend to forget these truths, thinking that we can defer life until another day. Cyril Parkinson explained, “Work swells to the amount of time we give it.” In other words, give a project a week and it will take that long. We give life too much time. Thinking that we have forever, we delay doing what matters most. Squaring off with death reminds us that we do not live by a perpetual clock. And considering your death in the future heightens how you live in the now.