The answer to this question has, and will continue to fascinate all who are looking for something more from themselves and life. Mainly because there is no definitive one. There tends to be no consistent quality in the lives of the great, except the greatness of their deeds. But if I did have to propose another commonality found amongst all those who live lives beyond the ordinary, it would be this:
The greats have a sense of rapidly diminishing time.
We all understand that we cannot live forever. That our lives are but the briefest flicker of a candle in a vast hall of darkness. But the greats feel this more intensely than the rest of us. For us, death is just a spectre. Something we come face-to-face with in a handful of moments throughout our short lives. But for them, death is a rabid dog, giving chase, panting as it threatens to snap it’s foaming jaws around their legs if they slacken their pace for just a moment.
William Manchester’s The Last Lion is a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. It sits in a category which I call “Majestic Biographies”. It’s only companions, thus far, are Robert Caro’s The Power Broker—a study of Robert Moses—and Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson series. These books are works of incredible depth, astounding breadth and phenomenal power.
In the first volume of The Last Lion, Manchester includes a snippet of a letter Churchill sent to Bourke Cockran whilst imprisoned in the Boer War: “I am 25 today — it is terrible to think how little time remains!”
In a similar vein, I think of the life of Malcolm X, the biographies and the autobiographies I’ve read about him. After being released from prison, the symbols of Malcolm’s life were three. First, a suitcase, for the time he spent on the road speaking and working. Second, a pair of glasses, for the astigmatism he developed reading in semi-darkness in prison. And third, a watch, for the borrowed time he felt he was living on.
Marcus Aurelius was another great man. He was emperor of Rome from A.D. 161—180 and a true philosopher. His Meditations are filled with exhortations to himself on the shortness of time: “Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.” “Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be good.” “Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow ‘or the day after.’ Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was—what difference could it make? Now recognise that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.”
These individuals sensed that their time was short. They felt—not just intellectually, but in the deepest, darkest corners of their being—that the sliver of time allotted to them was not enough to do all that they felt bound to do. But far from sapping their energy, this understanding filled them with purpose. It transformed them into relentless engines of achievement and activity.
Perhaps we can’t feel the same pressure from diminishing time that these people felt. But we can allow it to inform us. We can use their understanding and their conduct to remind ourselves that we have less time than we think, and that when death does comes to us, it will be too soon to have accomplished all that we desire.
Life is a race against time. But it is a race which we cannot win. Yet as certain individuals throughout the annals of history have shown, that does not mean that we have to stop running.