ML Cavanaugh
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Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

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If we’re lucky, we’ll all get to turn 40 at some point. My turn’s just around the corner, and at Life’s Great Midpoint, I’ve stumbled across some ideas on how we might count, measure, and value our lives.

Let’s begin by agreeing that the existential tug-of-war so many of us feel at mile marker 40 on life’s highway is the pull between what we are on one end, and what we think we should be on the other.

But why does this come up at 40 years?

Why years? Why not hours? If we instead chose hours to reach the same 40-year-mark, it would take 350,400 hours, which is impressively high. How about minutes? Of course, that’s even higher. A little over 21 million of those.

Or days? It takes 14,610 days to get to 40 years, which isn’t a terribly impressive figure. It would be much cooler if we cared more about days and waited until a little past someone made it to 41 years, because then we’d hit that person’s day number 15,000, a much more satisfying rollover point on life’s odometer.

Having surveyed these units of measure — years versus hours versus minutes versus days — we come to my first landing point for lessons at life’s midpoint. It’s simple and straightforward, and it’s about counting: the two most important life-units are the day and the lifetime.

The day is well-sized. It packs a punch, with enough length in it to make meaningful progress toward life-achievements despite all the mundane and nefarious intrusions heaped on us (i.e. food, sleep, Netflix).

Getting the right unit of measure matters because we can be so penny-wise and pound-foolish. So often we think in moments, which distracts our days. We’ll cut someone off in traffic to save five seconds, or fidget anxiously in every line, but do we ever really think to ourselves — “how will I use this day to advance or enhance my life”?

Days are the Legos of life — by stacking them artfully and arranging them meaningfully — we can leave some legacy for those that will follow us.

Which leads to my second point. Despite what self-help books and gurus tell us, life is all about judging and comparing. It’s just that we too often judge and compare ourselves to others of higher station or wealth, and not with the one individual we should always measure ourselves against: the yesterday version of ourselves.

We should constantly ask: Who was I 24 hours ago? How can I make myself better than that person, for tomorrow? How do I make and remake and remake again myself into the best person/husband/wife/father/mother/brother/sister/writer/runner/friend/leader/supporter I can be? This is the primary mathematical measure we ought to constantly apply to our lives.

And that pursuit leads us to Norman Vincent Peale’s advice to “spend so much time improving yourself that you have no time left to criticize others.”

Of course, the hardest hitting point is how to value a life. It seems like baseball great Jackie Robinson’s famous tombstone inscription still says it best: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

As many important and impressive people I’ve had the privilege of working alongside, bumping into, or observing, the ones that appear most content and happiest are the ones that know who and what they love and how to serve those others. They’ve found True North on life’s compass, and it’s not quite as great and grand as you’d think.

Small over big, their message seems to be: Don’t aim to be famous, aim to be famous to just one person. Don’t try to change the world, change the world for just one person.

It tends to spread like wildfire in the soul, and if you do it right, you’ll find you won’t want to stop with impacting just one person. You’ll move on to the next person that needs your heart-help. And when you serve others, somehow, you serve yourself, too.

It’s taken me around 14,600 days to come to these limited conclusions on counting, measuring, and valuing life.

I’m sure it’ll take the same amount to make some real progress on them, but for now, I think I’ll just start with making today matter.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, a professor of practice with Arizona State University, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, “Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict,” from Potomac Books.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, a professor of practice with Arizona State University, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict, from Potomac Books.

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