I was compelled to pick up Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman (Amazon) after Derek Sivers said it’s his favorite book of all time. For context, Derek has read 250+ books—so this is quite the recommendation.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a New York Times bestselling author. He heads the Center for Science and Law, serves as an adjunct professor at Stanford University, and is also leading a couple companies.
Sum is so interesting because it combines Eagleman’s expertise on the human condition with his own rich imagination. The end product is technically a work of fiction, but it still makes you wonder “What if?” about reality itself.
Here’s a quick description of the book:
- “Sum is a dazzling exploration of unexpected afterlives—each presented as a vignette that offers a stunning lens through which to see ourselves in the here and now. In one afterlife, you may find that God is the size of a microbe and unaware of your existence. In another version, you work as a background character in other people’s dreams. Or you may find that God is a married couple, or that the universe is running backward, or that you are forced to live out your afterlife with annoying versions of who you could have been.”
A Lifetime by the Numbers — Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman
This post isn’t a full book summary. Instead, we will only look at the first of forty short stories in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. It just so happens that the first short story has the same name as the book’s title (Sum).
If you want to watch / listen to a 4-minute video narration of this short story, here you go:
Here’s how the story starts:
- “In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”
And, here are all the statements from the story. I haven’t changed any of Eagleman’s language—all I’ve done is reorganized the events from longest length of time to shortest.
Here’s the same thing in text:
- 30 Years: Sleeping without opening your eyes
- 3 Years: Swallowing food
- 2 Years: Boredom … staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal
- 18 Months: Waiting in line
- 15 Months: Looking for lost items
- 12 Months: Reading books
- 7 Months: Having sex
- 200 Days: Showering
- 6 Months: Watching commercials
- 5 Months: Flipping through magazines while sitting on a toilet
- 3 Months: Doing laundry
- 67 Days: Heartbreak
- 2 Months: Driving the street in front of your house
- 51 Days: Deciding what to wear
- 6 Weeks: Waiting for a green light
- 5 Weeks: Driving lost
- 34 Days: Longing
- 4 Weeks: Sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time
- 3 Weeks: Realizing you are wrong
- 18 Days: Staring into the refrigerator
- 2 Weeks: Counting money
- 14 Days: Wondering what happens when you die
- 9 Days: Pretending you know what is being talked about
- 6 Days: Clipping your nails
- 5 Days: Working buttons and zippers
- 77 Hours: Confusion
- 3 Days: Calculating restaurant tips
- 2 Days: Lying
- 2 Days: Tying shoelaces
- 27 Hours: You take all your pain at once … Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born
- 15 Hours: Writing your signature
- 7 Hours: Vomiting
- 1 Hour: Realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name
- 14 Minutes: Experiencing pure joy
- 1 Minute: Realizing your body is falling
Here’s how the story ends:
- 4 Minutes: “Wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.”
Some Sum Context & Going a Step Further
I haven’t fact-checked Eagleman’s numbers. Given that it’s a fictional short story, I don’t know that exact numbers are necessarily the point here. Plus, the numbers would be different for each individual because every life is different.
“There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.” — Maria Popova
However, that doesn’t mean we can’t take away lessons from this story that help us live in the real world.
Where are the Missing Numbers?
Regardless of the accuracy of the numbers presented, there is still a huge amount completely missing.
If you were to convert all of Eagleman’s numbers into hours, it would total 369,031 hours.
But, the average lifespan in the US is currently around 79 years old (male and female combined average). 79 years is 28,835 days—or 692,040 hours.
Since Eagleman is accounting for sleep, that means there are 323,009 waking hours unaccounted for here—that’s 13,458 days or almost 37 YEARS.
So, if you got a little depressed reading all his examples—including many that are mundane or even negative uses of time—don’t worry. You have a whopping 37 years of additional waking time to add plenty of good uses of time.
Most people will immediately think of work as how that time is used. A normal career is 40 years long (or 80,000 hours). Even considering work, you still have tons of waking hours remaining.
Start Spending Your Time More Intentionally
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this short story is that it makes you stop and think about how you currently use your time.
While the numbers are presented as a lifetime, all you can do is intentionally design a single day. Those days add up and compound and create a lifetime.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard
Think about how you spend 24 hours. Are there uses of time that you could start using differently?
What do you think? Have you read Sum?
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.
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