Momento Mori

10-07 Store Shrines  005 Remember your mortality. That’s what the Latin phrase “momento mori” means.  It’s also the message behind  some significant art produced over the centuries.  In earlier times, the artists were not always subtle about their message regarding the inevitability of death.  They simply added a skull or another example of decaying nature to the portrait or still life they were painting.  Over the years, we’ve come to understand this symbolism when we see it.  However, nothing in art history prepared me for the symbolism of the post-it note.

We were walking to dinner late Friday night when I saw something odd on a nearby storefront:  post-it notes plastered on the store’s windows.  Below, some candles and flowers.  It was only when I got closer that I realized the store was an Apple store and the post-it notes were a tribute to Steve Jobs. Some of the sentiments expressed were trite, but all were heartfelt. The body language of the people gathered outside the store was telling as well — quiet, thoughtful, somber — they were trying to assess the scope of the loss.

Steve Jobs wasn’t coy about death.  In his famous Stanford commencement speech he told us that death had been a constant companion since he was 17-years old and read a life-altering quotation:  “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”  Jobs continues:

It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: `If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been `No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

In Jobs’ view, it was vitally important to love what you do:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Stephen Wolfram wrote a very personal tribute to Jobs in which he made the following observation about his friend:

In my life, I have had the good fortune to interact with all sorts of talented people. To me, Steve Jobs stands out most for his clarity of thought. Over and over again he took complex situations, understood their essence, and used that understanding to make a bold definitive move, often in a completely unexpected direction.

Clarity of thought, doing what he loved, being passionately committed to excellence.  These are the hallmarks of this influential man.

It’s easy to think about this now and then shove it away in a drawer until another public figure dies too young.  However, that would be to do great disservice to the man and to the message.  For myself, I suspect that whenever I see a post-it note, I’ll be reminded of why it’s important to do great work, to do work that I love.

The post-it note is designed to adhere and re-adhere without leaving a residue.  It is used to capture the ephemeral.  It is not meant to last forever. It’s meant for now.  On reflection, perhaps it is a very suitable medium for momento mori in the modern age.


You owe it to yourself to take a few minutes and watch this video of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech.  (His remarks start at the 7:30 minute mark.) I’ve also provided links below to the text of his speech and some additional materials.



Text:  (courtesy of National Public Radio)



[Photo Credit: Pelcinary]




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