In her Google calendar, Brooke Siem, the co-owner of New York’s Prohibition Bakery, has an appointment scheduled for the very distant future: November 6th, 2069. DEAD, it says on that date, in big block letters. "It’s a Wednesday," says Siem.
To understand what set Siem thinking about her mortality, it helps to go back. "I would describe myself as a realist," she says. "I don’t necessarily wake up and think everything’s all flowery." Siem grew up in Reno, Nevada, with a super-optimistic mother. "She’d skip in the room and say, ‘It’s okay, honey. Everything has a purpose.’" But Siem had a way of taking things to heart. Even if it was over something small, like her teddy bear shrinking in the drying machine, Siem often got stuck in her own head.
A sense of frustration and indecision followed her to college, at Middlebury. She kept toggling through majors. She hesitated to join a sports team, which meant it took her a little longer to find her identity. Then, when she graduated, she cycled through several jobs in food service. She worked at a few top New York restaurants, like Bar Boulud and WD-50, but in each case she only appreciated what was cool about the job after she’d quit. She got out of New York to try her hand at winemaking, didn’t like that, then finally came back and decided that the only gig she could stomach was founding a business of her own.
Yet even as Prohibition Bakery (home of the "boozy cupcake") took off, a sense of malaise lingered. "Nothing satisfied me," she says. "I felt like the business wasn’t growing as fast as I wanted it to. I felt like I was treading water a lot. Any direction I moved, I felt like I kept running up against walls." Meanwhile, the bakery was getting great press, and Siem, still in her twenties, had escaped a 9-5 desk job in New York. She was the envy of her peers. "People were like, ‘That’s so cool.’ I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t I get on board with this idea as much as everyone else?’"
Last year, she began to take her happiness into her own hands. She started doing CrossFit, which opened up a new social world to her. Always curious to explore her artistic side, she "finally went and bought some paper." She started reaching out to old friends, trying "anything I could to make life a bit more colorful." Always the glass-half-empty realist, she says her goals were modest: to feel happy 51% of the time. (After all, "you’re only happy if you’re also sometimes sad," she adds.)
"Before I started CrossFit, I was maybe 15% happy, 85% unhappy." The reforms of 2013 brought her to a place where she began to feel a 35/65 split, or maybe 40/60 on a good day. But something was still missing.
Then, just a few weeks ago, she went on a very fateful date—not because she’s still with the guy ("It wasn’t gonna work out," she says), but because he said something that wound up transforming her outlook on life. Her date casually dropped that he had done the math, and had figured out the year he was projected to die. The conversation swiftly moved to other topics, but Siem’s mind lingered. "It was just one of those ‘aha’ moments," she says. She woke up thinking about life expectancy the next day, and again the day after that.
On the third day, she sat down and did a bit of Googling. She did a search for the average life-span of American women. Then she filled out a survey about some of her habits. They asked about her activity level, whether she smoked or drank, how often she drove, whether the driver was usually male or female ("I don’t know what was going on for that one"), and other questions about family health. Her life expectancy was around 83 years, she found.
She did a bit of math around her own date of birth, then pulled up another website where you could look at a calendar in the distant future, taking into account leap years. Ultimately, she came up with a precise projected date of her own death: Wednesday, November 6, 2069. "I liked the sound of that day," she says with a giggle. "It feels like a good day." So she put it in her Google Calendar.
What surprised her was what happened next. Psychologically, "it was an almost instant change," she says. The next day, she was sitting on the couch in the morning with 45 minutes to spare. Normally, she would have obsessed about all the work she could be doing at that moment. "But I was on my couch, and my dog had her head on my stomach, and I just said, ‘I’m enjoying this moment so much more than I would have 24 hours ago.’" She decided to just sit there and experience it.
It’s a transformation that she’s carried with her into work and beyond. "I’m not as stressed out. I’m still doing the same work, I still want the work to be good—that still matters." At the same time, she has a sense of perspective. "Everything will get done if it needs to get done."
She admits that it’s "a little twisted, I guess," scheduling an appointment with the Grim Reaper. "But just kind of writing that down, having it kind of exist the same way you have any other appointment in life—it reminds you, even subconsciously, that that day is coming. Just having that in the back of my mind makes me think, ‘This is not that big a deal, in the grand scheme of things.’" For years, people had told her to just enjoy the moment. "It never made sense to me, until I put that in the calendar." Then, she thought, "Okay, I get it."
She also learned something about Google Calendar: When you schedule a recurring weekly appointment, it really doesn’t presume an end date for you. Scrolling forward to her fateful Wednesday in distant 2069, she saw that she had other, recurring appointments scheduled for the Thursday after.
"I was like: ‘Oh crap. I’m gonna have to cancel those,’" she says.