What YOLO Means

Much as I hate acronyms, one that has wedged its way into common parlance is YOLO. It stands for You Only Live Once. What it means is open to interpretation – by me at least.

Is YOLO a mindset, a lifestyle, or a philosophy? It’s a slippery concept, one that can mean many things to many people. I can think of at least four different ways it is used, some of which I can see as being good.

The first group of YOLO-ers are those who hear You Only Live Once and take it as a dare. These are the adrenaline junkies. They pursue extreme sports, pushing the boundaries of what is sport and what is a death wish. Base-jumping, for example – parachuting from a high cliff or mesa, or even a building. There is no reserve parachute, probably because there isn’t time to use one before making that hard landing. Some people don’t even bother with the parachute, relying instead on a “wingsuit,” something that makes the jumper look like a flying squirrel. Injury or death is a very real possibility. In fact, it is considered the world’s most dangerous sport.

(People who engage in pursuits such as base-jumping and heli-skiing – jumping from a helicopter to begin a back-country ski run – are a bit different from the people who receive Darwin Awards for accidentally removing themselves from the gene pool by causing their own deaths in spectacularly stupid ways. One, for example, was a man who took literally his martial arts instructor’s statement about being able to fight lions. But I digress.)

I don’t understand these people. They only live once, and maybe not very long at that.

Then there are people who believe that You Only Live Once, so they try to cram as many experiences as possible into that one life. These are the people with dozens of pursuits and hobbies, who try out new ones so quickly that their friends can’t keep up with them all. They may shift from computer games to hot air ballooning to scuba diving to photography to whatever comes next. Or the ones who dabble in poetry, astronomy, musical instruments, martial arts, and horseback riding.

They may not become experts at any of these pursuits, but that’s not the point. The point is to try out a lot of different sorts of activities. They may be adrenaline afficiandos, but stop short of being junkies. Activities that could become extreme like bungee jumping are done with supervision and safety equipment.

I like people like this. They have the best stories and the best conversation. They only live once, but they live it with variety and gusto.

There are also people who believe that You Only Live Once and want to make sure that that one life lasts as long as possible. They eat right and exercise. They believe in moderation. They walk or jog five miles a day. They live by various diet philosophies and take lots of vitamins.

I do admire these people. They have dedication, stamina, and determination that I simply don’t. They do the things a person should do. Many of them even enjoy it, rather than viewing it as self-denial and a chore. They can, of course, be thwarted in their quest for longevity by genetics, accidents not of their own making, the eventual onset of old age (though perhaps later than the rest of us experience it), or diseases like various cancers that have no respect for how healthy you’ve been in the past.

But the kind of YOLO-ers I find most interesting and laudable are those who believe that, because they have only one life to live, want to do as much as they can to affect the lives of others.

Teachers, firefighters, and those in the helping professions. Blood donors, librarians, and philanthropists of every stripe. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, good neighbors. Those who care. Those who listen. Those who contribute. Those who share life, make it better, and keep it going. Even people who sacrifice their lives for the sake of others.

These are the people who really know what it means to only live once, and to make the most of it.

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