Seneca’s Reminder to Get Stuff Done

As I was waking up this morning and getting my coffee going, I was thinking about some things that I have recently needed to do, but have not worked on. I’m usually not too much of a procrastinator, but a few things have slipped by the last couple of weeks. A quote from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic returned to me this morning with perfect timing.

 

Seneca wrote, “Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” There are a couple of things I would like to work on, but that I have not managed to prioritize in my life. I continuously end up feeling more pressure as I delay what I intend to do and waste time with things that I like but that I know are not as valuable. Seneca’s quote, I hope, will help me refocus where my attention is and what my priorities are.

 

Seneca is one of the Big Three in Stoicism which generally focuses on being present in the moment through building our self-awareness. When we take a moment to really think about where we are, what our situation is, what we are doing, how we are feeling, and what pressures we or others have placed on ourselves, we can understand ourselves and approach the world more objectively. This type of self-awareness can become a feedback loop that helps us set our priorities and identify what is working well and what is not working well in our lives. Self-awareness and a well grounded sense of presence can help us separate from the story we tell about who we are and refocus on the daily actions we can take to move forward in the best way possible.

 

Seneca’s advice is not anything special, but if you consider his advice within the larger stoic context of self-awareness and presence, you can see that he is correct. We continuously have less  time left in our lives to do the things we want or to make the world a better place. We can spend our time doing easy and self-serving activities, or we can take advantage of the time we have now to do the things that matter to make our lives and the lives of others better. The choice is ours and with some attention and focus we can make the most of the situation we find ourselves in.

Overly Reliant on Outside Influences

One of the draws that I have toward stoicism is the idea that both good things and bad things will happen around me, but that I can always decide whether something is good or bad and how I will move forward from the good things and bad things that happen around me. My reactions are something I can control even if I can’t control the weather, the person who cut me off on the freeway, or the economic downturn that sinks my business. In stoicism, I have found a set of tools for objectively viewing the world and developing an inner ability of focus and calmness.

One of the authors who taught me a lot about stoicism is Colin Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be is a somewhat stoic look at the forces in our lives that shape the people we are becoming and how we can respond to those forces to become people who are well equipped to do the important things to help society become a better place. In one chapter of his book, Wright highlights an idea that many companies, industries, and professionals in American society now operate on a business model based on making us feel small. The business model positions the company, coach, or set of coaches as the only thing that can take us from where we are to where we want to go. Wright references certain types of gyms, certain health restaurants, and in some cases our coaches, mentors, or guides from the self-help world. In his book he writes, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with self-improvement. … But I am saying that when we become overly reliant on outside influences, encouragement, and incentives in how we feel about ourselves, we open ourselves up to abuse and mistreatment. We open ourselves up to being manipulated.”

Business models that rely on customers becoming reliant on them put us in a position where we cannot walk away. Their goal may seem like it is to provide great kick-boxing workouts or to help motivate people to get in shape and make good decisions, but what is really happening is the development of a cycle of dependency and the development of personal identities that don’t operate without the business at the center providing the affirmation that one is living properly, doing the right things to be healthy, and taking the right steps for a validated life. Stoic philosophy turns this business model on its head by suggesting that we already have all the means within the faculties of our minds to be fulfilled. We don’t need to tie our self-value and self-worth to the praise of another person. It is not up to money, social status, or the number of mornings at the gym which determine whether we are living the right life. We have value by virtue of being a human being and we can use tools around us to improve our health, try to reach out goals, or build a community of like-minded individuals, but we don’t have to tie our entire identity and value as a human to these industries in order to define ourselves and become valuable and meaningful.

The Struggle of Great Work

Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy helped me really understand the benefits of getting away from habits, thoughts, and behaviors that serve to boost the ego. His writing has helped me better think through my desires and the actions I take to reach those desires. Focusing on my ego and understanding the destructive nature of egotistical goals has helped me to be more content and to think about what I pursue in a more sound manner.

 

One quote in Holiday’s book that stood out to me is about how challenging it is to do great work. In the past I have written about my childhood spending too much time watching TV and how that gave me a false sense of what success looked and felt like. I had an idea of what it looked like and felt like to be successful and pursue success that was based on made-up stories that took place over a 30 minute or one hour show. Holiday’s book helped me develop a better perspective. He writes, “Doing great work is a struggle. It’s draining, it’s demoralizing, its frightening–not always, but it can feel that way when we’re deep in the middle of it.”

 

My biggest criticism of TV shows and movies is that the hard part for the main character, the part that transforms them, the part where their grit pushes them to the great opportunity, the big battle, and the defining moment of the movie, is glossed over with some motivational sound track. In the Pursuit of Happiness we see Will Smith working his ass off in short 30 second spurts — he answers the phone like a boss, shows up early, and does all the right things and it looks easy and rewarding. In countless movies our hero works out, writes that article, somehow climbs up their metaphorical mountain, but that is never what the movie is about or what the focus is on. In our own lives however, that daily grid, the hard work, the transformation before the big moment is everything. It is never cut up into short clips to the tune of Eye of the Tiger.

 

Hearing from Holiday that meaningful work doesn’t always feel meaningful is helpful for me. It is reassuring to hear from people that I look up to that the bad days for them are as bad as they are for me. It is helpful to hear that others have been frightened as they try something they know might not really work out. Our ego hates these situations because we feel that if we fail publicly it will reflect something about us. Overcoming this piece of our ego is critical and accepting that the hard work will be frustrating and challenging can help us be more prepared for the journey ahead and to have more realistic expectations about the work we want to achieve. Looking at the ways our ego pushes us to pursue things we don’t really want or need also helps us better align our goals to make the hard work more meaningful and worthwhile. Getting away from an ego drive to have more things to impress more people allows us to be more content in the moments of hard work and grit.

Persist and Resist

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday writes about the ways in which our mindset can shape the goals we set for ourselves and the daily actions we take to reach those goals. Holiday encourages us to set our mind on the long-term future and to avoid being pulled about by our short-term successes and failures. Following the advice of great Stoic thinkers of the past, he looks at our challenges and encourages us to apply our skills in accomplishing what we need, and to continually work on our patience so that we do not burn out in the short run. He quotes Epictetus in the following passage,

 

“Remember and remind yourself of a phrase favored by Epictetus: “Persist and resist.” Persist in your efforts. Resist giving in to distraction, discouragement, or disorder.”

 

By continually pressing agains the negative and preparing ourselves so that we can always overcome our challenges, we can reach the success, milestones, and goals we desire. Part of the key, as discussed by Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds is not to just visualize the success we will achieve, but to be honest about our future journey and visualize the challenges we will face. We should not let a wall of negativity overwhelm us in our thinking, but we should also not be blind to the challenges we will face and wander in a mist of naivety. By planning for our challenges and visualize how we will overcome obstacles we will be far more likely to act according to our goals and mission.

 

If we can work on visualizing how we will succeed, then it can become easier to persist and resist. Understanding the challenges that will be faced will help drive us forward and keep us moving when we hit difficult times. Learning to keep our minds free from distractions will help us be more successful along our path, and help us focus on what is important over the long run rather.

Feeling our Emotions

Ryan Holiday addresses a common misperception of stoicism in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, when he addresses ideas surrounding our emotions and how we handle our emotions. I think people often associate stoicism with a lack of emotion, and will describe people as being stoic when they respond to emotional situations like reactionless statues. I think there is merit to the idea that people who follow stoicism don’t show emotion, but I think it is often taken to the extreme in people’s mind. Not showing wild emotion swings becomes conflated with not having or feeling any emotion at all, and in Holiday’s writing the curtain is pulled back to give us a new view of how we can react to our inner feelings, and to give us new perspective on the thoughts and minds of those we call stoic in turbulent times.

Holiday writes, “Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.” Holiday’s quick quote shows that stoics and people who practice stoicism are not simply stones without emotion. Rather than being voids without feelings, Holiday presents an image of someone who is self-aware and capable of managing and controlling their emotions. Stoics have practiced this ability over time, recognizing their feelings, channeling their passion in productive ways, and choosing how they will use their emotions. Often we don’t see these people as having any emotion because we do not see the visible emotional outbursts that are common on television shows and socially encouraged at sporting events.

Holiday takes the idea of feeling emotion a step further in his book. He does not simply explain that people who follow the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and other stoics feel emotions, he explains that people who practice self-awareness and recognize the ways their emotions drive their behaviors experience better outcomes in life than those who allow themselves to be driven by the impulses of their emotional states. Further, Holiday writes that stoics feel their emotions quite strongly, and that they do not ignore their emotions. He encourages his readers to explore and to feel their emotions, but he does so in a way that is constructive and provides us the opportunity to learn and grow from our current state. By using our emotions and being aware of them we can channel our energy into truly productive directions. The failure to recognize and the failure to understand our emotions leaves us in a place of no direction.  When we assume that we should not feel one way or another, and when we strive to be without emotion, we leave a valuable part of ourselves behind.

Seeing Opportunity

In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday explains the ways in which we can take our thoughts and ideas and build new paths from the challenges we face. By using the obstacles we face to grow and learn we build our own paths to become the best people we can be.  Holiday uses Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor in the second century, as an example of growing and becoming a more well rounded individual by facing the obstacles in our lives. Speaking of Aurelius he discussed the many challenges he faced as emperor from a major plague, betrayal from his allies, and working alongside his step-brother-co-emperor who was greedy and incompetent. Amidst all these challenges Aurelius sought reason, clarity, and self-improvement, and Holiday writes, “From what we know, he truly saw each and every one of these obstacles as an opportunity to practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity.”

 

Faced with challenges Aurelius did not blame others or complain about his luck. He never wondered why he faced such obstacles when others did not, and through self-reflection and practices of awareness, he was able to see the commonality of struggle in the lives of all people.

 

Aurelius was an ardent stoic, believing that he held the ultimate power over the faculties of his mind, allowing his thoughts to be strong, his intentions to be unwavering, and his reason to be sound in all situations.  The recognition that no one controls our thoughts, and that we can control our opinions and reactions to the world gives us the strength that we need to face our challenges. When we lament over the difficulties we face and decide that the obstacles are too great, we limit our future and prevent ourselves from growing. Looking at that which blocks our path and learning to shoulder our burdens opens new possibilities for us. Facing our challenges and learning to adapt to them makes us more capable of succeeding in the world.

Impediments to Action

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, Ryan Holiday looks at how we can reach our goals and find success in the face of hardship. Holiday focuses on the challenges we face, how we can overcome those challenges, and how the act of surpassing obstacles shapes us into better people. He follows in the tradition of stoic philosophers focusing on building mental fortitude through awareness and reflection, placing the control of our ability to overcome impediments in our own hands, or more accurately, in our own minds. Holiday begins his book by quoting Marcus Aurelius,

 

“Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

 

Holiday continues, interpreting the short paragraph, “In Marcus’s words is the secret to an art known as turning obstacles upside down. To act with a “reverse clause,” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go. So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.”

 

His writing focuses on how we can grow and find new opportunities when we change the way we look at obstacles. Aurelius recognized that obstacles and impediments created opportunities for those who were brave enough and creative enough to approach them rather than run from them. Holiday explains that perseverance and a unique approach to the world can turn new opportunities into defining moments. When we see a challenge we should not back away from it, but we should study that obstacle and work to fully understand what we are presented with and what it would look like to overcome it.

 

By facing challenges and striving to reach the other end of the path we grow and develop a greater understanding of the world. We may not always be successful in our actions, but we can still learn and grow. Our path forward will be defined by the lessons we learn and the skills we develop by scaling the mountains that block our path.