The conversation was inevitable. Tensions were high and coming to a head. The current path was no longer conducive for both of us to walk.
As with most everything else I do in my life, I visualize the way I think it will go down. Will I be able to keep my emotions in check? Can I stay calm? And if it comes to blows… Okay, maybe that is a little far, but one must be prepared, right?
Visualization turns to obsession. Obsession becomes neuroticism. Blood pressure rises in anticipation. Anticipation results in a loss of productivity, and then later, in a loss of sleep. And like many conversations I have imagined in the past, this one never happened.
I am an old man and I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
The fantasy I have created in my mind results in a reality of needless suffering. Anxiety for an unknown future is silly. Just like the good times, I have found a way to survive the bad times. Usually, I came out fine, maybe even a little stronger. Did I need to suffer in advance? Did the suffering change the event looming on the horizon? Did the event even happen? The answer is obvious and yet, I continue the same preposterous ritual of premature suffering.
The future has not arrived. I can prepare for the future by building my anxiety, running through countless possible scenarios, and then exacerbating the threat by giving it more attention than it deserves. Or I can prepare by doing the work required of me in the present moment. The activities of today demand my attention. The victories in the here and now are the stepping-stones that will see me through tomorrow. I cannot cross the bridge of the unknown until I arrive at the threshold.
He suffers more than is necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.
Seneca, Letter #98: On the Fickleness of Fortune
Twain and Seneca provide the proof that I am not the only one anxious about future events. There may even be a chance that we are in the same predicament. If so, then I implore you to turn to the present and let the events of tomorrow rest until they become the events of today. Prepare for tomorrow by attending to the work required of you today.
I get chills when I open with that sentence. Too often, I use it. So much I should have done, could have done, or would have done. Gazing in the mirror of the mind’s past, I see the wrong turns, the balls dropped, and the opportunities missed.
Things without remedy, should be without regard; what is done, is done.
There is no going back. To study history is to learn from the past, not to rewrite it. We learn in the hopes of not repeating the same mistakes. Experience is a wound not to be reopened. We let the scars of our shortcomings heal. The marks remind us to either go a different direction or to be more skillful in our next attempt. To stay in the past is to reopen the wounds of our mistakes and allow them to fester. Therefore, we must move forward.
But not too far.
Yet, I cannot help but go there anyway. I gaze at the clouds and see only the silver linings. I believe I can touch them. My excitement for tomorrow’s victories is so great that I relish the hit of dopamine flooding my brain. This intoxication, sublime in its fantasy, carries me on wings to the greatest heights. I could stay in this bliss forever, which means I must leave it with all haste. This drug, this dream, is beautiful. But it is an addictive trap that will keep me from where I belong.
The greatest obstacle to living is expectation, which depends on tomorrow and wastes today.
I hit play on the music. Again, I meditate. A daily practice that I fear I will never master. I want to go to the past. I long to explore the future. I belong in the present. Here is where I exist yet spend the least amount of time. The present is where my scars lead my footsteps. My actions bring me closer to the clouds I envision. If I cannot stay in the present, my hopes of the future will remain as only hope—distant, ephemeral, and without substance. My work can only be done in the present.
From the Greco/Roman world are the Stoics. I love reading the words of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. The core tenets are simple in their message but often challenging to uphold. Most everything comes down to our perception. What is in our control and what is not? If it is in our control, we should handle it. If it is not, we should not let it bother us. For those looking to live a virtuous life, their writings should be a staple in their personal libraries.
Then came the transcendentalists of the 1800’s. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and James Allen are some of my favorites in this group. In its simplest form, I call these the believers and achievers. If we can dream it, we can accomplish it.
Next, came the ones from the last hundred years to our present day. I’ll call them the Self-Helpers. My favorites in this group are Dale Carnegie, Jim Rohn, Jocko Willink, and Jordan B. Peterson. They came along in an age when their works could be digested in other media forms than only books. We can listen to their speeches and watch their videos (at least the more modern ones). Their works are more accessible than any in history who came before them.
Pick up the list of the philosophers; that very act will compel you to wake up, when you see how many men have been working for your benefit.
Seneca, Letter #39: On Noble Aspirations
Our list of favorite philosophers/influencers may be different, but they also have one great similarity. They have all been working for our benefit. Their combined works spans thousands of hours of research and wisdom, and all of it created for our benefit. We would be foolish to let their works go unrealized.
Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When you don’t know what harbor you’re aiming for, no wind is the right wind.
Whether it is at the beginning of the year, at the end, or somewhere in between, the act of creating goals is one of the great separators between the high-performers and the rest of the field. It doesn’t matter your age or station in life. If you want to get ahead, it starts with goals. Obviously, that is not enough. It is only a starting point. Keep in mind these words from Sir Francis Drake: There must be a beginning to any great matter – But the continuing unto to the end, until it be thoroughly finished, yields the true glory.
So, you have yourself a goal to get better at something that is holding you back. Accomplishing this goal will understandably change your life. What should be the first step?
As my dad used to say, no one becomes an astronaut by accident. Luck has little to do with achievement, as a study cited in Success magazine makes clear. In the study, researchers asked Yale’s class of 1953 a number of questions. Three had to do with goals:
-Have you set goals?
-Have you written them down?
-Do you have a plan to accomplish them?
It turned out that only 3 percent of the Yale class had written down their goals, with a plan of action to achieve them. Thirteen percent had goals but had not written them down. Fully 84 percent had no specific goals at all, other than to “enjoy themselves.” In 1973, when the same class was resurveyed, the differences between the goal setters and everyone else were stunning. The 13 percent who had goals that were not in writing were earning, on average, twice as much as the 84 percent of students who had no goals at all. But most surprising of all, the 3 percent who had written their goals down were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97 percent of graduates combined!
Writing down your goals could put you in the top 3%. That is an elite level. Being in the top 3% in any sport would almost guarantee an induction into a Hall of Fame. In any business sector, a top 3 percenter goes together with being a top earner. Imagine being at the top of the list of authors, entrepreneurs, or leaders. How about being a top 3% father or mother? Natural talent will only get a person so far. The rest is a combination of smart work and hard work. if we want our plans to bear fruit, we must have an aiming point.
Time to get smart,
Or rather it is time to develop some S.M.A.R.T. goals.
On a piece of paper, write down what you want your goal to be. Then define it using the S.M.A.R.T. method. When you are done, hang it up or put it somewhere that will serve as a daily reminder. Congratulations! You now have a higher probability of achieving your goal. Your chances of success have just increased exponentially.
To do more for the world than the world does for you—that is success.
Personal goals are fantastic for getting you from point A to point B. However, personal goals only serve the individual making the goal. Altruistic goals on the other hand, benefit not only the goal creator but others. If we are truly interested in finding success, we must consider goals that do more for others than ourselves.
Enlightenment. What does it mean and how do we get there? And if we find it, what happens next?
If we attain that which we desire, it will do us no good to sit back on our laurels and retire from the world. Enlightenment, like any other quest, should go beyond ourselves. If it does not help others, what is the purpose?
Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.
Zen Kōan (A Zen Story)
Chop wood and carry water. The only difficulty is in the labor. But as time passes and the labor is performed, the body and mind adapt. The process develops muscular endurance and strength. Muscle memory recognizes the actions needed and the nervous system improves. The body becomes efficient in the task. Reaching enlightenment does not change the scope of the work. The wood still needs to be chopped. The water must be carried.
The metal is heated to the highest temperature required for it to become malleable. If it is cooled, then the metal cannot be shaped. The solution is to keep the metal hot.
When one is heated to the highest degree, one must have continued heat to maintain the highest temperature.
-Seneca, Letter #109: On the Fellowship of Wise Men
The ideal scenario is that we came out of the previous year better than we started it. We developed habits (think of muscle memory) that served us. We adapted and adjusted to the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) that our external environment threw at us. Ideally, we are in prime form. Maybe, we have even found enlightenment along the way.
What do we do now?
We maintain the heat. It is our only choice. If we become comfortable and remove the heat, then we will become stiff and not be able to mold into our true shapes. Therefore, we must continue the work. We must perform the labor no matter how far we think we have come. Chop wood, carry water. Just like we did in previous days, so must we continue to do so today and into the future.
There are some things my son does that drives me crazy. He is too old to be exhibiting certain behaviors. Why is he not maturing at the pace I expected?
I remember a day at the beach. My best friend, his dog, and I on a rather secluded Florida beach. While my friend and his dog played in the sand, I sat in the surf staring off into the distance. This was my sanctuary, my place to become one with nature. We were both around thirty years old. There I was with all my stoic reserve as he played like a child. He even told me I should do it. I wanted to, but unfortunately, I forgot how. I grew past that stage and felt silly even considering it.
Hang on to your youthful enthusiasm…you’ll be able to use them better when you’re older.
I thought I had lost that youthful enthusiasm. Reconnecting with it comes and goes these days. When it does come, I have the joy of a long-lost childhood. All my worries dissipate. I hope my son never loses his childlike enthusiasm. I hope my frustration isn’t so visible that it deters him from his play. Once it is gone, it is difficult to regain. Alec, hold onto it. Don’t let it go and don’t let me be the one to stop you.
I will keep constant watch over myself, and, most usefully, will put each day up for review.
When I don’t write in my journal, I forget. What I did and what I failed to do will be an afterthought until I repeat it again in the future.
For a time, I got tired of writing in my journal. It felt like I was writing the same things over and over. If I put something on my list and didn’t complete it, it would end up back on the list. I was making zero progress.
I should have kept writing it down. I should have kept on until I made the decision to do something about it. I could have completed it or found a way to break it down. Could have, but instead, I stopped one of the more important practices I should be doing.
How noble and good everyone could be if at the end of the day they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day, and …certainly accomplish a great deal.
How much farther along could we go if we put each day up for review? Not only would it make us better, but it would also allow us to better serve others, which happens to be one of the most important jobs we should be doing.
There was a time when food was just food. If you were hungry, your goal was to satisfy it. It didn’t matter if it was meat, vegetables, or bread. What mattered was removing the emptiness in the belly.
Nature had a way of providing what we needed. Granted, we had to work for it, often barely making do. But as a species, we survived. We took what we could get in the season we were in.
He who has much desires more—a proof that he has not yet acquired enough; but he who has enough has attained that which never fell to the rich man’s lot—a stopping-point.
Seneca, Letter 119: On Nature as Our Best Provider
Somewhere along the timeline, we changed. No longer were we content with what Nature gave us. We wanted more. We wanted to fill our plates to overflowing going back for seconds and thirds. We wanted every day to be a feast day gorging ourselves beyond what Nature intended.
There is therefore no advice—and of such advice no one can have too much—which I would rather give you than this: that you should measure all things by the demands of Nature; for these demands can be satisfied either without cost or else very cheaply.
Hunger is not ambitious; it is quite satisfied to come to an end; nor does it care very much what food brings it to an end.
Seneca, Letter 119: On Nature as Our Best Provider
We became pickier. No longer was it enough to just have food, we had to have it on the Fine China so our guests could see how well-to-do we were. We insisted on the delicacies, the fancy pastries, and the decadent desserts. Nature provided what we needed; it gave us a limit. Yet we broke the limit and went from need to want. And when nature no longer provided what we wanted, we in our arrogance said we could do better. Therefore, we added to it, we modified it, and even politicized it. That which was natural became unnatural. And the consequences? One doesn’t have to look far. The planet suffers just like our bodies suffer.
There was a time when we worshipped the sun. Now, we eschew it for artificial light.
A time when the cures for our illnesses was found in plants instead of the pharmaceuticals we use today.
A time when God was at the forefront rather than science.
How Much is Enough?
Our appetites extend beyond food. When it comes to money, are we content with what is enough or do we want more? The same with our houses, cars, and gadgets. Seneca answered the question to what the proper limits to one’s wealth by stating, “First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”
The Builder of the universe, who laid down for us the laws of life, provided that we should exist in well-being, but not in luxury.
Seneca, Letter 119: On Nature as Our Best Provider
Is our planet and our bodies beyond saving? No. Not if we start correcting our course. Saving the planet will be a collective effort most likely not seen in for generations. But for our bodies, we can begin today. We can make better choices. We can establish the proper limits going back to what we need and limiting what we want.
It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun.
A happy life. Seneca said it is only possible for the person who studies wisdom. Why is that? Wisdom may not make a person perfect, but it is the pinnacle at the top of the mountain. To study wisdom is to climb the mountain. And as it increases over time, the student learns to avoid foolish mistakes in both words and deeds.
Solomon also said the one who finds wisdom is happy, that her profits are greater than monetary wealth (Proverbs 3:13-15). Money comes and goes, but wisdom, once attained, doesn’t flee. It doesn’t fluctuate based on speculation, inflation, or corruption.
The acquisition of wisdom is a journey that improves and makes life endurable.
This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones. You must persevere, must develop new strength by continuous study, until that which is only a good inclination becomes a good settled purpose.
Daily reflection. One must take the time to measure progress. The most effective way is to do it daily. Is there a better way to do this self-examination than by journaling?
One of my favorite podcasts is Ben Greenfield Fitness, one of the best shows to learn about human optimization, ancestral living, and biohacking. Check out step #3 from Ben’s evening journaling practice.
As you breathe, for anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes, begin to visualize your day. During this time, I recommend you replay your entire day in your mind like a movie, watching yourself in the third person and identifying what you have done well, what you could have done better, and where you felt most self-actualized and connected to your purpose statement. Watching the character of yourself in your mind, in the third person, ask yourself what you aren’t rooting for the character to do, or wishing they’d done differently, or where they failed and learned. Ask yourself what you are proud of that character doing and how you really see them acting their best. Finally, ask yourself where that person seemed most “in the flow” and doing exactly what seems to be the very reason they are in the movie in the first place. As you play the movie in your mind, stop when necessary and write down in the journal what you have done well, what you could have done better, and when or where you lived your life’s purpose.
Examine yourself; scrutinize and observe yourself in divers ways; but mark, before all else, whether it is in philosophy or merely in life itself that you have made progress.
When I first began journaling, I would write down the events of the day. It was a non-value-added list of bullet points. After a while, I became bored with it as I was not reflecting on a deeper level. Now I try to look at the day from multiple angles. How did I perceive myself in those actions? How did others possibly perceive my actions? What actions brought my life closer to my goals in life? What did I do to not only improve my life but the lives of those around me? What were my good deeds and how can I improve on my bad ones?
Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind.
The purpose of philosophy. It is the user’s manual on how we should live. Nobody cares whether I memorized the lawn mower’s user manual. But if it is their grass that I am cutting, they do care whether I can operate the mower. The same with philosophy. To quote others and study for the sake of knowledge only does no good. Henry David Thoreau said, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” I must do more than just study philosophy, I must practice it. I must be a philosopher.
Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy.
Wisdom leads to making good choices. It leads to a happy life. Through daily reflection we can refine our choices in the hopes of preventing the bad ones. Those bad choices are available to us constantly. How do prevent them? We turn to our user’s manual. We turn to philosophy.
Become a person of value offering something the world wants
There are many ways to avoid poverty. Does that guarantee people from ever experiencing it? No, but considering the ways to avoid it and putting those ways into action can reduce one’s chances of poverty.
How about death? What can we do to protect ourselves from it?
This is an interesting question. We know the man with the sickle is going to reap his harvest. No one escapes death, but how many of us will die long before we ever take our last breath?
Here are one’s best protection against dying before one’s soul truly departs from the body:
Reduction of bad stress
Consumption of real food
Growing the heart. Not the ticker that is a part of the strong, healthy body one is creating, but the one known as the soul. This can be achieved by practicing bravery and kindness.
Outside of poverty and death, there are other misfortunes that can cross our lives. Some in and some out of our control. How do we deal with relationships gone wrong, bad luck, bad draws, and injustice? We must find the things in our control and work on them. And for the ones outside of our control? We must learn to navigate those waters as well and work around them the best we can.
There is so much we must do to fortify ourselves against the hardships of life. We don’t have to solve them all today. But for true peace of mind, we must figure out what they are.
Today, I am going to take a moment and think about this. When I have gathered my list, I am going to pick one and work on it. Just one at a time is enough. Done daily, I may be able build a nearly impregnable fortress.