Something extraordinary happened last week. One of my favorite thinkers, and a self-proclaimed “human guinea pig” aka Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, gave away freely three volumes of pdf version of some of the most remarkable Stoic writing, starring Lucius Annaeus Seneca or Seneca the Younger. Seneca was born circa 4 BC in present day Spain, and grew up to be one of the most towering figures in the ancient Rome. From being a Nero’s advisor, successful playwright, one of the wealthiest people in the Roman empire, until he was being exiled to the island of Corsica for eight years on the premises of supposed adultery with the emperor’s niece; Seneca had experienced the sweet taste of success and the bitter taste of failure.
In this first volume of the book titled The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master, there is a letter that shifted the way I think about the value of time. Written centuries ago for Seneca’s friend, Lucilious, the substance of this letter is timely and timeless, reminding us that our time in this world is very short and yet most people are squandering it as if it were replaceable. This letter is a poignant reminder of what we know so deeply but chronically fail to put into practice.
“Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius–set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.”
Seneca was absolutely correct when he said, “Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach”. Sometimes we have tried to protect our time but once in a while something beyond our control steals it from our possession. It is normal and occurs all the time. However, Seneca, extracting exclusively from the core of stoicism, wanted us to think critically about the distinction between the things that we can control and we cannot control. Stoicism, the school of Hellenistic philosophy that was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, teaches us to accept what we cannot change, and control what we can control–ourselves and our responses.
Touching on humans’ chronic habit to procrastinate, Seneca wrote:
“Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. 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.”
Thinking differently than Seneca, Adam Grant, one of the most influential management thinkers of the 21st century, has counter-intuitive thoughts on the topic of procrastination. In his recent remarkable book titled Originals: How Non-comformists Move The World argued that “strategic procrastination” is necessary to formulate more creative ideas.
Grant, one of Fast Company’s 100 most creative people in business, wrote:
“Along with providing time to generate novel ideas, procrastination has another benefit: it keeps us open to improvisation. When we plan well in advance, we often stick to the structure we’ve created, closing the door to creative possibilities that might spring into our fields of vision.”
In another page of the book, Grant wrote:
“Great originals are great procrastinators, but they do not skip planning altogether. They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities.”
His video below from Ted-Talk is a worth to watch.
Returning to our main topic, Seneca, he continued to speak about humans’ chronic habit to waste time. It is funny to ponder that we, humans, are heavily obsessed with protecting our replaceable material possessions such as cars, money, phones, from being lost and stolen. The irony is we are rarely thinking of protecting the most precious and irreplaceable resource that we have, which is our time.
“Nothing, Lucilious, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity–time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.”
Seneca, just like the rest of human beings, was far from perfect, but he knew how to articulate his imperfection. The rest of the letter he spoke about his own failure to be in control of his own time and continued to offer his unshakeable truth about the value of time to his dear friend, Lucilious. He wrote:
“You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practicing. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of may who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.
What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.”