A Lesson from Seneca on Life

Recently I have been reading the writing’s of Seneca, a popular stoic written during the Roman era. I have read the writings several time before but reading it again and again has always give me new perspective, that is the reason I recommend people to read the same book every two years, because our experience during those period may provide us with different way of thinking.

One message that is clear throughout Seneca’s writing is that most human waste their time on unnecessary preoccupation and activities. It’s not that we are given a short time, but rather we waste those time unwisely. Let’s take a very common example in our daily life, when we are faced with a project that we deemed as difficult and time consuming, it is our nature to delay doing the project. We often make planning on when we will do it, but when the time comes, we defer doing the project to tomorrow. In my own experience recently, I often distract myself with social media and reading email instead of studying for an exam. Such activities are counterproductive and hinder our progress to finish the main task at hand.

Now let’s look at the broader application to life in general. Sometimes I look at people like a drunken sailor, who keeps on rowing their boat (life) without first setting a direction on where they want to go. They may say things like,”wherever I arrive, that’s where I am destined to go”. No wonder that some of us are living a life in the same way we have been living in the past several years. It is important to have a goal to be achieved and a timetable for its completion, without it, our life is like a boat floating on the ocean. Very few times, the wind is favourable and bring us to a beautiful island. Most of the time, however, we are just floating on the water until our time is up.

Seneca also teach about having a balanced life, in social setting and in private life. A man  busy with daily occupation may be so absorbed to his job, as if it worth his whole life. When retirement comes, he find it meaningless to live since he is not useful to anyone. But it couldn’t be further from the truth, in fact he may find enjoyment in his solitude, a luxury he may not be able to obtained in his work. True, he may not be as functional to public service as he was, but public service is not limited to a formal position. Teaching a children kindness, manner, and other social work also counts as public service.

In short, his writing teaches me to:

  • Have a plan for life, what I want to achieve and when
  • Make a plan for achieving those goals, and do what it takes to achieve them without procrastinating when a task is due
  • Have a balanced life in both social and private setting. We never know when our time is up, so it is best to enjoy every day as if it is our last, while working as if we will live forever.

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”
― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life


About Journeyman

A global macro analyst with over four years experience in the financial market, the author began his career as an equity analyst before transitioning to macro research focusing on Emerging Markets at a well-known independent research firm. He read voraciously, spending most of his free time following The Economist magazine and reading topics on finance and self-improvement. When off duty, he works part-time for Getty Images, taking pictures from all over the globe. To date, he has over 1200 pictures over 35 countries being sold through the company.
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