On The Shortness of Life: Life is Long if You Know How to Use It by Seneca

Do you ever feel like there isn’t enough time in the day? At the same time, do you wonder how some people seem to accomplish so much with the same 24 hours? Well, this book, On The Shortness Of Life, by Seneca, gets at the heart of this issue. He says that “life is long, if you know how to use it.”

I think that this book is becoming increasingly important. With today’s technology, it’s nearly impossible to control our own time. With the Facebook news feed, calls and texts, checking email 40 times per day, and countless other push notifications, how much of the day are you actually focused on what YOU want to accomplish? And Seneca wrote this 2,000 years ago. Even without all these modern distractions, he recognized the importance of owning the time that we have.

Here’s a powerful quote that explains it more eloquently than I can: “Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”

Now, let’s remember that he was a philosopher, so he probably spent a lot of his day just sitting around ruminating, perhaps with a glass of wine. So he goes so far as to say that being preoccupied at all is wretched. In other words, we should all be thinking deeply like he.

However, for those of us who consider other pursuits worthwhile, I take this lesson away: If I spend my life doing what someone else tells me to do, I’ll ponder from my deathbed where my life went. This is why I’m such an opponent to the current 9-5 corporate life. If you’ve read my book, I say that I believe “there are two kinds of people in the world: Employees dedicate their lives to someone else’s vision, and entrepreneurs to their own.” Well, I got tired of spending my life on someone else’s vision, and that’s why I became an entrepreneur.

That concept is our first golden nugget today. Own your time. And it’s not just our jobs that steal our time; it’s other people, shows, video games, commute, and tons of others. All of these things are appropriate sometimes, but the key is to be aware of where we’re spending our time. The other golden nuggets we’re going to look at are 1) that we should spend our time on study, 2) we need to balance our lives, and 3) we can’t be paralyzed by fear.

So, let’s start with our studies. Whatever your field is—whatever inspires you, keeps you curious, and sparks passion in your blood—you should devote the majority of your time to. Seneca says that if you do this, you’ll never be bored. He also says that there’s a great shortage of good teachers out there, and I think this holds true today. He says that if you study, you’ll neither be a burden to yourself nor useless to others.

My area of study may be very different than Seneca’s, but I still want to be the best teacher that I can be, and I want to be successful for myself and helpful to others. So, what’s your area of study? Seneca talks about how expertise in any area can still be “obscure virtue.” In other words, there’s still value in teaching people, say juggling, and people who value this skill will follow and learn from you.

Ok, this next nugget is about balancing your life. On one side of the scale, we’re social creatures, and we need to be around other people. This gives us intimacy, love, challenge, competition, and it opens our minds to things we wouldn’t have considered otherwise. On the other side of the scale, we’re intellectual (or maybe spiritual) creatures, and we need time to reflect, calculate, strategize, and understand our values and what’s important to us.

I make a fun connection to an economics term called “complementary goods.” I’ll never forget the example my teacher gave for this: Pizza and beer are complementary goods, because when you have a bite of pizza, it makes you want some beer to wash it down, and when you drink that beer, you want another bite of pizza to get that flavor back. So, that may seem like a bit of a tangent, but my point is this: Social and alone time are complementary to each other. When we’re alone, we crave other people, and vise versa, so we just need to balance this and see the value in both.

The final nugget for today is to not let fear paralyze us. This may sound cliché, but Seneca gets much more specific. He says that, based on the state of the nation or the world that we live in, we should tailor our activities. In a failing state, there’s opportunity for us to help, and in a prosperous state, there’s the tendency for greed to take over.

In either case, though he says that “self-preservation does not entail surpressing oneself.” We need to be careful to not get ourselves in trouble, but we also need to not become like zombies, living dead, just drifting through life and accepting everything as it is and as we’re told. Basically, we need to beat fear and be true to ourselves, even when it’s not easy.

So, today’s summary is just that we need to be aware of where our time is going and spend as much of it as we can on whatever study we choose. The whole fear thing plays a role in everything we do in our lives, and I think that’s one of the reasons most people just settle for the status quo. I urge you to invest time and energy into studies that you think will keep you inspired, curious, and passionate.

Lastly, we come to our exercise! Answer these, and drive these points home! 1) Where are you losing time? 2) Do you need more social or alone time? 3) Where are you sacrificing time out of fear?

I know we’re talking about the shortness of life, but to finish this off, let me just mention the shortness of this book. It’s about 100 very small pages, but the amount of wisdom in it is incredible. A lot of what I talked about today is my interpretation of pages that I’ve read dozens of times, so I encourage you to go grab this book and read for yourself! Also, check out other books and my other book learning videos to learn more. Thanks, and I’ll see you next time!