Playing the long game vs living every day like it’s your last

Go about every action as thy last action

Marcus Aurelius

The conundrum between dreaming big versus having zero expectations has bothered me for a long time. Alongside it is a similar conundrum: playing the long game versus living every day like it’s your last.

Stoics are obsessed with death. Their philosophy is gaining momentum in my generation. While Seneca and Marcus Aurelius’ renouncing of worldly possessions seems at least to some degree hypocritical, their reasoning is so clear and sound, it’s infectious. Seth Godin’s recent blog asked about the things we do every day: what if it is the last time we are doing them?

Living every day like it’s your last sounds good on many levels. You surely aren’t going to do anything you will be ashamed of – anything that  you won’t feel that you’ve enough time to make up for. It is easier to perceive everything as having consequence. This is the key – people are drawn to anything that has meaning. This essay by Kevin Simler discusses what it is that gives us the feeling of meaning. He argues that it is consequence. For example, a wedding has a lot of consequences, hence, it is meaningful. On the other hand, standing in a queue for your coffee seems to be inconsequential, hence, it lacks meaning. It seems that millennials are especially drawn to meaning. Victor Frankl argues that meaning is the one thing that makes a difference in our lives.

stoic philosophy vs nihilism

Living life as if you have a gun to your head has a few advantages. You won’t delay. You will only focus on what’s important. You will take bigger risks.

While meaning is enhanced through this “every day is your last” philosophy, there are vast parts of life that are annihilated by it. If today is your last day, surely, you won’t be starting any projects that involve huge uncertainty – even if you feel it is the right thing to do. You won’t put yourself in positions of leadership where everything depends on you. It is just like making an investment decision. You certainly won’t be signing up with a pension fund if you are believe in Stoicism! On a more practical level, even I think that I might die within the next 3 years, it leads me to make decisions that are short-term. It’s hard to be creative when you think that your life is nearly over. It’s hard to have patience and keep investing into things that take time to develop.

There is another reason why Stoic philosophy has become popular in my generation. It’s easily confused with nihilism. Stoics portray dealing with luck as a pointless affair. Almost everything, except getting to understand yourself is pointless according to Stoics. Nihilism is a delightfully comfortable place. If nothing matters, one can stop striving – and no longer feel the pain of striving. And we all love a good painkiller. Floating downstream has nothing to do with Stoic philosophy, however.

Ultimately, Stoics want the best of both worlds. They urge us to live every day like it is the last while making investment decisions that will impact generations.


I can’t keep track of each fallen robin

Apparently, we all die twice. Once, when our hearts stop beating, and a second time, when somebody mentions us for the last time. Leonard Cohen left us today. I am not sad because his powerful legacy will live on.

I was 17 when I heard Rufus Wainwright’s cover of Hallelujah. I may not have even found out about Cohen had it not been for Wainwright. Maybe covers aren’t such a bad idea after all. Here’s to many more.

Stoics on anxiety

Seneca repeats some form of this thought throughout his letter: it is the most ridiculous thing to be defeated by the fear of defeat.

Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble, – which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is indeed foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.

Men are so thoughtless, nay, so mad, that some, through fear of death, force themselves to die.

Seneca claims that there are two options. Whatever you fear will either be insignificant – and you will make it through, or it will be short lived – because you don’t survive it.

You will thus understand that what you fear is either insignificant or short-lived

Stoics reflect on death a lot. Death is the ultimate worst case scenario – and it’s not that bad, according to Seneca:

Death is so little to be feared that through its good offices nothing is to be feared.

Seneca advocates that we take unmask what we are actually fearing. I believe this is his was to say: what is the worst that can happen?

Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear. That you see happening to boys happens also to ourselves, who are only slightly bigger boys: when those whom they love, with whom they daily associate, with whom they play, appear with masks on, the boys are frightened out of their wits. We should strip the mask, not only from men, but from things, and restore to each object its own aspect.

Stoics on death

Stoics have a fascinating attitude to death. They advocate not fearing it. Having taken on this attitude, I can say that it is remarkably liberating. The fear of death is one of our most important evolutionary guiding forces. Avoiding death is intrinsic in everything our brains do. Somehow, coming to terms with the reality of inevitable death, makes it easier to live. Seneca often portrays death as the ultimate liberation. It is the event that frees once soul from all the difficulties of having a body: pain, disease, being at the will of luck. Once death has occurred, one can no longer be ill, be persecuted, tortured, etc. In a sense his answer to “What is the worst that can happen?” is “Death”, only that in and of itself, isn’t nearly that bad:

Death is so little to be feared that through its good offices nothing is to be feared.

According to Seneca, death isn’t a discrete event. It happens over time:

We do not suddenly fall on death, but advance towards it by slight degrees; we die every day.

For every day a little of our life is taken from us; even when we are growing, our life is on the wane. We lose our childhood, then our boyhood, and then our youth. Counting even yesterday, all past time is lost time; the very day which we are now spending is shared between ourselves and death. It is not the last drop that empties the water-clock, but all that which previously has flowed out.

Seneca points out the need for balance. The point isn’t that people have to crave death because they hate life, but rather they shouldn’t fear death.

The grave and wise man… should avoid the weakness which has taken possession of so many, – the lust for death.

Stoics on wanting

Your greatest difficulty is with yourself; for you are your own stumbling-block. You do not know what you want. 

Deciding what one wants is an incredibly important – according to all philosophers. The word goals has come into our lingo in a new way in the last 10 years.

Seneca remarks on the importance of deciding on one thing rather than wavering. At the same time he acknowledges that to demand absolute consistency would be an unreachably perfect standard to set:

Men do not know what they wish, except at the actual moment of wishing; no man ever decided once and for all to desire or to refuse. Judgment varies from day to day, and changes to the opposite, making many a man pass his life in a kind of game. Press on, therefore, as you have begun; perhaps you will be led to perfection

For men who leap from one purpose to another, or do not even leap but are carried over by a sort of hazard, – how can such wavering and unstable persons possess any good that is fixed and lasting?

I do not say that the philosopher can always keep the same pace. But he can always travel the same path.

Do you ask me what this real good is, and whence it derives? I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path.

“It is bothersome always to be beginning life.” Or another, which will perhaps express the meaning better: “They live ill who are always beginning to live.” It is because the life of such persons is always incomplete.

Not knowing what one wants is incredibly damaging according to Seneca. It leads to a reactionary life.

There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river. And of these objects, some are held back by sluggish waters and are transported gently; others are torn along by a more violent current; some, which are nearest the bank, are left there as the current slackens; and others are carried out to sea by the onrush of the stream. Therefore, we should decide what we wish, and abide by the decision.

Seneca spoke about the value of expectations and desires. This is a really tough one. On the one hand, life becomes easier when you drop your expectations, which is what the following quote is about. However, does this mean dropping your standards? I think a better interpretation would be losing a sense of entitlement that luck and external circumstances owe you anything. I think Seneca means that rather than finding satisfaction in attaining external goals, happiness should come from within. In other words, the goals you set shouldn’t relate to things like living in a house of x sq. footage and having y dollars in the bank, but rather becoming a certain kind of person.

“If you wish,” said he, “to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.” This idea is too clear to need explanation, and too clever to need reinforcement. There is, however, one point on which I would warn you, – not to consider that this statement applies only to riches; its value will be the same, no matter how you apply it. “If you wish to make Pythocles honourable, do not add to his honours, but subtract from his desires”; “if you wish Pythocles to have pleasure for ever, do not add to his pleasures, but subtract from his desires”; “if you wish to make Pythocles an old man, filling his life to the full, do not add to his years, but subtract from his desires.”

Stoics on happiness

Seneca felt that happiness comes from within. It is impossible to be happy while relying on luck and external circumstances. In other words, happiness shouldn’t be conditional on anything outside of your control.

Do you ask what is the foundation of a sound mind? It is, not to find joy in useless things. I said that it was the foundation; it is really the pinnacle.

We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in the control of external circumstances.

Seneca acknowledges that feeling joy that doesn’t come from external circumstances may not come naturally:

Above all, make this your business: learn how to feel joy.

I do not wish you ever to be deprived of gladness. I would have it born in your house; and it is born there, if only it be inside of you. I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you.

Furthermore, the kind of joy that arises from outside tends to lead to sorrow:

Pleasure, unless it has been kept within bounds, tends to rush headlong into the abyss of sorrow.

Mindfulness: moving on from guided meditations

After a while, guided meditations seem irrelevant. They are a great starting point. Perhaps for a year or so. After that, it’s kind of annoying when somebody interrupts you. How are you meant to focus on your breath if you have someone’s voice lecturing you on what you should and shouldn’t be feeling? It’s distracting. After about six months to a year, it seems like it is time to up the game.

moving on from guided meditation

But how do you remain focused? Meditating without any guidance can also be tough. I think it’s a good idea to follow Pavlov’s advice here. Create a ritual. Do it the same way every day. In theory, this helps to get into the same mood and should ease meditation. For example, I have a cup of matcha first thing in the morning, sit down on my cushion in the same spot in the room and practice.

It will also take more intense focus in the absence of guidance. Rather than just focusing on the breath, it is better to focus on something more particular – like the feeling in the chest, the throat or the nose.

Lastly, it is not like once you move on from guided meditations, you can’t go back. You surely can and should. With so many varieties of meditation, so many podcasts and approaches, it helps to keep it fresh.

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