Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker’s weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.
This week’s selection comes from Lucius Annaeus Seneca in his enlightening essay On the Shortness of Life. He suggests you be wary of unchecked ambition and the endless pursuit of success:
“So, when you see a man repeatedly taking up the robe of office, or a name well known in public, don’t envy him: those trappings are bought at the cost of life. For one year to be dated by their name, they will waste all their own years. Life deserts some of them amid their first struggles, before the arduous climb up to the peak of their ambition. Some, after they have clambered up through a thousand indignities to arrive at the crowning dignity, are assailed by the wretched thought that all their toil has been for an inscription on an epitaph.”
What It Means
When you see incredibly “successful” people in the media, Seneca says you shouldn’t be jealous of them. For them to get where they are, they probably had to sacrifice many things in their life — like love, family, health, virtue, or even happiness itself. To have only one year in the limelight could cost an entire life of simple contentedness. Besides, not everyone who tries to climb to the top makes it very far. Most fail as soon as they encounter their first big challenge. A few make it to the very top, it’s true, but, as Seneca puts it, they may realise it was all for nothing but an inscription on their gravestone.
What to Take From It
What is it you want out of your career? Your life? Do you know what your enough is? It’s not easy to define, but it’s something you should think about from time to time to keep yourself on track. Your time here is the most precious resource you have, and your actions are what will ultimately define you, so take care not to waste them in pursuit of some form of success that will do nothing for your happiness or the happiness of the people you care about. Remember, success means different things for different people.
You don’t need to avoid ambition completely; some is fine. But if you’re not careful, the looming specter of blind ambition — the kind that can never be satisfied — will take every single moment of your irreplaceable time. Banish it while you can, or one day it might look you in the eyes as you lie on your deathbed and smile as it takes what’s left.
Strive to do better, to be better, but know there’s a difference between living your best life, finding your version of success, and pursuing endless glory, fame, and affluence. The former can earn you comfort and contentedness, the latter will waste you away until you’re nothing but a sentence describing what you did for a living.
You can read all of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life for free here.
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