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072 - On Business As A Distraction - Moral Letters for Modern Times

It is impatience in business affairs, as much as in life, that leads us to be distracted from potentially more valuable pursuits.
View of Brighton pier from the beach - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

There is a feeling I’ve had more than once lately, Deuteros, and it is an unwelcome one even though I know I bring it fully upon myself. You ask me a question and I recognize the topic, I am familiar with the issue, and I know I have worked on it at length before. But I do not recall enough of the answer to feel confident that I should speak without refreshing my memory.

Once not long past I had all my thoughts firmly about my person, available for ready use at a moment’s notice, “without a thought,” so to speak. Now I fear that I am shedding recollections like cats and dogs shed their hair: carelessly, profligately. I have scattered behind me a steady trail of thoughts in WIKI entries, chats, emails, memos, and one-pagers. Like Hansel and Gretel thinking their breadcrumbs would remain untouched such that they could retrace their steps, I am probably wrong to assume I will be able to call indefinitely upon my own markers to recall my state of mind when I created them.

Thus I will not answer your latest question off the top of my head. I need consultation with my crumbs before I can reply to you, my dear Deuteros. I trust you are not so impatient as to require an immediate response, in which case I would have to rely on my gut rather than my head.

It is impatience in business affairs, as much as in life, that leads us to be distracted from potentially more valuable pursuits. There is always something urgent clamoring for our attention and often enough we are confronted with a perceived or actual crisis that crowds out everything else. When our hair is on fire, it seems only natural to postpone all that is not urgent and tend to the flames, but this runs the risk of forever keeping us from attending to that which is important.

To be the director of your own play, to stage your own actions rather than being danced about like a marionette on invisible strings, this seems like the greatest luxury to the busy worker. It is a kind of torture to feel pulled by events toward actions you would otherwise not have chosen to pursue. All the more so when you are aware of the time lost from your studies in pursuit of a well-ordered mind. I think this is why so many give up trying to control the turbulent flow of work that streams into their office. To fight against the current is a herculean task, and not one that many can maintain for long.

“I already know what you’re going to say,” I can hear you sigh. But do not despair, Deuteros, for my message today is not one of hardship and sacrifice, or at least not toil without end. Yes, it is true I do not counsel you to “go with the flow,” because this carries you only to places you do not wish to go. But nor will I urge you to swim upstream. Rather, turn your gaze to either shore of the river, and start to make your way to dry ground.

Though you are still being carried along by the raging waters, you can swim the short distance to the shore. What awaits you on the banks? Nothing more than the realization that though you do not recall diving or being pushed into the water, no one and nothing forces you to stay in and drown.

You can be content by not competing for the same carnival prizes that all your companions scramble after. Your happiness need not be related to your busyness, or your success in business. Your possessions need number little more than your self-possession. If your mind is the motor that propels you along in life, your reason is the rudder that helps you steer around obstacles and put safely into port.

Would you scape off barnacles, scrub the decks spotless, and maintain everything on your boat except the motor? Would you be eager to board a charter when you observed no one’s hand was on the rudder? Why then do you think you’ll be well served in responding to every urgency of business when this prevents you from the all-important business of maintaining your mind?

Rather than praying for a drought to dry up the stream of your desires, take seriously the duties of captain and carefully steer your ship away from useless wants and groundless fears. The Coast Guard is not coming to save you, Deuteros, you must save yourself by setting yourself free. If you will allow me to stretch the analogy a bit more: you save yourself by donning the life vest of philosophy, grasping tight to the lessons we have been discussing lest you lose the progress you have made.

If you feel at this moment like you would rather slip under the waters if only it meant you would not need to hear me urging you on, then use the words of Naval Ravikant instead of my own as the lighthouse to guide your way:

I value freedom above everything else. All kinds of freedom: freedom to do what I want, freedom from things I don’t want to do, freedom from my own emotions or things that may disturb my peace.

I value you too much, Deuteros, to let you go unaided. I will continue to offer my assistance for so long as I am able.

Be well.

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