In Case You Are Too Busy To Read This (Newsletter 007)
Greetings friends. James Bellerjeau here.
That was me not too not long ago. Busy, busy with the pressing needs of the day. Rushing from one priority to the next, putting out a never-ending string of fires. This hyperactive phase lasted decades for me. I don't mean to suggest I never had quieter times, or time off. Just that the pervading sense was typically one of "too much to do, not enough time in the day to get everything done."
In that mindset, I became a master at avoiding distractions. If it wasn't related to my work and my priorities, I had no place for it in my life:
- Friends and socializing outside of work: gone.
- Meeting up or interacting with high school or university colleagues: cut.
- Sharing developments in people's lives on social media: forget about it.
Amidst this exorcising of what I thought were non-essentials, I at least continued reading widely. I told myself that most topics could have some relevance to work. And indeed a disproportionate number of my better work ideas did come from something I read. But reading is a solitary pursuit. While it's true there is a direct connection for a time between you and the author that can feel quite intimate, it is a one-way connection, fleeting in time.
Napoleon is supposed to have said:
The practice of law sharpens the mind by making it narrow.
At least for me, this may have been true. So I became sharp, and in my sharpness cut away all that did not contribute to my goals. Only now, like a nomad coming upon a flowering oasis after wandering in the barren desert, do I find that I have been forsaking some of the things that make life rich and meaningful.
Having recently rejoined the great, teeming flow, I also realize that many people do not find the same approach I took necessary at all. That is, they manage to be productive at work and maintain healthy social networks. As such, I feel I have a few acknowledgments and apologies to make:
To my friends from school, be it the Aramco International School in Dhahran, the American School of the Hague, Clark University, Universität Trier, Albany Law School, or Rensselaer Polytech Institute: hello.
To Joe, Andrew, Scott, Randy, Erek, Mirabelle, Ann, Christian, Kostas, Joel, and too many more to mention: hello, and sorry I have been absent for so long. I understand if you've moved on, but I hope you haven't.
How do I square this newfound realization with Seneca's advice to avoid drawing attention to yourself? That is the theme of Letter 014 On Keeping A Low Profile
I don't think we should take advice from anyone, no matter how wise or well-meaning, as unquestioned wisdom to be applied without independent thought. If I am trying to do anything with the Moral Letters, it is to encourage you to think for yourself. Do I think the Stoics had some deep insights that are still valid? Yes indeed. But does everything they say (or I say) apply to everyone equally? I think not.
So which is it? Mingle with people or shun them? Embrace your fellow humanity by interacting with friends, or find your perfect wisdom in perfect solitude? On more careful reading, I think it is safe to conclude that some people are better for you to surround yourself with than others. Indeed, one way you can acquire new habits is to spend time with others who already practice them.
Now that I am leaving my self-imposed hermitage, I admit this makes me nervous. Good for me then that I've got Letter 013 On Anxiety to call upon for guidance.
I gave a colleague some advice recently about the importance of recognizing our inner emotions and feelings, and then not letting them control our actions. It is useful to know when we are scared, or angry, or sad. Then take that emotion and let it inform your actions. "This is bugging me. It will keep on bugging me until I do something about it. So what am I going to do about it?" Do not act mindlessly in response to your emotion, but let your emotion inform your actions.
What you may learn is that you are not your emotions, and you can choose how to respond in a given situation. You can choose to keep doing something, or to stop doing something.
Politics is a topic that generates both anxiety and emotions for many people. When it seems like there are fault lines running right through the middle of society, it can be helpful to remember how many things we fundamentally agree on.
And if you were too busy to read this letter, but nonetheless made it this far, congratulations! You can also choose to be as measured every hour of the day as you like. The pressures of your job and your life are real, but how you feel inside is more within your control.
Figuring out how to grab the reins of that control is a habit worth working on. If you stick with me, we'll work on it together.