Apr 28, 2010

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Philip Delves Broughton, a journalist turned MBA, wrote a book called “Ahead of the Curve.” In the book, he recounted his HBS experience with a very unique set of perspectives that I found compelling. In 2009, he wrote a book review in WSJ on the theme of management myths and bad impact that they can have in business. In that piece, Delves referred to Timothy Ferriss as an influential author of “The 4-Hour Work Week.” Ferriss, it turns out, “believes that most of what we need to know about work and life was written down centuries ago by Seneca” and that Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life was practically a required reading among the hip, technology crowd.” Well, that piqued my interest.
It turns out the book is not about efficiency at all (as I was led to believe by Delves’ association of “4-Hour Work Week”). Instead, Seneca writes of timelessness. In particular, his thesis is that people go about lives pursuing all manner of useless and perishable things. For example, if you scurry about making house visits and idling your hours at parties, what have you gained from it? Seneca’s concern there is that people live as if they are ‘destined to live forever … and not notice how much time has already passed by.’ As another illustration, Seneca writes of someone who spends one’s entire life toiling in order to gain a high public office of consulship that lasts but one year. What then?
Well, in Seneca’s mind, the best and wisest use of time is to expand one’s knowledge by spending time reading philosophy, to meditate in one’s mind with the likes of Plato. By doing that, one reaches into past and expands span of one’s life. It is preferable to idly passing time or toiling away ceaselessly.
As I was scurrying about from one Darden social event to another, and as I found myself feeling detached from the noise and din of the crowd at times, I could appreciate Seneca’s wisdom. Then again, I thought that it wasn’t all idle time, and that I was enjoying life with friends. Besides, my friend’s jokes are better than Plato’s.

On the Shortness of Life

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