Seneca’s Cliff and You

My heart attack didn’t kill me, so why act like it did? See, Tim, it was the Roman philosopher Seneca who said “if we let things terrify us, then life is not worth living.” – Home Improvement

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There is nothing that says “I’m never giving up” like a stop sign duct taped to a lamp post.

Back in 2011, I was reading Italian chemistry professor Ugo Bardi’s blog (LINK) and was struck by his quoting of the dead Roman, Seneca, who wrote that “increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”  I know it sounds like he’s writing about Adam Sandler’s acting career, but in reality, Seneca’s talking about everything, and it struck me as a universally applicable truth:

Everything that can be built, is built relatively slowly fighting entropy all the way.

And when it’s built?

The greater the effort, the higher it has risen, the faster it falls.

This is especially true when it comes to organizations – large companies that have been in business for decades close up in an afternoon.  Sears was founded in 1893, 114 years ago.  It became larger and larger over time until in the 1980’s it encompassed not only its department store business (the last remaining bits today) but also the Discover Card, Allstate Insurance, Land’s End, among other brands.

Today?  It’s (possibly) worth less than a handful of magic beans.  Nearly certainly by 2020 Sears will be just an answer to a trivia question.

And if you look at life, you see the same pattern again and again, that progress in your own life is built up only slowly, mainly over the course of years.  And losing it?  It’s a precarious balance, and (sadly) in the end all of our Jenga™ blocks fall down.

That was one of Seneca’s other lessons – you absolutely know that your blocks are going to fall over, and, most importantly, the blocks don’t care.  There will be a time when you will lose.  A business venture might fail, a book might not end well, or a blog post might be much shorter than you’d usually expect (this is foreshadowing).

In my personal life, I’ve seen this happen again and again – when I was first out of college and working for a big company, I put in 80 hour weeks for nine months to build a project – the biggest that company had ever built up to that time.  They bulldozed it fifteen years later – and I assure you it was done in a month and a half – it came down a lot quicker than it went up.

After I got my Master’s I put all the notes, all the disks, and everything associated with my thesis in the fireplace.  It was May, but I still put a match to it, willing to pay for the air conditioning just to give my academic career a Viking funeral.  It was over.  The months of research, the months of writing, all up in a matter of 20 minutes.

But, perhaps, Seneca might have been a bit wrong.  He spent his life building his ideas.  And we’re still talking about them today.  Perhaps there is a force that defies entropy – that can withstand ages.

Perhaps it is those very ideas.

And Adam Sandler’s hair.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.