Discover more from Letters from a Zeneca
Letter 33: On The Shortness Of Life
Death, Stoicism, Time, and Living
Recent unfortunate events have made me take stock and evaluate my life. Our beloved dog sadly, tragically, unexpectedly passed away last week. She was too young. She was family. It was sudden. It was shocking. It was saddening. It was gut wrenching. It was heartbreaking. It was the worst day of my life, by far. But, it was life. And life goes on.
It happened, literally, 20 minutes before I was to head to the airport to make a permanent move overseas, relocating from Munich to Dubai. I was all packed. Ready to go. One last walky. You know what they say.
This last week has been harrowing. But, life goes on. We all grieve in different ways. Writing is one such way for me.
As I have been digging deep to try and find whatever tools I have within me to help me navigate these times, I found myself thinking back to something I wrote exactly one year ago today: Infinite Regret. It remains my most popular piece of writing, and it’s the one I am most proud of.
Infinite Regret was about attempting to align our emotions with our actions, and not with the outcome of those actions. It was very money-centric, and spoke a lot about the regret of losing a lot of money, or almost making a lot of money, or not making as much as you could have, etc. Money was just the conduit I was using to convey the underlying message, which dates back thousands of years to the Stoics:
This is my north star, and has allowed me to navigate these difficult times. Being able to apply this logic to your life and way of thinking is the greatest life hack of all time. The OG life hack, if you will. Not every idea that survives thousands of years is worth giving credence to, but this one is.
You absolutely and unequivocally cannot control what is going to happen to you in life. You might think that you can, but you cannot. The ONLY thing we have true control over are our thoughts/actions, and how we react to external events.
The most eloquent, modern day explanation of this that I’ve come across is a college commencement speech by David Foster Wallace: This is Water. I encourage everyone to watch the whole thing, and then rewatch it often. I do.
The tl;dr (and I hesitate to give one, because I really want everyone to watch/listen for themselves) is that our default modes of thinking are entirely self-centered, but that at every moment of every day we can make a conscious choice to view the world however we want. It is very hard, but it is possible, and I posit that it is absolutely worth attempting.
I have also been thinking a lot about time, inspired by re-reading the namesake of this Letter, an essay by Seneca: on the shortness of life.
The extreme tl;dr of the book is that life is not short, but it is made short by those who waste it.
My favourite quote from the text:
Even if all the bright intellects who ever lived were to agree to ponder this one theme, they would never sufficiently express their surprise at this fog in the human mind.
Men do not let anyone seize their estate, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives.
You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life!
People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
The old trope is that a billionaire is dying and on his death bed says he would give up his entire fortune for another week with his loved ones.
You can’t take money to the grave. You can’t take anything to the grave. So, perhaps, stop living as though you can. This does not mean money is bad, or evil, or that we shouldn’t pursue it; but it does mean that it is secondary to time.
This graph of who Americans spend their time with at various stages of their life is eye opening:
For most people, after your 20s, you’re spending a tiny amount of time with your family and even with your friends. Punk 6529 did the math, actually, in this excellent thread.
Growing up you see your parents and siblings and school friends virtually every single day. You get to spend time with them 300+ days a year. Once you hit 25+, for most people, you’re probably only going to see them a handful of times a year. Extrapolate out the rest of your life and you’ve already spent over 99% of the time you’ll ever spend with them.
Let that sink in.
Treasure the moments you have with your closest friends and family, and try to spend as much time with them as you can, while you can. Maybe say yes to a few more lunches with friends, and no to a few more business meetings.
Also, get used to spending time alone.
Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company
Lastly, and this is to myself more than anyone else:
GET BETTER AT SAYING NO TO PEOPLE.
This is not something I really had to deal with and manage until a year or so ago. Very few people ever really wanted to talk to me or ask things of me.
Now, I get countless DMs a day and pings in various Discord servers:
“hey can I ask you a quick question”
"just sent you a FR, can you accept please?”
“would love to hop on a 15 minute call to connect”"
“can I get your advice please?”
and these are the genuine ones that I really do want to engage with, there’s a tonne more that are closer to spam ("can I share my project with you”, “what are your rates for shilling on Twitter”, etc).
It’s really tough ignoring people or saying no to them. By nature i’m a people pleaser and I want to answer everyone and chat with everyone, but then you consider that it’s 5 minutes here, 15 minutes there, 30 minutes here. It’s nonstop. Everyone has good intentions, but almost everyone also has selfish intentions. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but basically the reason everyone is reaching out is because they want something from me, and that something always costs time, which until recently I was pretty happily doling out nonstop.
All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself
Towards the end of 2022 I got pretty burned out b/c I was doing too much of this. I actually took it a step in the extreme direction and not only was I saying yes to everyone, I was going out of my way to try and set up more calls and to connect with anyone and everyone who wanted to chat.
Add all of this on top of running a company, managing a community, and trying to have a family life. Something was gonna suffer. Actually, literally everything suffered. I was no good to anyone.
This is what my calendar looked like towards the end of last year:
It was nonstop meetings, podcast recordings, twitter spaces, and so on. This is not a calendar to be proud of. Yes being busy is good, and being productive is good, but balance is important.
This has all been a giant wake-up call. It’s time to start valuing my time more than I value other things. I encourage everyone to take this approach. Time is LITERALLY the most valuable thing we have. We think it’s infinite because we don’t like to think about death, and we generally don’t think twice about wasting it because it’s intangible, ephemeral, and it just keeps coming! There’s more time tomorrow, and the day after, and next week. Until there isn’t.
This doesn’t mean I am going to stop responding to people, but it means I am going to set boundaries and only allocate so much time per day/week to it. It also means I need to put in place better systems and filters to assist with it all. Taking back your time doesn’t mean you have to be a cold, cruel, ruthless person. It just requires more conscientiousness and effort into thinking about how you’re going to tackle correspondence.
Life is not short. We make it short.
He breaks down life into one week blocks. This is it. This is how many blocks of life we have (if we’re lucky).
I encourage you to think about your time more. To value your time more. To respect your time more. Nobody else will. Everyone else is too busy thinking about themselves and their own time.
Live in a way so you don’t wake up one day decades in the future and wonder where it all went, and what the hell happened. Stop wasting your single most valuable resource, time.
Start living now.
Family, friends, health, reputation. Living a good and virtuous life, being a good person, doing good things. Leaving the world a better place than you found it. This, to me, is what it means to live. NFTs are great, money is great, but never forget that at the end of the day
we are all stardust.
My goal this year is to write more. 52 Letters, in fact. I like writing. I feel that it is a good use of my time. It makes me feel alive. If you want to be notified whenever I publish a new Letter, subscribe below.