One Question to Find a Sense of Tranquility
If you’re wondering why you’re not happy, why things are always hard, try this thought experiment from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius
We can imagine that Marcus Aurelius was a busy man, perhaps the busiest man in the world. He had 14 children. He was living through a pandemic. He had a nagging stomach ailment. He was taking philosophy classes.
Oh, and he was the emperor of Rome. His domain stretched some 2.2 million square miles and included some 120 million people for whom he was both responsible for and in charge of.
How did he manage it all? How did he get it all done? Without losing his mind? Without falling behind?
We know that one question played a huge role.
“Most of what we say and do is not essential,” Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations. “If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”
Think about your own life. How much or how little you work. Where you live. What your marriage or your relationships look like. The political policies you support. What you spend money on. What your goals are. The way your schedule is arranged. The thoughts running through your head.
With everything you do, say, own, or dwell on, ask yourself, “Is this necessary?” “Is this essential?” “Does it have to be this way?” “Why am I doing this?” “What would happen if I changed?”
We wonder why we’re not doing our best. We wonder why we’re not happy. We wonder why things are hard.
It’s because we’re doing too much. Or we’re doing the wrong stuff. Or doing it in the wrong way.
Greg McKeown has a great book called Essentialism. I love that word. You want to get to a place where your life is defined by it — where you’re doing only what needs to be done, in the way it ought to be done.
That’s going to mean getting comfortable with saying “no.” It’s going to be mean cutting fat from your life, maybe even hurting some feelings. But you’ll soon realize: When you say no to something, you’re saying yes to something else. And conversely, when you think you’re saying yes to one thing, you have to understand all the things you’re saying no to in the same breath. So you might make some people upset by saying no, but you’ll make other people a lot happier, too.
A little while back, I was on McKeown’s “What’s Essential” podcast. He called this the “non-essentialist trap.” When you haven’t distinguished between what is and isn’t essential, how do you decide what to yes to and what to say no to? Usually, we default to filtering opportunities by what’s most lucrative or what’s most impressive. McKeown quoted Seneca to me, and that passage is worth putting here in full:
We are told that life is short and the art is long…It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough and a sufficiently generous amount of it has been given to us for the highest achievement if it were all well invested. When it is wasted in the heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life, but we make it short. We are not ill supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.
One thing the pandemic has helped me with is it has shown me — in most cases without my consent — just what doing less looks like.
Fewer dinners out.
You could argue that Covid was the largest forced lifestyle experiment in history. It shattered so many of our assumptions about what is and isn’t essential. Oh, this can’t be done remotely? Just watch. Oh, I couldn’t live without childcare. Well, now you have to. Oh, I’ll never have time to do ____. Okay, here is that time.
We’ve had to make do with less. We’ve had to reinvent how stuff was done. We had to reorganize everything.
Some parts of this have been hard to bear. Some have made us sad and lonely. But other parts have been downright liberating. The thing about less is that it reveals what more looks like. Because as tough as the last few months have been, it’s also meant:
More sunsets from the back porch.
More dinners at home.
More focused writing, about weightier topics.
More appreciation for the people and things that matter.
More understanding of the urgency of memento mori.
“Doing what’s essential,” Marcus said, “brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.”
So take a minute today and ask yourself Marcus’ question. Is this necessary? Is it essential? Do I really need to do this? What if I said no? What if I opted out?
What would happen?
You will find the answer, in many cases, is that no, it is not essential. It’s not important nor necessary. And by saying no, you’re not “shirking” your responsibilities. On the contrary, you are better fit, better able to actually fulfill your important duties — to your family, to your work, to yourself.