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Fig Trees

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius prompts us:

You shouldn’t be surprised that a fig tree produces figs.

He goes on to state that “A good doctor isn’t surprised when his patients have fevers, or a helmsman when the wind blows against him.” The truth Marcus is getting at here, or at least as I understand it, is that past performance is a reasonable indicator of future results.

This isn’t always the case, as no doubt that last sentence reminded you of the common “Past performance is no guarantee of future results” line that is, sensibly, plastered across risky investment products. But in life, as with fig trees, medical patients, the blowing winds upon the shore, and indeed, the current President of the United States, past performance is no guarantee of future results… but it’s a reasonable bet.

Our Choices

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, upon confessing to Professor Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, that the Sorting Hat (a hat new students put on their head to determine which house they will be placed) only placed him in Gryffindor because he explicably asked not to be put in Slytherin, Harry was greeted by this reply from Dumbledore:

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

And so it is. In this particular example, Dumbledore was telling Happy that he needn’t worry that he was only placed in Gryffindor (the arguably “good” house) instead of Slytherin (the inarguably “bad” house) because he asked not to be placed in the latter, because by asking not to be put in Slytherin he was making a choice to reject the bad in favor of the good.

Harry was aghast that the Sorting Hat had considered his qualities consistent with those who had been placed in Slytherin house before him, but his choice to reject these qualities is ultimately what showed him off for who he is; to his moral credit.

Your Days

I was recently reminded of a post by Austin Kleon in which he offered up these words:

[Success] is closing the gap between what your days look like and what you want your days to look like.

I’ve thought about this line almost every day since hearing it, and it has become increasingly relevant as my wife and I have been feeling a newfound realization of the importance of the basics in life. Though we’re not minimalists (despite this being something I frequently described myself as and wrote about around the time I met her), we’ve come to realize that we have our own goals and ideas in life, and it’s okay if they don’t exactly match the goals and ideas of the people real, fictitious, or a composite, we may aspire to be.

Part of this is growing older. I’m lucky in that my wife is three years younger than me (this is, of course, not the only reason why I’m lucky to be married to her), so I frequently come up with her age when considering “our age,” but the point is the same.

Your days are all you have, and closing the gap between what they look like and what you want them to look like is a worthy goal. You will likely never close this gap all the way, and that’s okay. There will be points in your life where this gap will feel like an unbeatable chasm, and this is to be expected. But as Kleon notes, “What do you want your days to look like?” is a question he asks himself whenever he’s trying to make a decision about what to do next. In his own words:

I believe that most questions about what to do with one’s life can be replaced by this question… [it] forces you to imagine the day in, day out realities that making such choices will present you with.

So, what do you want your days to look like?

Don’t Waste Time on Nonsense

Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor from 161 AD up until his death in 180, implores us (or rather, himself) in his Meditations “Not to waste time on nonsense.”

How true is that?

Of course, what is nonsense to me may not be nonsense to you, and vice versa. And what any of us believe to be the nonsense we’re wasting our time on now may later turn out to be important after all.

With that said, there are certain activities (such as refreshing Twitter or Facebook for the tenth time in the past half hour) that are, unless you work for either of these companies, unquestionably nonsense. Later in Meditations (all quotations are coming from the excellent Gregory Hays translation) Marcus goes on to remind us (himself) about the importance of character and self-control, noting: “Remembering that our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to,” and “Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.”

Stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions; don’t waste time on nonsense. Easier said than done, but a high and worthy ideal to take into this new year all the same.

Reviewing Pains

One of the hardest parts of reviewing books (both privately, and in a public forum) is in justifying one rating against another. In my own rating system, a colour-coded spreadsheet which my wife rightly points out is somewhat over the top, I allow for half-ratings (I readily admit this is something of a cop-out, as it allows me to pile on the 4.5 ratings while preserving five star ratings for the best of the best. Should I start allowing for quarter stars, or is that going too far?), which helps but doesn’t solve this problem.

For example, I recently gave both Robert Greene’s Mastery and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a 4.5. Do I personally believe both books to be equal in status? No. For me, Mastery is the superior book (no offence Joan), but when I rate books I’m rating them against similar books in their field, as well as against other titles by the same author. This means that Mastery was held to a higher standard than The Year of Magical Thinking, in deference to Greene’s previous books, which I believe to be superior works of his.

I’m sure this is a wholly unfair strategy, but it works for me.