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.

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.

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.”

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.

Putting Ourselves Together Every Day

Every morning we go through a very personal routine to put ourselves together. We have perfected this routine throughout our lives. We know each part of the routine intimately.

We recognise our different pairs of socks. They may not be in any way special to us, but we could pick them out in a laundry bin full of others. We know them intimately, yet the people we see each and every day couldn’t recognise a pair of our socks from one day to the next.

Next, we spend some time with our favourite mug. Our mug doesn’t enter into our consciousness throughout our day, but in that moment, we’re aware that it’s a great mug. We look at the other mugs in our kitchen in disgust. “You’ll never hold my tea”, you think. “You’ll never be my favourite.”

Quake Books

I’ve been thinking about quake books recently. The concept of ‘quake’ reading came to me through Ryan Holiday, who in an almost decade-old blog post discussed an email exchange he had with the economist Tyler Cowen. In the exchange, Cowen noted that as he gets older he’s running out of books to read that can profoundly change his views or open up his mind to something new (or at least that’s how I interpreted his thoughts).

I’ve found this to be true in my own reading, yet I am fortunate to be young enough (and to not have read especially voraciously in my early twenties) that such books still exist to grab me. I’ve read two this year, though this is out of 45 total.