What many people consider creativity doesn’t occur in flash of sudden brilliance. A Mona Lisa doesn’t leap from the brush. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t write itself. Maybe sometimes, but not often. Most creative people slog through long hours, laboring without much inspiration, until their little efforts accumulate into a sizable project.
As French writer Albert Camus put it in an essay on French novels, “Works of art are not born in flashes of inspiration, but in a daily fidelity.”
One can never underestimate the sustained effort of a single person. But a person needs a direction first. Simply running and working without direction leads nowhere. Like a dog chasing its own tail or a hamster sprinting on its wheel, undirected effort–no matter how hard it is–remains undirected and fruitless.
One needs something to structure effort, like a goal or even a way of life. In many ways, this was once the role of philosophy.
During the time of the Stoics and Epicureans, from around 300 B.C.E. until almost 200 C.E., many wealthy citizens went to various “philosophers” to learn a philosophy to live by, somewhat like a religion.
These philosophers spoke of wisdom, but they often applied this wisdom to everyday life, using philosophy to overcome basic problems–like anxiety, poverty, or unhappiness. As the Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca put it in one of his Letters from a Stoic, “It is philosophy that has the duty of protecting us… without it no one can lead a life free of fear or of worry.”
A mingling of psychology, self-help, and introspection, such “philosophy” is pithy, concrete, and direct. They didn’t talk about a priori truths or epistemological constraints like later philosophers. Instead, many of these philosophers talked about the “good life.”
However, what the “good life” was differed for them.
Aristotle argued for a life based on virtue and happiness. The Stoics recommended apatheia, a state of deep tranquility without excessive passions. Epicurus argued for happiness that didn’t rely on mere material gain. The Cynics spurned anything that didn’t lead to virtue and self-mastery.
Nevertheless, these paths shared a goal: fulfillment. Each argued that one shouldn’t waste time running on the hamster wheel of mere activity. Doing so prevents us from focusing our energy on activities and goals that mean something–or that will mean something in the future. Instead, we should find what fulfills us and focus our life on that.
As the Stoic Epictetus says in his Discourses, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
In itself, this is powerful advice. So often, life drags us from one thing to the next. We don’t have time to balance our responsibilities. The moment one starts planting flowers, paying bills, or taking out the trash, the phone rings with another job.
I just graduated college. Now, I need a job. Meanwhile, the hours cruise by until the day concludes, and my “to-do” list carries into the next day–and the day after that ad infinitum.
Life is busy.
Thus, the philosophers have a point. Assuming we want a fulfilling life, we need focus to sort through the busyness. One means of focus lies in habit.
Elsewhere in the Discourses Epictetus says, “Whatever you would make habitual, practice it; and if you would not make a thing habitual, do not practice it, but accustom yourself to something else.”
Last February, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg hit shelves, becoming one of the “Best books of the Year,” according to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial times. As the title suggests, it details the power of habit. Habits makes up our daily lives it argues: our routine, our e-mails, our hellos, our job. We spend more time doing habits than most other things. Habits add up, forming our character and structuring our lives.
In another book, writer Gretchen Rubin sums it up with one of her “Secrets” of getting old: “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”
Thus, fulfilling habits are essential tools for a “good life.” The Stoics had their own particular brand of habits. One was reflecting on death each morning. Initially morbid, this also spurs us to live more fully. It prevents us from pushing things into the vague future, since we may be dead before it gets done. Thus, says the Stoic, send that apology, read that book, and take that trip–assuming you have the means.
Another habit Seneca recommends is to reflect on one’s conduct. Ben Franklin also did this. What behaviors were virtuous? What weren’t? How can one improve them?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe provides another key example, perhaps more modern. One of the foremost geniuses of the German Romantics, von Goethe’s poetry and scientific treatises accrued considerable fame in his life and remain relevant around the world over 150 years later. By all accounts, he was a painstaking artist and creative thinker–a highly effective person.
Romantic poet and financial wizard don’t seem like they fit together, but as von Goethe got older, he saw the value of effective finances. He monitored his account and maintained a budget. This practical foundation, sustained by savvy financial habits, allowed him to pursue his passions. He was able to think and write because he provided himself the means to do so.
I think it echoes Epictetus’ words from over 1,600 years earlier: “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
If you wish to be a thinker or an artist you must do what that requires: have enough money to live, read enough books for inspiration, and write.
A recent graduate, I have time to figure things out. I’m only 22. But I don’t want to conclude my life unfulfilled. I’m wary of difficulties and distractions. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says there are two forms of laziness: passive and active.
Passive laziness is what we normally think of with laziness. Someone wearing give-up-on-life pants sits around all day on crumb-spattered couches, with greasy bags strewn on the floor like autumn leaves, as life passes him or her by. We’re all guilty of this sometimes–at least I am.
Active laziness differs. Active laziness pushes us to become so busy we don’t have time to consider major issues. We conceal the deep problems of life–happiness, purpose, death–in the rush of the daily grind. Sogyal Rinpoche says this is a major issue for the West for the same reasons the Stoics and others recommended a life philosophy: For most, the daily grind isn’t a “good life” and it won’t lead to one.
To quote Lilly Tomlin, “The problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
Seneca, Epictetus, Aristotle, and whatever other old, dead white guy comes to mind didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, modern science, or 401ks. They got a lot of things wrong. Spirits don’t live in wine and ether doesn’t fill the spheres of heaven, despite what Aristotle thought.
But such thinkers were spot on about the “good life.” As Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics, “One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.”
Instead, we must find the passions, people, and goals which make us happy for a long time, doing what’s required to get them. We must make a plan and build effective habits. That way, at the end, we can close our eyes in peace. This, I think, is “the good life.”