Seneca on Our Need For a Clear Vision
The very first step that anyone must take when they begin their journey to personal growth and the accomplishment of their goals is to become clear on exactly what it is that they want. There can be no other start to a person’s journey, because without a clearly defined vision of some point in the future, and without a clear path by which one will arrive there, one cannot begin to make progress in that direction.
As it turns out, the wise Stoic philosopher, Seneca the Younger, had similar thoughts on the matter. He said:
“So long, in fact, as you remain in ignorance of what to aim at and what to avoid, what is essential and what is superfluous, what is upright and honorable conduct and what is not, it will not be traveling but drifting. All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re traveling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way.”
Think about it like this; you wouldn't start a business without a business plan, and you wouldn't go into battle without a battle plan, so why would you live your life without a life plan? Having a clear vision of who you want to be, where you want to go, and what you want to achieve will completely transform your ability to take the resources available to you and turn them into the life that you want.
So let's take a closer look at what Seneca is saying here. First, he suggests that we no longer remain ignorant of "what to aim at and what to avoid." Now, if I was to look at this from a Stoic perspective then I might very well suggest that you set your aim at things like happiness, love, friendship, personal growth, study, learning, simple living, and contentedness, because these are things that are available to all people equally, and they require no external influence. On the other hand, the thing that you should avoid, if looking from a Stoic perspective, would be an unbridled appetite for wealth, fame, approval, and possessions. See, from a Stoic point of view you can be truly happy without money, but if your happiness is completely dependent on your current level of affluence then you'll never be happy.
Now let me look at this from the perspective of a Stoic who also wants all of the nice things in life. You must become very clear on exactly what you want in life, even if that means that you want a nice house, lots of money, and two BMW's in the garage. But then, once you know what you want, you need to be stoic enough to ask yourself why you want it. For example, maybe you only think that you need one million dollars to be happy, but the truth is that all you really need is to pay off your debts and make enough money to feel financially secure. You might think you want a nice car, but really what you want is the feeling that others admire you, and that's something that can and should be achieved without the aid of a nice car.
I believe that to be a modern Stoic one doesn't need to give up on aspirations and goals for the future, but rather one must accompany these goals with a sound questioning of their origins within the heart and mind. Life should be a constant striving for a worthwhile goal, and all the while we should realize how little we actually need in order to be completely happy. So become clear on the things that you must aim at, and the things that you should be avoiding.
What is next that we must be clear on? Seneca says that we must be ignorant no more on "what is essential and what is superfluous." So again, ask yourself, and answer completely honestly, what is it that is actually essential in your life? Do you really need all of the clutter? Do you need to feel approved of by the crowd? Do you need to have the finest cars and the nicest jewellery? If you are completely honest with yourself, I'm almost certain that you will find that none of this is essential. Only love, human connections, purpose, and peace of mind is essential, and these are things that can be acquired without the aid of money, and without the aid of status.
But again, to argue on the side of the person who wants it all, the purpose and joy that comes from the journey to our aspirations is well worth while. But remember; it is the journey that is worthwhile and essential in life, not the end result. What truly matters is that you are striving for a worthy goal; one that will make you a better person to achieve it. So look for happiness, joy, love, connections, purpose, and adventure in the journey to your ideal life, and not in the attainment of your goals. If you can enjoy only the end result, which is not essential to your joy and fulfillment, then you'll never find the true happiness that is available to you in life. But if you will enjoy every moment of the journey, then you can have all of the essentials in life at any time on your path.
Why is it that at the end of a persons life they are thinking about relationships and people, and not about their wealth? This is because the closer we come to death, the better we understand what we need to truly live. So always work towards understanding the essentials of life.
The next thing that Seneca suggests that we become educated on is "what is upright and honorable conduct and what is not." I take this to mean that we must develop a keen vision of the character that we wish to develop in life. What kind of person do you want to be? What values do you hold dear? What beliefs do you subscribe to? What will you stand up for in life, and what will you not accept? How do you conduct the business of your life? Are you a person of integrity? You must be clear on what is right, and what is wrong, and then you must decide who you will be. The person who takes the time to clearly define her ideal character and then develop it within herself will rarely find trouble facing life's challenges. You must be intelligent enough to know who you want to be, and then to follow that vision until you become that person.
Finally, Seneca suggests that if you don't get clear on all of these things then your life "will not be traveling but drifting. All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re traveling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way." The truth is that you will take you with you no matter where you go, so you might as well fix the problems within yourself before you try to fix the problems in the world. No amount of effort to hide from yourself will account for a lack of vision and clarity on the matter of who you are and where you are going.
You need to understand yourself better than anyone else, and the person who can become clear on where they want to go in life is the same person who will change the world. Gandhi knew who he was and where he was going. Steve Jobs knew who he was and where he was going. Abraham Lincoln knew who he was and where he was going. Rosa Parks knew who she was and where she was going. So why, having seen these people of extreme influence and vision, would anyone not want to have clarity on who they are and where they are going? If you don't get clear, you'll simply end up drifting through life without purpose, and that is no way to live life.
I want to encourage you to have enough self-respect to take your future seriously, and I challenge you to become clear on who you are, where you want to go, what you want to achieve, what will truly make you happy, and what will take your happiness away. As you become clear, you'll find greater ease on your journey to your ideal life because you will know that no matter what happens, you're being who you want to be, and you're heading in the direction of your goals, one step at a time.