Noblesse oblige

Toward this end of the Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb remarks:

When missing a train is painless

I once received another piece of life-changing advice, which, unlike the advice I got from a friend, I find applicable, wise, and empirically valid. My classmate in Paris, the novelist-to-be Jean-Olivier Tedesco, pronounced, as he prevented me from running to catch a subway, “I don’t run for trains.”

Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.

You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice.

Quitting a high-paying position, if it is your decision, will seem a better payoff than the utility of the money involved (this may seem crazy, but I’ve tried it and it works). This is the first step toward the stoic’s throwing a four-letter word at fate. You have far more control over your life if you decide on your criterion by yourself.

Mother Nature has given us some defense mechanisms: as in Aesop’s fable, one of these is our ability to consider that the grapes we cannot (or did not) reach are sour. But an aggressively stoic prior disdain and rejection of the grapes is even more rewarding. Be aggressive; be the one to resign, if you have the guts.

It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.

In Black Swan terms, this means that you are exposed to the improbable only if you let it control you. You always control what you do; so make this your end.

Running for trains

Do I run for trains? Certainly.

I run to beat the red light, I run for the departing bus, I run for the subway’s closing doors, I run for morning meetings, I run to preserve and get more out of life’s most precious commodity: my time.

Unfortunately, this has become a second nature, I run when I shouldn’t. Even when I am exhausted I run, because I feel I ought to. It’s compulsive, it’s an addiction. When I go for a walk to unwind, I’ll inevitably trot part of the way. The time I preserve by hurrying doesn’t translate into enjoyable or restful moments. I spend most of my free time recovering from the day’s exertions.

Why do I run?

I run because I love it, I enjoy the intensity and crave the feelings I get from rushing. I treasure the flow and clarity that comes with racing and hustling.

If I’m not working or getting my heart rate up, I feel that I am wasting my time. I believed the life I wanted was fast paced and exhilarating! A hurried life may be economically efficient, but it is ineffective at nurturing and soothing the human spirit.

A few years ago I realized that this attitude was counterproductive and negatively affected my well being. I hustled to climb a power structure and social hierarchy that I despise. By not setting limits, I ended up dis-empowered. I kept chasing an elusive sense of accomplishment from things I didn’t truly desire.

Duties and privileges

The modern world demands efficiency, not a single minute shall be wasted. We toil to give a good life to our loved ones, but we often forget that we are one of the loved ones.

Today most of us have the means to live a virtuous and noble existence, but we elect to be buffeted by circumstance and relinquish our agency in the quest for validation and affirmation by others who don’t care anyway.

One of the principles of European nobility was that they behaved in accordance to their ranks and duties. The privileges that aristocrats enjoyed were contingent upon their responsibilities towards those who lacked these privileges. If the nobility forgoes its duties and fails to live up to its position, it will be replaced. Nobles were often forbidden to do productive work such as manual labor, trade, or holding public office. Lest these activities distract them from their duties like defending the realm and serving their monarch.

Privileges entail duties, and the converse is also true: duties entail privileges. If one has duties but derives no privileges from these responsibilities, it becomes a form of slavery.

I am a serf to my own desires to please others and gain status. I ought to reject these destructive values, reclaim my autonomy, and pursue a nobler existence. I rule over my life, I ought to serve myself and my loved ones before the economic leviathan.

Privileges I bestow upon myself

Since reading that piece by Taleb, I changed my behavior. I now grant myself more time, more space, and more emotional slack.

I resist my urge to run and I move at a more leisurely pace. I slow down when I walk or bike towards a green light, to ensure I’ll miss it. I leave when I am ready to leave, I don’t time my departure with the bus’ schedule, the time of my next meeting, or the arrival of my driver. I avoid looking at the clock, I don’t need to know when the next bus is or how long until my driver arrives.

Trading perceived efficiency for tranquility has certainly improved my life.

The main inconvenience is that I often show up way before I am supposed to be somewhere. However the extra time is never wasted, it’s an opportunity to relax, observe, and think.

When I fly, I arrive at the airport long before I am supposed to, I have a book with me and typically get a solid hour of reading. With my noise cancelling headphones and earplugs, I can immerse myself in peaceful and focused reading. And if something goes wrong on the way to the airport, this extra time acts as a crucial emotional buffer, I no long worry about the clock.

My latent stress has diminished. There is no reason to be anxious, I can’t be late. The extra breathing space made my travels more reliable and enjoyable.

I still hurry in the morning to get to work or be on time for the first meeting of the day. One cannot completely change in a few months. Last month I vacationed in Europe, and my impatient nature resurfaced in the crowded big city. The frenetic pursuit of efficiency is contagious. Living in a quiet place would undoubtedly make this adjustment easier.

Do not let events unsettle you. Aspire to lead a noble life. To achieve this, you need a wide margin of error: ample time, extra money, and, most importantly, emotional detachment.

Time is only wasted if we fail to appreciate life for what it truly is.