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Are You Living Well or Preparing to Live Well?

Note: I started writing this article last April, when I was down in Rio de Janeiro. After my recent return from the similarly contemplation-inducing Bologna, I decided to finish it.

Ancient WisdomRio

When I began writing this article I was sitting on the balcony of a hotel room in Rio, looking over the beach pictured to the right. To my ear, the waves in Brazil are absurdly loud, which had the effect of miring me in a haze of tropic contemplation. It was in this state that I happened onto a thought that I couldn’t shake: perhaps the students who are feeling the most run down and worn out by college should take a moment to ask themselves a simple question…

Am I living well now or preparing to live well later?

This question is not new. In tribute to the death of a good friend, Tim Ferriss posted a full length translation of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I read this translation around the same time that I was thinking about this post, and one passage in particular caught my attention:

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested…

But one man is possessed by greed that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless…one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others.

There’s no need to annotate Seneca — like most stoics, his words have an eerie resonance with our current moment. I’ll instead give you my own simple observation. As far as I can tell, the happiest students are those who try to shape their life into something that’s meaningful, quality, and enjoyable right now; the type who get excited about the philosophy seminar they got into, and then spend an early Fall day outside getting acquainted with the reading. These students aren’t afraid of hard work, but they keep it carefully contained, because they know there’s a lifetime more where that came from, and if they can’t handle it well now, when will they ever?

The morning after I started this post, these ideas still rattling around my mind, I met up with a friend who was taking some time off from Stanford for a South American wander-about. We found a nearby bar. It was early, but my friend had taught himself some Portuguese over the past few months, and he sweet-talked the bar tender into some free espressos, which we sipped while talking about nothing in particular — raising our voices slightly to be heard over the nearby waves.

If you’re not trying to live well now, what are you waiting for?

24 thoughts on “Are You Living Well or Preparing to Live Well?”

  1. Dear Cal, You are right, a famous psychoanalyst said it is better to live in the present moment than to live in the past or the future. I have recently tried focusing as hard as I can for lectures and readings but it is kind of weak right now, maybe a 2 out of a 10 scale. Is this what normally happens when youve never really focuesed hard before? What does focusing at an intensity of 10 look like? Have fun in Bologna Italy!

  2. Exactly! Spot On!

    I would like to share an article that I read which digs upon this same line of thought:

    An excerpt from that article:

    “understand that you can only achieve anything in the present moment, and you can only enjoy those achievements in the present moment. You can’t achieve anything or enjoy anything in the past or future because you’re never there. …The purpose of goal-setting isn’t to control the future. That would be senseless because the future only exists in your imagination. The only value in goal-setting is that it improves the quality of your present moment reality. Setting goals can give you greater clarity and focus right now. Whenever you set a goal, always ask yourself, “How does setting this goal improve my present reality?” If a goal does not improve your present reality, then the goal is pointless, and you may as well dump it. But if the goal brings greater clarity, focus, and motivation to your life whenever you think about it, it’s a keeper…..”

  3. I also noticed another phenomenon. Rather than intelligence, it is the intensity of focus and concentration that matters in college. The more focus the better. This is both true for time taken to complete tasks and for Mentally training yourself to be a highly developed student. Do you find this is the case as well?

  4. his is both true for time taken to complete tasks and for Mentally training yourself to be a highly developed student. Do you find this is the case as well?

    Absolutely. Top students have this way of getting lost in their readings, or in a paper, that shifts their understanding to new places.

  5. Thank you, Cal.

    It’s so easy to start competing in this race for the next coveted opportunity/title, but so quickly you forget why you are running in the first place. Until you reach the finish line.

  6. I disagree with one statement:

    These students aren’t afraid of hard work, but they keep it carefully contained, because they know there’s a lifetime more where that came from, and if they can’t handle it well now, when will they ever?

    Thankfully, in most careers, work is kept at work. In the sense that homework follows you wherever you go, academia is a cruel mistress. However, with a career’s 8-10 hour workday, I doubt that developing the behavior of keeping work “carefully contained” is necessary.

    Just a thought.

  7. Cal,

    Love the post! I think this is the problem so many people face and blurs with the whole instant gratification vs. future happiness question we all face.

    It gets very tricky because a lot of people get caught up in this short term thinking. “Well, if I want the hamburger now why not eat it?” Or, “Why should I stay in and study tonight when all my friends are going out?”

    And although the future is an illusion, the choices we make now, absolutely do shape it.

    Friends who goofed around in college, are now suffering because of it. Meanwhile they had the time of their lives in college!

    People who can’t get enough grease, fat and sugar will absolutely suffer later on.

    Of course, we all can be more productive and I know a big part of your argument is why can’t you do it all? Just focus on the essential.

  8. Hi Cal Newport!

    After reading your blog, my grades have been sky-rocketing ever since semester II of last year.

    As semester I of my final year in high school, since my grades are now being kept in order, other shortcomings of mine are becoming more visible.

    I don’t properly understand how to become a “superstar”.

    My social skills are pretty horrible because I’m a new immigrant and the cultural shock has gone anal on me. But, I’m slowly settling down, and I still don’t feel strong or adequate enough to start a club or something like that on my own. It’s senior year and I really want to get my act together. Cal Newport, help!

    I know this is probably not an area in which you dabble in often, but I’ll take whatever you can give.

  9. Hi Cal,
    I live in Rio! What did you think of the city? It’s not only a beautiful city, has a lot of poverty, contradictions, violence… but incredibly (or unfortunately) also the joy of living.

  10. I tend to get caught up in this constant whirlpool of deadlines and activities – i have a tendency to freakout and not focus on the actual amazing content that we are studying ~ lost a lot of marks that way D:

    But wow… This put a lot of things in perspective.

    Now if i can go somewhere like Bali for a week 😉

  11. @Werdna

    My advice is dont worry about social skills. Most of the people who are supposedly very socially intelligent are actually very off track in life, they put everything ahead of career and education. The thing is its a slippery slope, the more off track you are, the more off track you can become. For example, someone like a frat boy who does horseplay can then get in trouble with the law. I would suggest to put education first and delve into social stuff a little bit. There is absolutely no need to become a social superstar, those people usually end up bad on the long term.

  12. Very insightful…although seemingly unfinished.

    My mom used to always say to me, “Play Now, Work Later…or Work Now and Play Later” It took me 15 years to realize what genius is in that simple philosophy.

  13. Wow, well said.
    I am in my freshman year of med school in the Netherlands (which takes up 6 years) and some of my fellow classmates keep saying: ‘I don’t want to study, I just don’t feel like it’, but what are they going to do the next 6 years? For every test they are going to take, they need to go through such a hell.

    I don’t always like to study for a test, but I like what I learn and I can keep studying the rest of my life.

  14. @Kathir

    I disagree! Some people are satisfied without an active social life, or one that operates on a lower level than most.

    But others require a sense of social acceptance and interaction. For these people, other achievements will likely fail to fill that void.

    Saying that “social superstars” are usually off track is a of a lofty assumption..

    And perhaps what an academic would consider the right track is very different from what an social artist would.


    I advise working on your confidence first. You didn’t mention that, but for many who struggle socially, confidence is an issue.

    What I used to do was force myself to ask a stranger in the elevator a simple question (“what time is it?”, etc). Some kind of similar practice should help.

    After you become comfortable with that, try making small talk with strangers. If you are very uncomfortable in these situations, fake it!

    Practice until you have mastered the art of small talk. You may be able to make friends from just that.

    Also, dont try to be what everyone thinks is “cool”.. if it’s not really you, everyone will see right through it! All social butterflies have odd habits and tendencies.. but they are friendly and these quirks are easily forgiven.

    Good luck 🙂

  15. Life is more than any one moment now or at another time. Who knows today what will be most important to them 5, 15, 30 years from now? The balancing act of doing things you like and don’t like to get where you think you want to be is what we call life. What makes up a person that lives that life is something entirely different, infinitely more complex, and I believe vastly intriguing. Do whatever it takes to find fulfillment, but don’t lose site of WHY it is important. Most likely you will realize no person finds perfect contentment in life, but you can discover moments. Just like relaxing with an espresso while talking with a close friend.

  16. Wow nice post. Love Seneca and to answer the question. If you live in the present moment, you are living well now and when the future comes around it will be now again and you will be happy still. I talk about these Eckhart Tolle teachings on my blog.

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  18. Thank you for sharing this. I am the type of person who takes on more than I am able to handle, which in turn ends up putting way too much stress on myself. School, work, family, etc. have me focused on preparing to be successful and live well in the future. I need to take a step back and allow myself to live well in the present. I hope that as I do this and make some changes, that the stress will reduce due to the simple joys that I will allow myself to experience.


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