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Favorable Conditions Never Come

In a sermon delivered at the height of World War Two, a period awash in distraction and despair, C.S. Lewis delivered a powerful claim about the cultivation of a deep life:

“We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”

This quote reminds me of one my favorite Teddy Roosevelt stories, first recounted in his 1888 memoir, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. The tale begins in the spring, as the ice began to thaw on the Little Missouri River that passed through Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. Under the cover of night, a band of infamous local horse thieves steal a boat from the Elkhorn.

Though the swollen river was treacherous, and the thieves dangerous, there was no doubt that Roosevelt had to pursue them. “In any wild country where the power of law is little felt or heeded, and where every one has to rely upon himself for protection,” he writes, “men soon get to feel that it is in the highest degree unwise to submit to any wrong.” With the help of his ranch hands, Bill Seward and Wilmot Dow, Roosevelt builds a new flat-bottomed scow, which the trio then pushes out into the ice-choked river to initiate a three-day journey to hunt down the fugitives.

What always caught my attention about this story was not the chase, but instead what Roosevelt brought with him for the adventure: a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which he would read in bursts, huddled under a blanket to keep rain off its pages.

We all face distractions from the deeper efforts we know are important: the confrontation of something not going right in our lives; an important idea that needs development; more time with those who matter most. But we delay and divert. It’s easier to yell at someone for doing something wrong than to yell in pride about something we did right. It’s easier to seek amusement than to pursue something moving.

At some point, however, there’s nothing left but to embrace Lewis’s call to “get down to our work,” even if the favorable conditions never come.

32 thoughts on “Favorable Conditions Never Come”

  1. Thanks Cal – knowing that there is never a perfect time to start something is encouraging – especially in the early days of a project where you have no idea of the outcome. It’s good to know that revered creators like Lewis found this too, but just worked every day steadily on their goals.

  2. Hey Cal, just a quick ask: the stories you quote, the quotes you share – do they just come up in the course of your regular reading or do you do specific searches, e.g. for keywords in certain authors etc?

    In my own experience, it often seems to be the things that come along in a more organic way that have the greatest resonance, rather than the things I’ve gone looking for.

    Just curious.

    • In this case, a reader pointed me toward an essay that cited that C.S. Lewis quote. The Roosevelt story is just one I know from having read a lot about Roosevelt. I would say this is pretty standard for these types of posts for me: the origins are a mix of tips that come into [email protected], augmented with my own personal store of reading-induced knowledge.

  3. Er, there is a reason why people from Jesus to Buddha to Muhammad found deep spiritual revelations while in retreats. Sometimes it is good to be able to be by oneself away from the noise.

  4. “But we delay and divert. It’s easier to yell at someone for doing something wrong than to yell in pride about something we did right. It’s easier to seek amusement than to pursue something moving.”

    This explains perfectly all the negativity and toxicity on social media.

    • I was looking for the Tim Ferriss quote and found from him the source:-
      “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”
      Napoleon Bonaparte
      “Never attribute to malice, what you can attribute to incompetence or business. Do not take – try not to take it personally. Assume it is not personal.”
      Tim Ferriss
      We seem to be living in a world that does not value the changed or evolving mind.

  5. Great post Cal,thank you!

    In a somewhat related analogy, when I was single and dating someone my boss asked me when I was going to get married. I said, “When it’s the right time.” His reply was, “It will never be exactly the right time.”

      • I didn’t marry that particular person. I later married another. The timing for that and the decision to propose just emerged more suddenly over a few days rather than by long planning. We’ve been married now for 18 years. I believe that stuff works more via feeling than thinking or ruminating.

  6. Amazing post!

    I’ve been struggling with this, especially in the pandemic at home with three kids in the lockdown. Just get started is the right mindset.

  7. Great post Cal!

    As a recovering perfectionist, there is never a perfect time. Some times are better than others but finding time to make progress is a necessary prelude to getting it done. Finding time to do Deep Work is preferred, but I’m trying to sneak in whatever time I can find to make some progress over the “why bother since I can’t finish” attitude. I keep reminding myself, “The goal is progress, not perfection.”

  8. Hi Cal,
    Again a timely and relevant article.. Thanks.
    I found this article that also resonates with something that you have already written with on thinking while walking…Thought of sharing it with you, incase you’ve not seen it yet..
    [On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking]

  9. I really appreciate the timing of this article, with the pandemic still very much present. The main highlight for me after reading this was the word Passion. “Those who want knowledge so badly” not really sure if they are on the other side though.

  10. Wow, this quote is going right up on my wall. I need this as a constant reminder to keep making progress on things that matter to me, no matter what else is going on in my life, or the world in general.

  11. This article reminded me of one of my favourite quotes (and life principles), by Arthur Ashe:

    Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

  12. Awesome article Cal. Very inspiring. We so often let small bugs ruin our day to day plans of deep work.

  13. This was a great reminder to live in the moment, and cherish the now. Stop focusing on tomorrow’s worries, next week’s review, when your kid is going to grow up and move out, whatever it may be. Focus on today, and what beautiful, amazing things are happening right now all around you. –Ryan

  14. Reminds me of the quote which goes something like: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time, is now.”

  15. Theodore Roosveldt:
    Far better it is to dare mighty things to win glorious victories, even though checkered by many failures, than it is to join the grey twilight of those who know neither victory nor defeat.


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