“I will sail across the ocean, if nothing prevents me.” – Seneca the Younger
As an early Stoic philosopher, Seneca shared this insight. Seneca wanted to illustrate that hard work and virtue were important while still accepting that at least some part of your success is in the hands of fate. Certainly the best archer in the world has a greater chance of hitting a target than a novice, demonstrating that your effort does matter. At the same time, even a master archer doesn’t hit the target every time – a deer may suddenly dart in an unexpected direction, a bird may fly in your path, the bowstring may break. How to maintain your drive in the face of fate’s ultimate influence?
Seneca’s phrase: “I will sail across the ocean, if nothing prevents me.” It’s a way of being comfortable putting in all your effort (note the “I will,” and not, for example, “I’ll try to”) and not blaming yourself for any ultimate results, only holding yourself accountable for putting in the best effort possible.
I love this lesson, but I think it may be incomplete. Far be it from me to presume to add to the great philosophers of Rome, but I think the modern era features a kind of mistake that I see people make, even when following Seneca’s lessons.
I would adjust the phrase thusly: “I will sail across the ocean, if nothing prevents me and if I don’t decide to do something better.”
Many people anchor themselves to grit and determination – admirable traits, I say! And they create solid action plans to accomplish their goals – equally praiseworthy! But they leave no room for new information, new choices, even new evolutions of your own desires.
Virtues, commitments, and paths of honor are worth committing to. Values and beliefs should not change with the wind. But there should be room for them to change, if change they must. And “plans of action” are an order of magnitude lower than values and virtues when it comes to things you should remain loyal to.
If, halfway across the ocean, you discover a previously-unknown island paradise, don’t be afraid to stay there just because you said you’d sail across the ocean. That was a noble plan, with all the information you had at the time. But each new piece of knowledge resets your universe to starting right now, this second. There are new choices to be made. Not all of them will be different choices, and your virtues and values and beliefs will help you sort through which is which. But only a fool would put on blinders and say “yes, that island is probably exactly where I’d like to be if I’d known about it when I set out; but I didn’t, so on I shall sail.”
The bright white light of the past splits into an infinity of possible colors in the future only through the prism of your present choices. Only you, in this moment, are capable of choice. You are not beholden to choices made even five minutes ago if you learn something new in between. Hold great ambition in your heart – yes. Make good plans in your mind – yes again. And if nothing prevents you, follow through – unless you think of a choice that’s even better.