On The Shortness of Life summary

On The Shortness of Life is an essay by the Stoic philosopher Seneca who offers us a reminder of the one resource that we are forever running out of, time.

This is one of my favourite books I have read in the past few years. It fundamentally changed the way I look at my life.

It’s easy to think that we have lots of time, but we have no way of knowing whether this is true or not. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or you could live until you’re 90. We don’t know until it’s too late.

This book is especially relevant for me as I have been hit by a car twice while cycling. On each occasion, I was fortunate that I only came away with a few bruises, some scratches and nothing more.

It very easily could have been a lot worse. I was lucky and in a way, the first incident was a blessing in disguise. I was working in a job I hated and dreamt of backpacking in Australia for a year

That dream was very nearly taken away from me. The crash made me realise that our time is precious and uncertain. You have to make the most of it while you can.

A few months later, I quit my job and booked a one-way ticket to Australia to live there for a year. It was the best decision I ever made. It led to me starting my travel blog and living life on my terms.

Reading Seneca’s words only reinforced to me how easy it is to waste your time. It is our most precious resource, yet we take it for granted and squander it.

The words may have been written 2,000 years ago, but they are as relevant today as they were back then. If you want to learn how to take back control of your time, this is the book for you!

On The Shortness of Life summary

Takeaway 1 – We waste a lot of our time

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t do this to an extent. We are our own worst enemies at times, life is precious but we treat it with impunity.

Spending too long in bed, binge-watching Netflix series, the list is endless. We spend a lot of our time not doing very much at all and then complain that we never have enough time.

The reality is simple, we have lots of time, we just waste a lot of it.

If you live to be 90, which is not guaranteed, that is a long time. There is so much you can do with that time but only if you use it wisely.

As I write this, I have recently turned 30 and although I don’t feel old, it feels like I have been alive for a long time. The 90s, when I was a small boy feel like a faraway land, while my time a high school is beginning to feel the same way.

Perhaps the main reason that we waste so much time is that we forget that it’s limited. The constant cycle of life fools us into a false sense of security. This is especially the case when you’re young.

You feel like you so have so much time that you don’t instil urgency into your life and coast. As incredible as it sounds, this was an issue in Seneca’s time too.

He has a profound quote on the issue:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”

Life is what we make of it. We have a lot of time, but we choose to squander it. Every day the time we have becomes less and less until one day, we run out.

Living your life with purpose and intent is the only way to ensure that you waste your time, and by extension, your life.

Takeaway 2 – Living and existing are two different things

The majority of us will live into old age barring any unfortunate circumstances. However, just because we reach old age, does not mean we have lived.

Someone could have lived until they were 80, but not lived a day in their lives. If you’ve spent 40 years doing the same thing day in day out, can you call that a life? Or is it an existence?

One of the worst things we can do in life is to remain in our comfort zones. It may be nice and comforting to do and see the same things constantly, but what good is it doing you?

Growth comes from uncomfortable situations. It is in these moments that we find out who we truly are. By challenging yourself you become a better person. If you fail to do so, you resemble a piece of bread that has been out in the open for too long, stale.

Seneca’s likens the situation to a boat that never leaves the harbour:

“For what if you should think that that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbour, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.”

Is the boat really a boat if it does do the job it was made to do? The same applies to life if we spend it drifting and coasting and never lifting a finger are we living?

Lazing around and going through the motions is not living it’s a mere existence. To take control of your life and set a firm course, this is living.

Work towards goals that are important to yourself. Live each day with intention and purpose. Yes, it’s ok to relax now and again, but a life of leisure or a life of luxury is a wasted one. 

Takeaway 3 – Expectancy frustrates attempts to live in the present

Looking into the future is something that I have found myself doing a lot of. I used to do this in the past and find myself doing it from time to time now.

While there isn’t an issue with looking to the future now and again, it becomes an issue when you do it more than focusing on the present.

The problem with looking into the future is that it’s uncertain. We might have a perfect picture in our heads of what the future may hold, but the reality is often different.

Expectations are one of the worst things we can burden ourselves with. If the reality fails to match with our expectations we become depressed and if they do match up to our imagination, often we can be underwhelmed by the reality.

All of this looking forward distracts from the most important time which is now. The past is gone, the future is uncertain. All we ever have is the time we have now.

Seneca has a brilliant quote for this:

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

We have no idea what the future may hold, but that doesn’t stop us from imaging what it may be like. But, this is counter-productive.

Our time is spent working on our lives today so that they will be better off. Anything that is put off until tomorrow means today is wasted.

Do what you can today and tomorrow will be better for it.

Favourite quotes

  • ‘What can happen to one can happen to all.’
  • “There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living.”
  • Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest”
  • “But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organises every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.”
  • “Life is divided into three periods, past, present and future. Of these: the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.”
  • “So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.”

On The Shortness of Life review

This On The Shortness of Life summary looked at one of Seneca’s most important works.

It’s one of his best pieces of writing and it’s relatively short, you can get through it in one sitting. A good idea is to Complement it with Letters From a Stoic, which he also wrote.

The book implores us to start living our lives now, as opposed to meandering in the present.

It’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It never fails to amaze me how relevant Seneca’s words are today, despite being written two thousand years ago.

The human condition hasn’t changed that much in all that time and we still have the same troubles and worries now that are our ancestors had back then.

Too many of us go through life expecting it to last forever without accomplishing much or living out our dreams. On The Shortness of Life should serve as a reality check.

The only time we have is the present, if we waste it, there won’t be much of the future to make the most of.

Who should read On The Shortness of Life?

Lovers of philosophy will enjoy this book, as it’s one of Seneca’s best and gives an insight into his overall philosophy on life.

I believe everyone should read this book because its topic matter is one that affects all of us.

Taking on board the lessons from On The Shortness of Life will allow you to lead a better life and stop wasting the best years of your life.