Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pythagoras, Samuel Johnson, and Reviewing the Past Day

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In front of the Delphic Oracle-temple is written: Know Thyself. Now, being fond of Samuel Johnson's Essays, which I often read and re-read, one fine day I read some practical remarks that complemented the Delphic maxim.

Johnson, a most versatile Augustan writer, besides writing the first English dictionary was a superb essayist. His prose is impeccable, witty, and profound. But what I most admire in his essays are the manner in which he opens his sentences. Years go by, and I always pay attention to his sentence openers. From him, I think, I first became aware that the secret of writing agile prose is by commanding fresh and exciting sentence beginnings.

But I digress. Though I had my own method of going over the events of the day --my accomplishments as well as my failures of the day-- I found that Johnson's article had some golden nuggets of wisdom.

"All action has its origin in the mind," he says casually; yet many of us think that we are doers rather than thinkers, when in reality the opposite is true.

And he goes on:
"The recollection of the past is only useful by way of provision for the future."
Ah! Another nugget! Of what practical value is it to retrace and rehash our past activities if they are not to be put to good use in the future? Enthralled rather than just impressed by the man's folksy wisdom of re-stating the obvious, I appropriated his maxims. So at night, as I retire to peaceful slumber I pass in review the significant acts of my day.

In as much as I can recollect I begin with the first act, and proceed: "What is that I did first thing in the morning?" I ask myself. "Oh, yes. I canceled that credit card that had charged me such an exorbitant fee for missing the payment for one day." Of course, I ignore the trivial acts such as going to the cleaners, the pharmacy, or for a croissant across the street; lest the act assumes significance. For example, one day, in response to my ritual, "How are you?" the young attendant from Ecuador proceeds to tell me about her baby being ill and in danger of losing his hearing due to a tumor. Having enough cash leftover from my allowance I gave the woman a $20 bill—"Take a cab when you go home," I said. "I know you'd want to get home quicker."

Where have I turned aside from rectitude? - Searching my memory I catalog moments of behavior that may have been improper or even offending. Was I curt with the officer at the bank? It is possible. Every time I go to the bank I am accosted by employees who are instructed by their superiors to sequester customers and give them a pitch about opening more accounts, or moving money to their investment funds, and so forth. "You guys are overdoing this!" I exploded.

What have I been doing? - This is my favorite pointed question, for I want to make sure that I haven't squandered the day, that I've been productive and totally engaged. I dislike wasting time. Have I accomplished all my allotted tasks for the day? If yes, I enjoy the moment of happiness; if not I sulk and propose to even the score the next day.

What have I left undone, which I ought to have done? - In a normal day everyone, I am sure, has some tasks that are repetitive, routine, tedious, and often unpleasant. So, I go over what I left undone. "Oh, yes -- I have to mark those 40 exams!" I admit. "But let me divide the task. I'll grade 20 in the morning and the other 20 in the afternoon."

Because the brief method works for me, let me share it, just as Samuel Johnson did. So here is the full quotation:
"Let not sleep, says Pythagoras, fall upon thy eyes till thou has thrice reviewed the transaction of the past day. Where have I turned aside from rectitude? What have I been doing? What have I left undone, which I ought to have done? Begin thus from the first act, and proceed, and in conclusion at the ill which thou has done be troubled, and rejoice for the good."

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After a long (40 years), productive, and successful career in business, I now teach college. The articles that follow are all written from personal experience.



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