There’s No Excuse For Being Surprised

Fabius was one of Ancient Rome’s great generals, though he was not the bold, reckless type that usually gets all the attention in history books. No, he was the cautious type. He was strategic and reserved. He preferred to let enemies defeat themselves more than anything else. He was far less exciting than his most famous counterparts, but without him, Rome almost certainly would have been defeated by Hannibal in the 200s BCE. 

In the book Of Anger, Seneca draws on Fabius to teach a lesson from war that every citizen and leader and business person should be familiar with: 

“Fabius used to say that the basest excuse for a commanding officer is ‘I didn’t think it would happen,’ but I say it’s the basest for anyone. Thinking everything might happen; anticipate everything.”

When the Stoics talk about the exercise of premeditatio malorum, that’s what they’re trying to train into you. To make sure you’re not surprised by the twists and turns of life, or by the moves of the enemy. Because there is no excuse.

But what about black swans? you say. True black swans are rare. They have never happened before. That is what makes them black swans. Most of what we are unprepared for are not those kind of freak occurrences. Look at Fabius’s quote closely: To say “I didn’t think it would happen,” means you’re already aware of the possibility and have dismissed it. When that happens, it’s not bad luck—it’s ego come home to roost. 

We must keep our eyes open. We must consider all the potential consequences, even the unlikely or the unusual or the unintended ones. We must be ready. Fortune behaves as she pleases. So do our opponents. 

Don’t be surprised. There’s no excuse…except that you haven’t been doing your work. 

P.S. This was originally sent on July 24, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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