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Why Are You Surprised?

Daily Stoic Emails

In June of 2001, Paul Wolfowitz, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, addressed the cadets at West Point. While the speech he gave was not itself a historical moment, one remark in it would go down in history. Because it was one of those quotes that history would, in retrospect, make particularly poignant, if not outright ironic. 

“Surprise happens so often,” Wolfowitz said, “that it’s surprising we’re still surprised by it.” It was time, he said, for leaders and soldiers and citizens alike to “replace a poverty of expectations with an anticipation of the unfamiliar and the unlikely.” Just three months later, Wolfowitz and most—if not all—of the US government would be stunned when jihadists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. Wolfowitz himself would come to call the events of 9/11 a “wake up call” and thus illustrate a timeless piece of Stoic wisdom. 

That saying and knowing are not the same thing. That it’s incredibly easy, tempting even, to pay lip service to an idea without being able to fully integrate it into your life and profession. Remember when Seneca said the only unforgivable excuse is “I did not think it would happen.” We can nod our head at that, we can acknowledge how right he is, but it matters very little if you do not also, as Epictetus said, embody that philosophy. 

Look at where we are right now. Plenty of people warned about the risks of pandemics. Plenty of smart people noted that a decade-long bull market could not last. Plenty of people spelled out the worst case scenarios that accompany cronyism, egotistical leaders, and political polarization. Michael Lewis wrote an entire book titled The Fifth Risk about what happens when governmental bureaucracies are allowed to operate understaffed, without clear priorities or accountability. Seneca asked you to do a premeditatio malorum…maybe you even carry a coin reminding you to in your pocket

And yet, here we are. Surprised. Unprepared. Disappointed. We knew but we didn’t know. We talked about it but we didn’t live it. 

So that’s on us. Let it never happen again.