A few weeks ago, a horse at The Preakness threw its jockey right out of the gate and kept running. Like really kept running. It ran the whole race twice! For a few seconds there during its first go-round, it was a real contender in the race. It’s actually not that uncommon for horses to complete a race without their rider, and sometimes even nearly win—a fact that must humble all jockeys.
Life is full of examples like this. Monkeys randomly picking stocks will often outperform the market. Index funds beat world class hedge fund managers almost more than average. Warren Buffett made and won a decade-long bet to this effect: putting his money on a boring, low-cost stock index fund outperforming a collection of hedge funds.
The lesson of these little oddities is in their lack of oddness. Marcus Aurelius took pains to remind himself just how common he was, just how many emperors came before him and would come after. Surely he must have noted to himself that if Hadrian hadn’t chosen him, somebody else would have filled in. If he had worked less hard or retreated from Rome, like his predecessor Tiberius, life would have carried on without him and history would have been only imperceptibly different.
The same goes for us. Yes, it’s wonderful that you’re here. Yes, you’re very talented and good at what you do. But also...you’re just not that important. Even the very best of us are just tiny dots on the graph, and we’re all replaceable. Like those jockeys, we’re all riding on the backs of horses that are doing most of the work. We all have the wind of progress pushing us forward, we’re all just one of many people capable of helping things along.
Let this humble you a little. Let it help you take things a little less seriously. Don’t let it stop you from trying, of course, but allow it to erase your ego when you start to think you’ve got this thing beat.