At the core of ancient Greek philosophy is the concept of arête. First coined by the poet Homer, and later fleshed out by the philosopher Aristotle, this salient term is best defined as living up to one’s full potential, or “excellence”
We know it when we see it.
Take, for instance, the American gymnast Simone Biles.
You don’t have to enjoy gymnastics to be transfixed when she’s swinging from the bar effortlessly — and living on the brink of chaos where one bad move could snap her neck.
Yet, that moment when she jumps off the bar and throws her arms up in triumph sends a manic furry through your spirit. You can’t even help it. You and hundreds of other people stand up in rapturous applause as though possessed.
You’ve just witnessed excellence.
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.” — Aristotle
Today I’d like to walk you through four takeaways I had from Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics.” You might not be the next Olympic gold medalist afterward, but you will have a better understanding of your untapped potential.
1. The Weirdest Sensation Humans Encounter
It’s weird, isn’t it?
Potential is an abstract idea; and yet we all know it's grounded in something real — something terrifying, that is, if we don’t realize it.
Potential is who you could be if you interacted with the world in the most optimal manner. It’s who you could be if you stopped procrastinating, stopped ignoring avenues of opportunity, and lived life in carpe diem!
The best part, according to Aristotle, excellence wasn’t a birthright. As the famous saying goes, We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
Genetics certainly help, but ultimately excellence is a product of nurture, not nature. Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours theory would likely nod their head in approval.
2. The Meaning of Pleasure and Pain
We live in a silver spoon Pansie society that is hellbent on instant gratification.
We’re addicted to entertainment, eat terribly, and the best part, we complain all the time. The great Russian author Dostoevsky understood this a century ago —
“The best definition of man is: a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Therefore, to obtain excellence, Aristotle believed in knowing the difference between the right kinds of pleasure and pains.
For instance, the pain of going for a jog is something we all benefit from and the pleasure of celebrating a holiday is something we cherish. However, the pleasure from pornography addiction destroys your life and the pain from obesity is equally destructive.
“It is pleasure that moves us to do what is base, and pain that moves us to refrain from what is noble. And therefore, as Plato says, man needs to be so trained from his youth up as to find pleasure and pain in the right objects.”
— Nichomachean Ethics 2:3
Our concept of pleasure and pain is so deeply ingrained that it’s very difficult to rewire it ourselves. It’s why you quit the gym after one week or put down a difficult book never to return again.
As one of my favorite passages from the bible states: It’s harder to rule yourself than to rule a kingdom. Read that again.
Before you criticize the world criticize yourself. It’s a much more courageous thing to do.
Push past the initial feelings of discomfort. Here’s a secret I found out from running 30 miles straight without stopping: Once you push past the hardest part, there’s a treasure trove of energy waiting for you.
You just have to push far enough.
3. It’s Easy to Give Away Money (It’s not easy to do this)
If excellence was easy everyone and their momma would be on some. The hardest part of excellence, however, is finding a balance in your ideas and in your actions.
Aligning yourself to one side, whether that’s in your ideology or actions is easy. We see it everywhere today. People are atheists with a complete iconoclastic view of religion, or they’re full-blood Democrats or Republicans.
Nuance is dead. It lives among a few virtuous people and that’s it. Are you really as open-minded as you claim to be — or are you a hypocrite like the rest?
“Anyone can be angry — that is quite easy; anyone can give money away or spend it: but to do these things to the right person, to the right extent at the right time, with the right object, and in the right manner, is not what everybody can do, and is by no means easy.”
— Nichomachean Ethics 2:9
In Jungian psychology finding your inner balance is incorporating the positive and negative aspects of your masculine and feminine side. How do you do it? It starts by examining your own insecurities and shortcomings.
As Socrates once said, the unexamined life is not worth living.
4. Excellence is a habit
Analytical psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung once said “the fool is the precursor to the savior.” In order to be virtuous, to become the best version of yourself, you must accept your faults and lack of talents to pursue excellence.
Here’s another quote by Jung I absolutely love: “Modern man can’t see God because he doesn’t look low enough.”
Our obsession with fixing the world instead of ourselves is destroying our happiness. Humility is a lost virtue. We’re too prideful to look in the mirror and examine our insufficiencies. We don’t look low enough.
The answer to your problems is right in front of your eyes. It’s fixing yourself. Then, if you’ve truly accomplished that task, it’s fixing your family. Then it’s fixing your immediate community.
Fixing the world is best done by fixing yourself. Get that through your head. You have a better chance at fixing the world by becoming a millionaire than protesting at a 99% rally. You have a better chance at fighting racism by becoming successful than by complaining on social media.
The world is engineered by winners, not whiners.
Stop taking the quick expedient route. Excellence is only obtained by attacking your shortcomings every single day; 1% at a time.
It’s waking up at 5am. It’s working out every single day. It’s reading on your breaks. It’s eating healthy. It’s signing up for a new skill or class. It’s introducing yourself to new people.
Excellence is not an act but a habit.
I’d like to close on a story I know you’ll find interesting.
Some zoologists were studying zebras in Africa and in order to keep track of them they tagged a handful of the animals. This was a bad idea.
The lions singled out the zebras that stood out from the pack and ate them alive. It turns out it’s much easier to target an idiosyncratic zebra than one that blends in with the herd.
This is all to say that being excellent — being away from the mob is not easy. It may be the hardest thing you ever do.
You will be criticized, mocked and doubted at every turn. Good. Ignore them. Excellence isn’t for everyone — but it could be for you.
“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” — Aristotle
Become who Aristotle believed many of us could be.
Ignore short-term pleasures and pursue prudent goals. Live up to your potential. Ask questions and challenge social norms. Above all, make something of yourself — or regret it later.
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