We Are What We Repeatedly Do

Arete.

That’s a powerful word. 

To the Greeks, it meant excellence. It was the ultimate expression of human greatness—moral, physical, spiritual. It’s what the Stoics were chasing. It’s what you’re chasing today. 

But how do we get there? Well, it requires a certain philosophical approach. Because brilliance and inspiration and skill are not enough. 

“Virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions,” Aristotle said. The writer Will Durant interpreted it thusly: “We are what we repeatedly do… therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

In other words: Excellence isn’t this thing you do one time. It’s a way of living. It’s foundational. It’s like an operating system and the code this system operates on is habit. 

As Epictetus would later say, “capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running… therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.” So if we want to be happy, if we want to be successful, if we want to be great, we have to develop the capability, we have to develop the day-to-day habits that allow this to ensue.

This is great news. Because it means that impressive results or enormous changes are possible without herculean effort or magic formulas. Small adjustments, good systems, the right processes—that’s what it takes. Things like:

There is nothing more powerful than a good habit. Nothing that holds us back quite like a bad habit. We are what we do. What we do determines who we can be. 

You know this. You’ve seen these forces at work in your own life, for better and—frustratingly all too often—for worse. 

Today is the day to start harnessing these powers and wielding them properly. To stop being jerked around by our habit—-to no longer be a passive observer of our own virtues and vices. 

It won’t be easy, but it will be transformational. 

For the last six months, Daily Stoic has been developing the Daily Stoic Habits for Success, Habits for Success Challenge. We’ve sifted through the greatest Stoic wisdom and aimed it at one of the most challenging parts of life: habit formation and growth. 

These are difficult times we’re in. Economic uncertainty. Personal adversity. These things can sink you…or they can be opportunities to improve. They can be obstacles you triumph over…or setbacks that bring you to your knees.

What will it be? 

Habits answer that question. If you can cultivate good habits, you can survive—even thrive on—what lies ahead. If you relapse and fall to the level of your worst habits, these hard times will only be harder. 

We’re inviting you to spend six weeks challenging yourself to change what you “repeatedly do.” And we are promising that if you can do that, you can achieve arete—personally and professionally. 

If you want to be or do something, Epictetus said, make a habit of it. So let’s make a habit of arete.

And let’s remember his most urgent and challenging question: How much longer are you going to wait to demand the best of yourself?

How about not one second longer?

Let’s start today.

P.S. This was originally sent on April 21, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.