Aristotle’s Personal Development Strategy

by Mark on November 8, 2012

Aristotle once said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

I recently found out that this famous quote by Aristotle was never said or written by Aristotle, which reminds me of another famous quote.

“I really didn’t say everything I said.”
– Yogi Berra –

I didn’t find out that Aristotle didn’t say this until I did a little research on Wikiquote, which is an invaluable resource for verifying the validity of quotes. Here is the actual quote.

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions’; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: ‘the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life… for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy’.”
– Will Durant (The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers) –

I love this quote. The full quote is even better than the quote misattributed to Aristotle. Durant was quoting Aristotle and elaborating on his philosophy, and both nailed it.

We become who we are through consistent practice over long periods of time. Engaging in a bad behavior one time doesn’t make you a bad person, but “practicing” that bad behavior over and over again eventually does. A bad person can become a good person through training. To be a person of virtue merely requires that you practice good behaviors until they are habitual and consistent.

Discipline takes practice.

I used to try to will myself to be more disciplined. I would be all pumped up to change, but it never worked. Eventually it occurred to me that disciplined people didn’t just wake up one day disciplined. They work at it. They gradually improve their habits. They practice discipline until it becomes automatic and easy.

As long as becoming disciplined is difficult, we won’t do it. You can’t make quantum leaps in discipline because that would take too much willpower, and willpower always runs out. Instead, make a small improvement and practice it until its easy. Then you can make another small improvement until that improvement becomes easy. And then keep improving it bit by bit.

So remember what Aristotle told us. It is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.

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