Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you. – Thomas Jefferson
If you’ve never been in a situation that required you to be courageous, how would you know whether you’re courageous?
The comic book version of Plato’s position on ethics is “to be is to do,” but it had problems handling that very question. If you’ve ever been in a situation that required you to be courageous, you may have had a wide disparity between how you thought or hope you’d act and how you did. I’ve experienced people rise above their expectations and people fall far, far below them, and I’ve also been virtuous in unexpected circumstances and vicious in easy situations.
Aristotle’s position – “to do is to be” – addresses this problem nicely. While learning about virtue might help you become more virtuous when the time comes, there is no substitute for working your way through the situations where you’ll be required to test your mettle.
As much as we all love excursions into the history of philosophy, the reason I’m writing about this is because I’ve met a lot of people recently who are frustrated about how they’re performing. They thought they’d be rockstars but fear is creeping up on them. Or perhaps they thought they’d be more productive than they are and theory isn’t matching reality. Or maybe they’ve had a great deal of success and have no clue how to handle it.
There are also a few people doing an excellent job of arm-chair quarterbacking about how everyone else is doing something wrong or substandard who aren’t quite entering the fray themselves. It’s easy to dissect and criticize from the sidelines and quite difficult to have your virtues tested in the marketplace. I’m not saying that we should all walk a mile in each other’s moccasins, but perhaps some of the judges should spend more time walking and guiding and less time talking and chiding.
The way things appear to be from a distance is often quite different than it is when it’s right in front of your face. Sometimes they’re easier to handle than you thought and sometimes they’re harder. But until it’s in your face, you don’t know what or how you’ll do. That’s what makes this adventure so maddening and exciting at the same time.
We become better versions of ourselves in the trenches of living rather than in the safety of plans and theory. To never fall below your own expectations is to have expectations so low that you’re not living. And to avoid doing anything so as to remain unmarred by the scuffs of the real world is keeping you from bearing out whether you’re the virtuous person you think you are.
Obviously, I side with Aristotle – to do is to be. What are you doing to be the person you think you are or want to become?
Peter Shallard - The Shrink for Entrepreneurs says
Interesting post Charlie.
I kinda have to disagree – or, meet you halfway. Having worked for years as a therapist, I can attest to the value of having expert advice from someone “looking from outside the fishbowl”.
That said, I’ve always drilled into clients the idea that the change-work doesn’t happen in the therapy chair…. it happens in the real world…. after the appointment.
Hmmm…. this post has really got me thinking. Love it 🙂
I’m not sure we’re disagreeing. As a therapist, you are a guide – and guides can be immensely valuable in helping us walk the path. The problem, as you mention, is that guides can’t do the walking for us.
Absolutely agree with the post. That is why I find questions like ‘what would you do if …’ always so difficult. Because you really can only tell if you get into such a situation yourself.
As you say, things look very different from a distance.
Those questions are indeed hard, especially when asked in ways that aren’t conducive to awareness-generation. They can be incredibly valuable, though, when set in the context of figuring out what scenarios you want to set up.
I think it’s so important to get out of your head on a semi-frequent basis, whether that means asking for someone’s feedback, or reading the newspaper where real problems exist every day.
I’m going to plug away, as well as enjoy my family today.
Have a wonderful weekend!
The balance is delicate at times. If you’re never in your head, it’s easy to lose yourself. If you’re always in it, you never become yourself. Odd, no?
Beth Cregan says
Thought provoking post today. Thank you. isn’t it just so easy to sit back and criticise rather than get out there and do it. I have a world of excuses for not achieving what i want but I am slowly clearing them away.
A day’s progress overrides a week’s excuses. Unfortunately so many of us have a backlog of excuses to work through!
you don’t know how auspicious, timely this post is for me. i read it to my husband. directly facing trying times creates scars that are stories so when we get to the end, we are filled with the knowledge that we are, indeed, courageous.
Thanks for the feedback, Delta – huzzah back at you!
One day I might have to tell you the story of what I did when I woke up in the night to find a strange man halfway through the window.
That’s what I thought of when I read the beginning of this post. And what I did was not at all what I expected (or probably what anyone would advise) and it all worked out well.
Yes, doing. Very important.
You will have to tell me that story. Or maybe tell the world?! 🙂
Mars Dorian says
This in another kick in the ass, lol.
Stretching yourself, even if that means you are flying below your expectations, is vital.
I only feel good when I make progress, and whenever I’m playing the game a little too save, it feels like my soul is dying a bit.
That’s why I love kaizen – every day a little improvement!
Kicks in the arse is part of the Fu that I give. It’s a fine art, you know! And kaizen is an awesome life principle, as well as continual release. Gain a little every day at the same time that you get rid of something. Both are challenging, but I struggle more with continual release.
We humans are quite terrible at predicting the future, especially me. What I’m worried about never seems to actually happen. So doing, adjusting, and doing some more really is the only way to find out anything. Great post!
Your comment reminds me of Jefferson’s words: “How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened.” I would add that not only have we paid in pain, but we have lost in pleasure.
*I talk walks
*I have a spiritual practice
*I write, and I mostly write things that I think can help people have more awesomeness in their lives
*I try to eat the kind of food I think people should get to eat
*I pitched an awesome potential barter to a small organization I love
*I am sending a workshop proposal to a new venue
Sounds like you have some great practices here, Sarah! They carry the “be the change you want to see” ethos right in them – good on you!
I’d say this was true. I wasn’t thinking so much of extreme situations, but more that you have no idea what it is that you do that works. I just keep doing things. Some work, some don’t. You can’t predict what will work and what won’t, but it seems the more action I take, the more results I get – and surprising things right out of the left field, too.
Good point about the extreme circumstances, Joely. In case analyses, we tend to go for the extremes because they have more grip, but it’s the mundane situations that make up the stuff of life. I also like the point about the surprises; if we don’t do something, we can’t experience the good surprises. A lot of people only focus on the “negative” ones and thus miss out on the “positive” ones.
I think this is a good post and sound advice.
But on another note, I don’t think being has to do anything extra. It is, already. Being done.
I think you can interpret Aristotle in more than one ways.
To do, in order to be, does not necessarily refer to “actions” one has to do.
In a way, being or “beingness”, is an action itself no matter “your actions”.
Feeling one has to do in order to be is a great contraction. You already are.
So, it is clear this comes down to perspectives. Who is asking the question, really? And does this perspective actually have any real control?
We do create ourselves, yes. But from more than what we are consious of. The conscious part of us (just the tip on an iceberg really) involved in this activity is very tiny compared to our whole existence.
So, I might do things in order to try to be what I think I want to be but then the rest of me, plus the entire world has a lot of other opinions about it.
But absolutely, aside from the mind-chatting, doing is probably the best you can do. I mean, what else can you really “do”?
Tell me something that is not doing. Even “not doing” is doing, isn’t it?
There are multiple levels to understanding Aristotle and philosophy, in general. As you rightly point out, it’s impossible not to be.
That said, the point is intentional becoming. Hence Aristotle’s “what lies in our power to do, lies in our power not to do.” The unfortunate thing is just how much people aren’t being intentional about what they’re becoming – they’re alive but not living.
From a broader metaphysical perspective, there are different views on being. Some views posit presentism – the fact that all things already are – as a fundamental starting position. Your statement “feeling one has to do in order to be is a contraction (contradiction?)…you already are” represents that position. Another view posits change as the fundamental position – think of Heraclites here.
I think neither are complete, but that’s why I identify with process philosophy. 🙂
Cool. Nice depth here.
I thought about writing contradiction, but I decided on “contraction” in the end
I mean that ego is a contraction in itself, contracting against “what is” by doing; it thinks it needs to do in order to be.
Only ego believes it needs to rule its destiny. It is true that being more aware of oneself one can steer the outcome a little, but ego is truly too small in the big game to really have any bigger effect on the whole. It does not mean that we are not in the game, just that the ego is not the main player by a long shot.
Ego is ok and necessary but it is also true that ego is completely mistaken in assuming doing is needed in order to be. But of course I have an ego too and make this mistake constantly.
I think Aristotle’s view was very wise considering the times, but is quite dated today if it only interpreted with a “law of attraction”-view point.
I believe in intention, absolutely. And perhaps this is a first step? But there is so much more.
I don’t hold just a position. I think all views are needed, more or less. I just like to open the discussion a little. Especially the ones that seem to be left out.
Thanks for a nice reply and a great blog!
Great reply here. In general, I wonder how much we lose by talking about the ego. In some senses, we invoke it to draw a separation between the totality of ourselves and other parts, but I’ve also seen it used in so many ways that are negative that I wonder whether it’s the conceptual eddy where our thoughts on vices tend to flow. Also interesting is how much attention away from holism comes from over-focus on the ego.
I’m not a logical positivist by a wide margin, but I feel their pain sometimes. There’s much to ponder here in this thread…
Yael Grauer says
In Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, he talks about how airplane safety–which had hit a plateau, greatly improved with flight simulations. Once pilots could review their mistakes, figuring out why they made the decisions they did, corrected for any errors in judgement and redo the simulation they learned/remembered the correct course of action.
I think this is true in our behavior as well–the more we screw up and review where we went wrong, the sharper we get in our game.
Working through the hard–and paying attention to where we fell short–makes us stronger.
Daily Success Place says
I agree with you post Charlie.
Most of the time, what we fear in the future is magnified beyond what it would actually feel like to be in the moment.
Inaccurate thinking about the future, both too negative or too positive, is something in which we all do from time to time. Like Jefferson, we can certainly just jump into things and do it to see what it’s really like.
I would simple add that we can also think accurately and rationally about the future to be as founded as we can in reality.