A Timeless Leadership Lesson From Aristotle – Excellence As a Habit

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

You’ve heard the statistics – some studies claim it takes 21 days to break or form a habit, while others show it takes six weeks.

Each of these recommendations, while varying in their time frames, are based on habit creation through repetition.

But what if habit isn’t about repetition?

I had an epiphany about Aristotle’s quote recently that I wanted to share with you – and I hope this gives you the same moment of clarity it gave me.

Excellence As A Habit Through Repetition

When I first came across Aristotle’s words, I interpreted and focused on the message in the quote like this:

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

In my mind, I focused on the words repeatedly and act. In this context, I read the words as follow:

  • Act to be an action: a single response in a single situation.
  • Habit to be something done as part of a routine; the acts we do on a daily basis.

The implication of the above is that it doesn’t matter what we do on occasion, in one-off encounters; rather excellence is defined as a habit through your repeated actions.

So far so good right?  Now let me show you the epiphany I had, and flip the emphasis.

Excellence As Doing

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

In the quote, instead of focusing on the word “repeatedly,” the meaning suddenly changed for me when I focused on the word “do.”  Doing, creating, being.

In this context, I reread the quote and the word act jumped out at me, and I thought of a different interpretation – not as an action. I reinterpreted the words like this:

  • Act rather as a facade – faking it, posturing, pretending.
  • Habit as the word it was derived from, “Habitus” –  the things we do as a reflection of our essential nature.

Therefore, I reinterpreted this quote to mean that the person we are inside is reflected by what we repeatedly do – not what we pretend we are, not what we say we will accomplish and not what we act like we’re doing.

I thought in general of the things I do that define me as a person – do they exude excellence?  Here are some examples I thought of:

  • Procrastinating (but pretending we are on top of things) versus Being Proactive
  • Projecting Confidence (while being unsure in our abilities) versus Being Competent

Interestingly, the philosophical concept of habitus itself appears to have originated with Aristotle – making me wonder, have I (and perhaps my friends) been interpreting this quote wrong all these years?

Excellence Is Not Defined Through Repetition

Looking at it this way, we could rewrite the quote, taking the word repeatedly out altogether:

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

Get it?  Excellence as a habit manifests itself as excellence in all we do – we can posture and pretend to others that we have things under control, but only by actually doing things in conjunction with a consistent motivation deep inside us does excellence become a habit.

So today, my question, my challenge to you is this:  don’t just act.  Do. Don’t just posture excellence –

Be Excellent.

The Action Solution

If you are you ready to start doing, and want to make the most out of your life, take a moment to read the details about my course The Action Solution and see if it’s something you’d be interested in.

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