Monday, February 1, 2010

Coaching Lessons: The Quest for Excellence

Our thought for today comes to us via Gretchen Rubin's Facebook page. Link here. It is attributed to Aristotle, and it is well worth pondering: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit."

While the quote does express Aristotle's thought, it seems to have been mis-attributed. See Wikiquotes entry here.

Be that as it may, the quote reflects Aristotle's notion of character as expressed in the "Nichomachean Ethics."

To begin an analysis, we note that when Aristotle talks about excellence he is talking about excellence of character. For him this is the basic issue in human ethics.

The goal of ethical strivings should be to build and perfect your character. You can accomplish it by repeatedly doing the right thing.

The quote also suggests, as Aristotle says, that one swallow does not make the springtime. One courageous act does not make you courageous; a single generous act does not make you generous.

We like to think that the man who runs into the burning building to save a child is the epitome of human courage. According to Aristotle, the courageous man is the man who shows courage, both physical and moral, at all times, in situations important and trivial.

Surely, this man will run into the burning building to save the child. Yet, his courage is such that he does not need a crisis to find it.

The same applies to generosity. Rushing out to aid disaster victims does not make you a generous person. If you tend not to give of yourself to your friends, if you refuse minimal acts of kindness, then you are not a generous person, no matter how much you gave for disaster relief.

To develop excellence of character you need to do the right thing, over and over again, without thinking about whether you should do so. You might have to think about what the courageous action would be, but you should not wonder whether you should do it.

Excellence of character involves being consistently and boringly responsible and reliable. It means that you are so trustworthy that no one ever has to think about whether they can trust you.

But what if you forget an appointment or fail to write a thank-you note or act greedily? Does a single action compromise your character?

I would say that it does not. Everyone makes mistakes. If you pick yourself up and stop making them, they will not reflect on your character. If you try to rationalize them or make them into habits, they will become who you are.

One bad action does not make you a bad person. It means that your character needs improving.

Saying that your character is what you do repeatedly is more controversial than it might appear.

It is not the line that the therapy culture has been peddling. This culture would have it that you are... your life story, your life narrative, the sum total of everything that has ever happened to you.

For Aristotle your true self is your best self. For the therapy culture your true self is a grab bag of good, bad, and indifferent. It does not make this most elementary of distinctions.

The therapy culture tells you that you need to make your life into a good story. It says nothing about strengthening your character. Becoming a good story means being entertaining, not being happy.

If we are the sum total of the experiences that have formed our life history, to the extent that we can knit them together into a pleasing narrative, then our selfhood would not be our character, our reputation, or our dignity.

It would be a state of consciousness that told us that the same person had undergone all of the trials and travails, the moments of joy and sorrow, the successes and failures that made up our lives.

That seems to be self-evident, don't you think?

But do you really grant the same value to a failure as to a project completed successfully? Is the real you the one who dropped the ball or the one who came through in the clutch? If they are both the same person, then how can you be confident that you will be successful or trustworthy the next time you are called upon?

It sounds self-evident, but it divides you against yourself and does not tell you whether you are someone people can count on or someone who should not be trusted.

The therapy culture does not define character in terms of actions; it sees it in terms of beliefs. It sees people as defined by what they believe, by their commitments to causes and ideas.

I find it strange that modern thinkers would indulge in something that resembles idolatry, but, what is, is.

Many people believe that their identities and even their character are defined by their commitment to a cause, be it feminism, environmentalism, socialism, what have you. Some are so committed that they refuse to interact with people who do not share the same commitments.

Surely, this was not Aristotle's view. His ethics concerned how you interact with other human beings, not where you stand on public policy issues.

Admittedly, the notion of being committed to a great cause feels transcendent. Most people are not very comfortable with the notion that your character is defined by whether or not your brush your teeth twice a day and not by where you stand on stem cell research.

And yet, personal hygiene must be a part of good character. It is a primary gesture of respect for your body and for those others who come into contact with it. And it ought to be pursued habitually.

Wouldn't it be better if we were more tolerant of differences of opinion and less tolerant of insolence, disrespect, and slovenliness?

As I said, it's a thought for today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, again, you have hit on an idea near and dear to my heart:

(I gotta preface this with saying I have a military background.)

>>Is the real you the one who dropped the ball or the one who came through in the clutch? If they are both the same person, then how can you be confident that you will be successful or trustworthy the next time you are called upon?<<

We have a motto: "You are only as good as your last Mission."

If the last mission was a failure, a debacle, how do you go in for the next one? And to refuse the next mission redounds shame upon shame on you. Internalized shame.

You must believe, unto your life, that you are the person who doesn't fail missions. It was an anomaly. Unavoidable. A bad day. You must bring all your rationalization abilities to bear to continue and succeed the next time.

It's faith. Unreasoning Faith in yourself in spite of outcome.

And a little scotch whiskey as sacrament to sustain faith and chase away the doubts....