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How to be excellent | Psyche

Illustration by Martin O’Neill

Guide

How to be excellent

Plato and Aristotle can help you resist conventional worldly success, direct your energy and find your own highest calling

by Benjamin Studebaker

Illustration by Martin O’Neill

Benjamin Studebaker

is a graduate teaching assistant in politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge and a teaching associate at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. 

Edited by Sam Dresser

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Need to know

So you want to be excellent at something? You don’t just want to be OK at it, to be able to get by or make a living. It’s not even enough to be rich and famous. Nickelback is a big Canadian band and they’ve made a ton of money, but most people don’t think their music is excellent. They are undeniably successful – but excellent? Excellence is a whole different thing.

Most of the advice out there is either about how to survive, or how to be successful. It’s also pretty two-dimensional. On one side, there are the people who tell you to work hard and be productive. Then there’s the other side, the people who tell you to ‘practise self-care’ to avoid burnout. Many self-help writers have made a lot of money from taking one of these sides and trashing the other.

Those writers are successful, but the advice they’re giving people isn’t excellent. It’s obvious that if we spend all our time just trying to get through the day, we won’t grow. But it’s also obvious that if we become obsessed with perfect ideals, we’ll burn out. You need a sustainable balance, a workable distribution of your time and energy. But distributing your time effectively is just the first step. The second step is to use your time in a way that leads to excellence rather than mere success.

Plato and Aristotle can help you with this. The Greek philosophers were wealthy aristocrats who didn’t have regular jobs. Because they had plenty of time and plenty of money, they could spend their whole lives thinking about what excellence really means. They didn’t have to worry about survival, because they were born with an income. They weren’t interested in success because, when you’re born rich, it’s not hard to be successful. They wanted to pursue the highest good, and they wanted that pursuit to be the object of everything they did. Even though you’re likely not a wealthy Greek aristocrat, you still have much to learn from them about excellence.

The first thing they noticed about being human is that even rich people are not gods. Everyone has a body, and our bodies have needs. Plato tells a story about this in one of his dialogues called the Phaedrus. He imagines the human being as a flying chariot, pulled by winged horses. The chariot has three parts. There is the rider, interested in truth, goodness and beauty. He wants to fly the chariot high into the sky, above the clouds, where these ideals can be discovered. But the rider has no wings. To get to the heavens, he relies on two horses – one light, and one dark. The light horse wants to be well regarded, prizing honour and status above all things. It responds to blame and praise. The dark horse wants to enjoy the pleasures of the world. It wants food, sex, sleep and every kind of luxury. The dark horse has no shame, but it fears the rider’s whip. For just as the dark horse values pleasure, it fears pain.

The rider can come to know excellence only if he can get these horses to fly the chariot up above the clouds, but the horses have no deep interest in what’s up there. The rider must motivate them by giving the horses enough of what they want to get them to cooperate, but not so much as to allow them to become too strong and drag the chariot wherever they wish. Ignore the horses outright, and they grow weak and disobedient. Cater to the horses too much, and they run the show. To achieve a type of excellence that gets at genuine value, we have to go beyond pleasure and status, but we can’t leave pleasure and status behind entirely. This type of excellence incorporates our physical and social needs, but goes beyond them, approaching value itself as an abstract ideal. To get there, a balance is needed, but what does that balance look like?

Think it through

Find a good social environment

Bringing balance to the chariot is a big challenge for a person. But it’s not a challenge we face alone. For Plato, the community we live in helps us take care of our horses. We don’t all grow our own food, make our own shelter, and provide our own entertainment. Other people help us meet the needs of the dark horse. And how can the light horse be satisfied without other people to make us feel valued and worthy? Plato argues that some social roles help us fly the chariot better than others. He even tries to make a list and put them all in order. Some roles barely give us enough to survive, much less thrive. Others give us comfort but aren’t respected. Some are respected but give us little comfort. A few yield comforts and respect but leave us without enough time to properly strive for excellence. When you’re choosing your work, your friends and your relationships, you have to keep all three things in mind. Miss comfort, and you’ll find yourself controlled by the need to be comfortable. Miss respect, and you’ll be controlled by the need to be respected. If you don’t leave time to strive, all you’ll do is survive.

Distribute your time well

How do we manage to obtain all three things in just one life? In the Politics, Aristotle distinguishes between ‘leisure’ and ‘play’. For him, leisure is time we spend learning and contemplating, trying to achieve excellence. Play is about rest and recovery. It might help you to think of Aristotle’s leisure as ‘growth’ and Aristotle’s play as ‘recovery’. So, for Aristotle, we spend our days doing three things – work, growth and recovery. The difficult thing is that both work and growth cost time and energy. Growing is at least as energy-intensive as working. We need time to recover from both activities.

When the eight-hour workday was first achieved, there was a slogan that went along with it:

Image supplied by the author

It sounds like we’re getting all three things. The trouble is that the time we spend sleeping isn’t enough time to recover. When we get home from work, we’re usually too tired for growth, but not tired enough to go to bed. Instead, we try to have a little bit of fun. We try to recover. We feel bad about this. Those last eight hours are for what we will! Why can’t we will ourselves to grow? But more often than not, this leads to burnout. And that’s for those of us who are working only eight hours a day and getting eight hours of sleep a night. For many of us, even that is too much to hope for. (Aristotle’s own very bad answer to the question of how to acquire more time – slavery – need not detain us here.)

These days, most people have to wait for retirement, hoping to save up enough money to spend some time on growth in later life. But by then many of us are in poor health and don’t have the energy to grow. What we have the energy to learn we often lack the energy to put to good use.

Alternatively, we can try to grow while we’re young. Some of us are lucky enough to find an area in which we’d like to pursue excellence from a very early age. With the support of a strong family and a strong public school system, we can get the time and resources we need to develop. But good families and good schools aren’t available to everyone. Plato thought that nepotism was a big problem. He didn’t believe that excellence was straightforwardly heritable. Sometimes, children with great potential would be born to parents without the ability to help them realise that potential. Sometimes, parents with a lot of ability would have children without the talent necessary to take on their parents’ roles. In the Republic, he proposed eliminating the family and raising children collectively. Aristotle thought that Plato’s approach was unnatural, that families were an inevitable part of social life. But Aristotle believed in natural hierarchies. He didn’t worry about talented people being left behind.

For some people, families work, and for other people, they don’t. To make families work, we need to ensure that they have the ability to support children as they pursue excellence, and that means we need to ensure families have enough economic stability to give their children room to grow. For those who don’t have adequate families or find the family structure alienating, we need alternative support systems. Too often, children in dysfunctional family structures are left in poor conditions because of a lack of alternatives. For those children, excellence is often out of reach before they even get to learn what the word ‘excellence’ means.

Get an education that suits your talents

The kind of schools we need depend in large part on the kind of excellence we’re pursuing. The Greek philosophers call these different areas of specialisation technê, or ‘crafts’. If we aren’t given the kind of education that’s appropriate to our craft, we won’t be able to become excellent. Many countries have public schools that favour a uniform education focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. But these schools don’t always do a good job of allowing students to find an area in which to excel. Plato points out that the kind of education we receive sets us on our path. If that education fixates too rigidly on a narrow set of crafts, we risk thinking ourselves useless merely because our talents don’t fit into what we’re being taught. We might end up with gaps in our society where very few people are able to develop excellence.

So while youth is an excellent time to grow, in youth we’re also especially vulnerable to fortune. It matters greatly whether we end up in the right kind of family and in the right kind of school for our talents and inclinations. The same family or school might suit one person well and another not at all. This means that excellence requires a society that supplies young people not just with strong families and schools, but with families and schools capable of accommodating diverse talents. For some people, suitable families and schools might look like what we generally think of as ‘good’ families or ‘good’ schools but, for others, unconventional social structures will be needed. This means it’s necessary not just to support families and schools, but to support a plurality of viable paths.

For those who miss out on the right kind of education in youth, the situation isn’t hopeless. The internet has widened the set of nonconventional options for mature students. Depending on your craft, online subscription programmes such as MasterClass and the Great Courses might be useful, and cost much less than a return to university. If you face very serious financial barriers, YouTube is full to the brim with free advice, and public libraries remain an essential and indispensable aid. The trick is to find enough time: while it’s harder to do during your prime working years, it’s by no means impossible.

Develop your creativity

Let’s say you’ve managed to find the right resources for you. What next? For Aristotle, our education begins in the forming of good habits, habits that help us grow. These habits of behaviour are initially imposed upon us by teachers and mentors. Eventually, we reach a point where we begin to question these habits. What’s the point of them? Why do we bother? This is the critical moment. The student must now discover the reason behind the habits. If the student fails to see their purpose, the habits are jettisoned, and the student potentially falls into corruption and vice. If the student sees the purpose and sticks to the habits rigidly, a level of stability is maintained. But the truly excellent student will neither abandon the habits outright nor stick to them dogmatically. This student sees the purpose behind the habits, but also sees how the habits can be improved.

Imagine you’re trying to become an excellent musician. Early in your childhood, you develop an interest in music, and you’re fortunate enough to have parents who are willing and capable of supporting your interest. They start by sending you to music lessons, where you learn the habit of practice. You begin to develop the relevant virtues necessary to become truly excellent, and become diligent and conscientious. But, at some point, you start to wonder why you bother practising all the time. You wonder whether the music teachers your parents have assigned are really the best ones for you. Now you have a choice. You might decide that music doesn’t matter, that you’ve been wasting your time. So you stop going to music lessons, you stop practising, and you begin going to parties and indulging yourself. Perhaps you’ll find satisfaction in that, but you certainly won’t become an excellent musician.

Alternatively, you might continue to practise and continue to follow the lead of your parents and instructors to the letter. You become a very good musician, but your performances are somewhat mechanical and your compositions unoriginal. Eventually, you might end up employed as a music teacher, and you might go on to have a very satisfying life. But you won’t become a truly excellent musician. Excellent musicians reach a point where they question whether their parents and their teachers really know what excellent music is. They choose new teachers for themselves, and they spend time thinking about what makes music ‘good’, debating it with anyone who’ll listen. Eventually, excellent musicians begin to develop their own notion of what it means for music to be good, to apply the concept of ‘good’ to music in new and original ways. Now they begin to play in a distinctive way, to develop their own kind of sound.

Key points

  • Excellence requires a social environment that provides us with enough comfort, respect and time to develop our talents. Wherever possible, pick jobs, friends and partners who fit what you’re trying to do.
  • Keep an eye on how you distribute your time. Make a distinction between growth and recovery, and make sure you use your free time in a balanced way.
  • The right kind of education is essential. Don’t get discouraged if you’ve had trouble in educational environments that weren’t oriented around your craft.
  • Have the creativity – and the courage – to challenge teachers and authority figures without abandoning your craft. Develop your own sense of what it means to do your craft well.

Why it matters

Achieving excellence for the first time is only the beginning. Once a distinctive sound is found, the excellent musician is driven to share it with others. Aristotle draws a distinction between ‘contemplation’ and ‘action’. When we contemplate, we think about what’s good, and what it means to apply the good to a craft. When we act, we apply these ideas of the good to our craft. In this way, we share the good with others through our craft. Our craft becomes our medium for expressing excellence, our way of bringing our understanding of the good to life in the world around us. Of course, when we act, we act in front of an audience. When we perform a craft, we make something for others to experience. This means that, once we begin acting, other people get a chance to decide for themselves whether they think we’ve really found a new and better way of reaching for the good, of expressing excellence.

Sometimes, other people will like what we’re doing, and sometimes they won’t. Plato thought that most people wouldn’t know what was excellent if it came right up and bopped them on the nose. For him, if everyone likes what you’re doing, that’s a good reason to think you might be doing the wrong thing. We all know people who feel this way about pop music. For these listeners, the fact that pop music is popular is itself an argument against its excellence. Plato understood the good to be very remote from ordinary human experience. For him, the good is the one, the unity of all things.

But we live in bodies, and we tend to spend too much of our time focused on what our bodies need instead of on what’s good for our families, our communities, and the Universe as a whole. The body invites us to separate the world into ‘me’ and ‘not-me’. We constantly categorise reality, always emphasising differentness and separateness. This prevents us from seeing how everything is connected, how everything is just another aspect of the one. Grasping this oneness requires us to get beyond the perspective that grows out of our bodies, and for Plato that can be achieved only through a lot of philosophical effort. Since most of us don’t spend our time on philosophy, most of us don’t discover this oneness, and that means our human concept of the good is just a pale imitation of true goodness. The music most people believe to be good is just the music they find pleasurable, not the music that helps people discover the reality of oneness. If Plato were around today, he might say that too many pop stars sing about antagonistic relationships with former lovers, a relatable experience but one that reinforces self-other distinctions.

Aristotle thought about it differently. For him, if most people like your music, you’re probably on the right track. Many of us might not have taken the time to discover how to play great music, but we can recognise it when we hear it. Aristotle’s understanding of the good was earthier than Plato’s. For Aristotle, if something is good, it’s just the end at which other things aim. We can therefore discover what’s good by observing nature, by observing what natural processes aim at. For Plato, excellence requires us to get beyond ordinary experience. But for Aristotle, excellence is readily discoverable in the world around us, if we’re willing to slow down and look at it. This is not to say that excellence is whatever the majority of people understand it to be, but if large numbers of people think that something is excellent, then that’s a piece of information about what the Universe is driving at that we must at least take into account.

Most of us aren’t precisely sure which of these accounts is right. Even Plato and Aristotle think that we must always return to contemplation to continue to refine our understanding of excellence, of the good and how it ought to be applied to our crafts. This means that our education cannot end. We can’t simply come to a point when we’re ready to act, to practise our craft, and go on doing it for the rest of our days. Instead, we need to oscillate between periods of acting and contemplating.

If you’re an excellent musician who has made a great album – whether it’s critically acclaimed or merely very popular – you’re then in a tough situation. There’s pressure on you to tour the world, playing concerts. And there’s pressure on you to make albums that are just as good, if not better. If you go along with this and spend all your time performing and composing, eventually you’ll run out of new things to do. Your music will start to sound stale and repetitive.

To avoid being labelled yesterday’s news, you might try to experiment with new kinds of music. But because you’re spending all your time running around performing, you won’t be able to come up with new music that’s truly excellent. The first or second time you make an album that’s too derivative or disastrously experimental, your fans and critics might give you a pass. Maybe you’ll find a niche audience who will follow you no matter what you make, on the strength of your old hits. But if you want to stay excellent, you must sooner or later take a break from performing and return to the contemplative activity that made you so great in the first place. This is why the really excellent musicians have to run away to isolated places where they can get back in touch with ‘the music’. In finding the music, they find the good – they rediscover what excellence means, and fall back in love with their craft.

This, then, is the final hurdle. We need to be able to take breaks from action and return to contemplation. This means that, at the height of our fame and success, we have to remember that the goal is excellence. Of course, it also means that we have to be successful enough to be in a position where we have the resources we need to enable us to take that break.

Links & books

The original Greek classics – the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics by Aristotle, and the Phaedrus and the Republic by Plato – are all available to read online for free.

The podcast series ‘The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps’ (2010-), hosted by the philosopher Peter Adamson, is also free to download, and does exactly what its title says.

Among the paid-for offerings online is MasterClass, which has video tutorials from the likes of Annie Leibovitz on photography and Alicia Keys on songwriting to Frank Gehry on architecture and Jeff Koons on art and creativity. Another paid-for option is the Great Courses, which offers subscribers lectures from university professors on all the scholarly subjects as well as less academic options such as cartooning and wine appreciation.

For a good discussion of how the education system perpetuates injustice, read the book The Cult of Smart (2020) by the US essayist Fredrik deBoer.

For more on the original thinkers behind pedagogy, there’s the book Ideas of Education: Philosophy and Politics from Plato to Dewey (2013), edited by Christopher Brooke and Elizabeth Frazer.

Finally, the political theorist Tim Fowler’s book Liberalism, Childhood and Justice (2020) discusses the ethical issues involved in children’s upbringing.

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5 May 2021