Could you imagine if we put the word arête back into our everyday vernacular?
My favorite word, or at least one of my favorite words, is arête. (My other favorite word is ambidextrian, but that’s a bit irrelevant.) Arête — not the sharp mountain meaning — but the Greek, meaning of “excellence.” But it actually means more than just excellence. It also means virtue (damn, that’s a word we forget now days). The word also has connotations of living up to your potential.
Just imagine a performance appraisal somewhere, sometime — A manager sitting down with an employee, going through the annual numbers.
How would you rate yourself?”
“Ahh, yes,” says the manager, with an air of authority, “Your performance this year in relation to the company performance, how would you rate yourself?”
“Umm,” says the employee, since all employees start out with an obligatory umm, “I would say that it is okay.”
“Good, good,” agrees the manager, making a check on the paper. HR will be so pleased, the manager thinks.
“How about your teamwork?”
“Ummm, I’m really good with teamwork.”
“Yes, no fights on the desk. Very good. Very good, indeed.”
“And what about your arête?”
“Ummm, what do you mean?”
“You know, living up to your potential? Showing a bit of moral virtue. Living up to your excellence, and all that?
“Ummm….I don’t know.’’
The manager would think they are in trouble with HR for sure now.
“Well, let’s just leave that there for now and put ‘satisfactory’ next to arête, shall we?” He makes a quick check.
“And finally, what’s your favorite word?”
Maybe that would be a bit of weird appraisal, but it would make HR much more interesting in most companies. Surfing Facebook or chatting with a friend would probably not qualify as living out your arête.
When you think of living up to your full potential, what do you think about?
It is easy to think of the Homeric heroes who go about bare-chested, handsome, tanned, strong jaw-lines, with the ability to throw javelins miles and miles and can break horses and wrestle and sack cities. Yes, that was great potential! And then Socrates comes along and says, “No, no, no!” in his very Socratic method, and says, “It is all about virtue!” and the courts ask Socrates, “What is virtue? We thought arête was about throwing javelins.”
So the people make him drink hemlock and he dies. Good riddance.
Those silly, hard, questions are not wanted. Fast-forward millennia and we have Instagram and a good Netflix binge.
We’ve end up here at the first quarter of the 21st century, pretty happy and very well fed. Who wants to be pushed and questioned about their lives? We wake, eat cereal, go to work, go home, watch the game, binge on Game of Thrones (when the hell will Season 7 be released!?), then hit the hay. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Well, sure, if you’re an ape. And that is probably a bit unfair to the ape. There is a bit more to expect of yourself from life. Reach your potential; build your arête.
What’s that mean? When I was young, I went to church camp in summer and we would sing a song:
This little light of mine
I’m gonna’ let it shine.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine.”
And we would would stick out our forefinger and with our other and we would circle the finger, like the light shining. It was really cute.
Then we would sing:
“Hide it under a bush, oh no! I’m gonna’ let it shine.”
And we would pretend to cover the fire, which of course, would be stupid because we would catch on fire and have second degree burns all over our bodies and the fire department would wonder what was happening at that church. So in no way would we cover our light in the bush. It was dangerous.
Well, that little light is your potential.
You’re the only you in the universe that ever has been or will be, unless cloning vastly improves, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
For that reason, we are stuck with your talent. What excellence are you realizing? In short, you need to live your arête and build excellence into your life.
Sounds a bit heavy. And I know that’s a bit of a challenge, but so is everything in life. Sure, Tony Iommi, the guitar player for Black Sabbath may have been a bit disappointed when he lost his finger. Who wouldn’t be! But he seemed to do okay.
David Bowie, punched in the face, must have been pissed off when he got home. He probably cried to himself and thought he looked like an alien….hmmm, now there is an idea, Ziggy.
When I was young, I remember watching Jim Abbott pitch for the New York Yankees. He must have figured that not having a right hand was a bit of a draw back when trying out for the team since most of the other guys, in fact everyone else in major league, including the minors too, had two hands!
These are physical challenges. And there are thousands of other challenges that are less obvious such as abuse, depression, poverty. However, for a lot of people, the challenges are more around slow internet connection, bad coleslaw, daylight savings, the price of oil, and Donald Trump being a dick. Let’s just accept these things and move on.
If you have a talent, a calling, something that you love to do that gives you passion and joy, then it’s your duty to get out there, do it and do it well.
If you have an inkling that you’d like to paint, then pick up some watercolors and get started. Make music? Pick up a second hand instrument and start.
“But I can’t play a musical instrument, I’m too old,” is a common excuse. I guarantee that if you don’t start today, you will be even older tomorrow.
Try this: set aside one hour. For 20 minutes, write non-stop, without much thought, how would you define “excellence.” Pour out everything. “It would be excellence if I knew what the hell a caret was!” Again, no editing. This is just a free flow to explore your thoughts and thinking. For the next twenty minutes, go through and underline and highlight any words that stand out to you or any thoughts that resonate with your understanding. Lastly, jot down any insights that you have from the exercise that you can implement into your world. And if you haven’t done so already, pick out a favorite word and send it to me. I’d love to hear what it is.